When Walter Benjamin wrote about the aura of the artwork, he spoke in terms of its elusive, almost divine nature; he most certainly didn’t mean that it could be a physical, detachable thing. For Beijing-based artist Lu Yang, however, deification can be a matter of prosthetic halos, portable mandorlas and strap-on limbs that affix divine power to mortal flesh as conveniently as turning on the wi-fi. Recognizing that the effulgence surrounding religious figures has endured as a universally recognized symbol of divine power, Lu Yang’s Moving Gods (2015) speculates on how idol-making and worship might still operate in today’s public life, visual culture and our evolving relationship—collective and personal—with the gods, particularly as humans push towards new transformative thresholds. Presenting an eclectic sampling of halos from Christian and esoteric Buddhist traditions, Lu Yang has essentially designed a ready-to-wear collection fabricated with camphor wood, gold foil and richly patterned straps with buckles. In a video that oscillates between institutional gravitas, mythological fantasy and psychedelic mandalas, the distinct physiognomy and hairstyle of Lu Yang’s multi-ethnic actors seem apropos of a practice in which representations of deities reflect local tastes and appearances while real, flawed bodies undermine religious art’s claim to purification through idealized form. Together, they construct an anachronistic tableaux of meta-religiosity that feels squarely planted in the contemporary world of altered and altering appearances. Before we become cyborgs, we are icono-clad sign-borgs.

A psychedelic mandala of neuroethics, manga, gender fluidity and mythological fantasy

Uterus Man, another of Lu’s perverse heroes, was inspired by the female reproductive organ that resembles both a cruciform and a caped figure with arms stretched. A fully conceived character with specific bio-superpowers, weapons and a fancy mount—the pelvis chariot—that mirror the organ’s versatility, Uterus Man is the star of a franchise that encompasses manga, feature film and a professionally developed video game (produced by the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum). Though the female reproductive organ is jarringly centralized, Lu Yang is not the least bit interested in exploring familiar feminist tropes; her geeky, wicked creations tease with the malleability of gender and sexuality, finding a kindred spirit in Mao Sugiyama, a Japanese man who had his sexual organs surgically removed to become asexual and was subsequently invited to cosplay as Uterus Man.

There is an unusual sense of ownership in Lu Yang’s practice to fundamental, even cosmic questions, paired with a post-Internet approach to imagery and knowledge production characteristic of her generation. In Delusional Mandala (2015), her latest video installation presented at Beijing Commune, the artist casts her own likeness as digital avatars to test the conditions of neuroethics, spirituality and death—a confluence of her usual suspects. In what appears to be a delirious instruction video, the artist walks us through the application of stereotactic system (which forms a sinister-looking halo when affixed to the human head) in deep brain simulation, symptoms of neurological disorder and stages of dying, all exuberantly illustrated in dancing bodies and corpses. By navigating and superimposing medical and religious perspectives on consciousness, Lu Yang points to a meaningful third path that short-circuits that very dichotomy. The video culminates in a multi-media hearse featuring a strident hybrid of architectural and decorative elements, such as an ornate Chinese roof, a lotus pedestal and LED screens. Rather than inviting contemplation on mortality, it seduces with the promise of an afterlife on acid.

Lu Yang (Chinese, b. 1984) is an artist who lives and works in Shanghai. She is represented by Beijing Commune, Shanghai.

Lu Yang recently held her solo exhibition “Delusional Mandala” at Beijing Commune Gallery and was part of the China Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale.

Xin Wang is a New York-based curator and researcher. She is currently building a discursive archive of Asian futurisms in contemporary art practice.

Image: Delusional Mandala, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Beijing Commune, Beijing.