I was slightly concerned before heading to Art Labor gallery to meet Lu Yang, the artist behind the utterly bizarre ‘Uterusman’ anime film that has been the talk of Shanghai art circles these past few weeks. After watching the film, I came to the conclusion that whoever came up with such a far out concept must be, well, a bit of a fruitcake. I stood in front of the screen doing my best Indiana Jones impression, shaking my head and saying ‘What a vivid imagination’ in the snide manner that only Harrison Ford can really pull off. Uterusman has to be one of the most surreal, macabre pieces of work I have ever seen. Featuring an androgenous superhero character with special powers including ‘Umbilical Cord Whip’ and ‘Placenta Defence Field,’ it makes Salvadore Dali look mundane, and Damien Hurst look a lightweight by comparison. I couldn’t help but think that Lu Yang needed to speak to a doctor more than a journalist, and when she arrived at the gallery, my first question was about the only one I could think of: Why?
‘The idea came from noticing that the human form, with arms outstretched, is quite similar to the shape of a uterus,’ Lu reflected in a matter of fact way. ‘I used that as my inspiration, and went from there. I chose the name Uterusman because it is a contradiction. Uterusman draws all its powers from the female reproductive system, so the male and female parts cancel each other out, making the character androgenous. The powers themselves have the ability to alter hereditary function, bringing into question the nature of human propagation, about how living things continue their existence.’
Listening to Lu explaining the different attributes of Uterusman, it is clear that she has not just created a character, but a whole world for it to inhabit. Uterusman even has its own personalized pelvis chariot, something no self-respecting superhero can be without. Lu does not wish to stop there: Uterusman already has an online game, and she is currently collaborating with illustrators in Japan to create a comic series based around the character. ‘I want to collaborate with different creatives to take the concept of Uterusman into different media. Here we have prints, sculpture and video, but I want other artists to bring their own ideas to the concept,’ she says. I dread to think what the villain in this story would look like.
'The Cruel Electromagnetic Wave Above Absolute Zero' Lu Yang (2012)
The video itself is an intense multisensory experience, where old school manga visuals are combined with an epic soundtrack (courtesy of Beijing electronica outfit Square Loud) to create a film that takes the viewer back to the days of arcade Streetfighter and early Japanese anime. The images and music blend together perfectly, a hallmark of Lu’s work. ‘Music gives my works a different dynamic,’ she explains. ‘I think it allows people to appreciate my work in a different way. I want the viewer to be immersed into the world of Uterusman, and music is important for that.’
The way Lu explains Uterusman, one could be forgiven for thinking that the idea had just popped into her head. However, as we take a look at her previous projects, it is clear that there is method behind the madness. Far from being a character appearing out of thin air, Uterusman is instead the latest vehicle through which Lu explores the more repellent aspects of human existence, a fixation that has dominated her short but prolific career so far.
"...because my work highlights aspects of our reality that people might wish to put to the back of their minds, of course some viewers will be shocked.’"
Lu studied at the prestigious China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, and benefitted greatly from the tutelage of Zhang Peili, whose own unsettling video works exploring the grotesqueries of the human form have made him a legend in Chinese art circles. His influence is clear in the honest and uncompromising way Lu confronts the themes of death and disease in her works.
One of her videos, titled ‘Krafttremor’, records the actions of patients with Parkinson’s Disease, set against a frenetic and haunting soundtrack. Lu came under quite a lot of criticism for this video, and is quick to point out that the patients in question agreed to participate in the film, and were paid for their time. ‘People are just unsettled by this sort of thing,’ she reflects. ‘They might say that I’m being needlessly provocative or something, but for me, it’s not like that at all. People prefer not to think about things like disease and death, but the fact is that it happens. It is a part of being human, but because my work highlights aspects of our reality that people might wish to put to the back of their minds, of course some viewers will be shocked.’
'Krafttremor' Lu Yang (2011)
‘It is the same with Uterusman,’ she continues. ‘People think that blood and flesh is disgusting, but we are made of these things. The female reproductive system is a taboo subject. The reality of childbirth is not something that people openly discuss, yet most women will experience it at least once. Again, it is a crucial part of human existence that people are disgusted by. With my work, I want to show people the truth, even if they might not like it.’
Some of Lu’s other projects have been equally ambitious, and controversial. In ‘The Cruel Electromagnetic Wave above Absolute Zero’ she uses an infra-red camera to capture scenes in the amputee unit of a hospital, amongst other places. ‘The equipment I used here was perfect for what I wanted to achieve: I wanted to capture the intersection between life and death,’ she reflects. ‘The amputees were particularly interesting, because most of their body is emitting heat, but then you have the cold blue of their prosthetic limbs.’ Even more haunting are shots of recently dead rodents, where you can see their bodies turn blue as the heat leaves them. The fact that the film is set against furious death metal soundtrack makes the whole sequence appear as mad as a box of spiders.
One of her most interesting projects to date has to be ‘Re-animation! Underwater Zombie Frog Ballet’ in which music becomes more than a complementary aspect of the piece, and actually combines seamlessly with the imagery. Shot in a Tokyo medical facility, the video shows a water-tank holding the bodies of recently dead frogs that had been used in dissection classes. The frogs are hooked up to wires, and their legs pulse with the beat of electronic drum sounds. It makes for unsettling viewing, and brings to mind Frankenstein and other such classics of Romanticism that questioned the boundaries of what science could, and should achieve. ‘I am really interested in historic figures such as Galvani, and the idea that it could be possible to re-animate dead flesh. You see, this experiment only has a window of a few minutes. After that the muscles do not respond to the electronic pulses,’ remarks Lu.
'Re-animation! Underwater Zombie Frog Ballet' Lu Yang (2011)
Uterusman is the latest and most sophisticated of Lu Yang’s forays into the darker recesses of the human condition. It is the culmination not only of established narratives in her work, but of technical skills in animation and design that Lu has honed in previous projects, and worked meticulously to improve, to the point that she was able to bring this ambitious project to fruition almost single-handedly, which is no mean feat at all. ‘A lot of my early works were video, but I have been moving increasingly towards animation,’ she considers. ‘I don’t really look at it in terms of specializing, I just work in the medium I think will best convey the story I want to tell. I always want to learn new things and collaborate with people so that I can tell the story properly, whether that involves researching anatomy and neuroscience, or improving my skills with computer software.’
With a cauldron of bizarre and brilliant ideas bubbling away in her mind, and an ever-growing arsenal of skills with which to execute them, the future looks bright for Lu Yang. With prestigious shows across Europe and Asia already under her belt, international stardom beckons, and a lot of people inside and outside Shanghai will be waiting to find out where her next project will take us. It probably won’t be a story which everyone will want to hear, but it’s vital that the story is told.
WORDS BY ARVIN MAHANTA
IMAGES AND VIDEO COURTESY OF LU YANG