BERLIN — With her current exhibition at Société, Lu Yang has morphed the Berlin gallery into a torch-lit realm, where imagination and game space meld like a funhouse of the damned.
For those who pay attention to the genres constructed by art critics and curators, Lu might be situated in the recently trendy, now nearly passé category of post-internet art. Mercifully, her exhibition does not languish in vaguely analytical questions about what it means to be human in a digitized age. Instead, her installations and videos hyperbolize the morass of narcissism, identity-loss, fantasy, and fetish that comprises our relationship to synthetic experience.
With respect to Lu’s work, the word “culture” has a double meaning — indicating both the phenomenon of online social expression and the biological phenomenon of organisms replicating in an artificial environment. Amid other characters — a sadistic Minotaur, decomposing prisoners, a sword-wielding dungeon master — Lu’s own face appears throughout the show, as generic copy of itself.
Yang’s show embraces a spectacular, pluralistic aesthetic. As such, it echoes both the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk and the dazzling effect of big-box department stores, which intermingle flashing screens and garish advertising. Across the hall, Lu’s face reappears at monumental scale, as an enormous hot air balloon, her large eyes replaced with red LED lights, filling the darkened gallery with a pink glow. Massive strands of inflatable hair fold and tangle over one another, re-shaping the room into a kind of inflatable, comedic grotto.
Wedged between floor and ceiling, this inflatable head delivers a sculptural encounter more entertainingly absurd than any artwork in recent memory. Even better, it mocks the hubris of self-creation. But while the strength of Lu’s show is its willingness to stretch concepts into ridiculousness, its weakness is a failure to recognize that even purposely overblown gestures lose their effect when taken too far. When a video called Lu Yang Power of Will (2016) shows this inflatable head floating in the sky, the comedic tension it achieves between constriction and grandiosity is lost, and all one can think about is how much money Lu must have spent to lift her cartoon self into the blue yonder. In other words, a parody of self-mythologizing backfires and becomes the real thing.
Elsewhere, though, Yang leverages her flare for metastasizing imagery to bewildering effect. Gut-curdling existential concerns ensue, enriching fun with gravitas. In an installation titled Lu Yang Delusional Crime and Punishment (2015), several banners flank a flashing video monitor. Once again the room is dark, with strings of LED lights adding to the monitor’s flickering glow. A suspenseful soundtrack emits from the video, along with a soft voice speaking in cadenced Mandarin. The banners are red, each emblazoned with a motif of four crisscrossing brain stems inside a circle divided into black and white quadrants. Were Lu’s imagery not so frenetic, this swastika reference might come off as trite. Instead her fire and brimstone environment provokes wild oscillations between revulsion and thrill.
In the video, the aforementioned Minotaur dances and poses atop a giant human brain, as flames belch around him. Fast cuts of gaping slaves flayed by sword-wielding captors switch between burning factories and charred forests. All the while, discontiguous subtitles layer the hellish imagery into the viewer’s head: “Mountain of Ice, Hill of Knives, Cauldron of Boiling Oil”; “Chamber of Ox, Chamber of Rock, Chamber of Pounding”; “Pool of Blood, Town of Quitter, Chamber of Dismemberment.”
Given how much violence saturates our world, Lu’s exhibition triggers an obvious question: why give us more, especially with such apparently uncritical sensationalism? For an answer, we could look to Jay-Z’s famous retort to his moralistic critics: “America, you made me.” Though Lu is Chinese, her videos and installations are a dark replica of the youthful psyche melting into digitized fantasia, heedless of geographical borders. Without her glee in picturing humans as suffering automatons, this vision would lose its gripping and discomfiting texture.
There are times when Lu Yang’s production values hit a nerve — as if a morbidly humorous video game addict had been handed the budget for a small movie. With this power, she relishes in feeding our beastly thirst for spectacle. But the work’s spasmodic nature interrupts easy ingestion, redirecting attention inside ourselves, and the synthetic dream-spaces we’ve made. In a world free of narcissism and cruel fantasy, this work might not exist. The fact that it does is a saving grace of the murky weirdness we’re in.
Lu Yang: Welcome to LuYang Hell continues at Société (Genthiner Strasse 36, Berlin, Germany) through June 10.