In September 2022, London’s Zabludowicz Collection opened its doors to the “disorientating and darkly humorous worlds” created by the highly acclaimed multimedia artist LuYang (b. 1984, Shanghai) in their first solo exhibition in the UK. LuYang’s work is a bizarre psychedelic dreamscape; a digital assault on the senses. The chapel-like interior of the Zabludowicz Collection provides the perfect backdrop as the artist accompanies the viewer on a journey through heaven, hell, and everything in between.

This is certainly no ordinary art exhibition. Here, the mystical crosses paths with the digital. LuYang’s art digs at the core of these two modes of being, and reveals the resonances between them: “Immersed in the cultures of anime, video games and sci-fi, LuYang combines themes from Buddhist philosophy with aspects of neuroscience and digital technology to investigate the mysteries and mechanics of the human body and mind.”

Indeed, the title of the exhibition itself is a reference to an expression from Hindu mythology – ‘neti neti’ is a Sanskrit term that translates roughly as ‘neither this, nor that’. Choosing a third way, or no way at all, is at the heart of LuYang NetiNeti. The dissolution of the binary physical self into the non-binary digital self is a constant theme in the majority of LuYang’s work, and nowhere is this shown more clearly than in the centre piece that awaits you as you walk into the exhibition:

The exhibition centres on LuYang’s own ‘digital reincarnation’, an avatar called DOKU. Named after the phrase ‘dokusho dokushi’, which translates as ‘we are born alone, and we die alone’, DOKU exists in a realm beyond the limitations of material bodily reality. LuYang has created six versions of the DOKU avatar to date, corresponding to the six paths of reincarnation as described in Buddhism: Hell, Heaven, Hungry Ghost, Animal, Asura and Human.

What makes this ‘digital reincarnation’ a fascinating exercise is that each incarnation of DOKU was digitally reconstructed from a motion capture recording of LuYang’s own face. Similarly, the movements assigned to each one of the six characters have been created by motion tracking the dance moves of Japanese pop stars and the hand and eye movements of Balinese legong dancers. The use of CGI to completely re-imagine these images from popular and traditional cultures into something radically new is perhaps the most viscerally appealing aspect of LuYang’s work.

Beyond the main chapel hall, we come to the back portion of the gallery where we’re confronted with a retro-futurist arcade filled with bizarre and bewildering video games which allow us to dive deeper into LuYang’s mind. The themes of hell, heaven, and digital reincarnation are also present here. Some of the most prominent works are the playable video game The Great Adventure of Material World, which charts the quest of the ‘Material World Knight’ “to deepen their understanding of the fundamental Buddhist teachings such as the illusory nature of the self and the physical world”; the the psychedelic motorbike arcade game, where we fight ‘Uterus Man’; and the utterly surreal space-invader style Cancer Baby, which transforms cancer cells into cute chibi-esque animated characters – a strange but effective way to encourage the viewer (or player) to question their relationship with death and disease.

In both rooms, the DOKU characters are eternally present. In the exhibition program we read that: “The still-evolving DOKU series is a meditation on the simulated realities and the fragility and transience of the physical bodies we inhabit.” Indeed, this is a sentiment echoed by the artist who claims in an interview for the Chinese youtube channel 一条Yit that: “I want to live in a digital world, projecting my awareness onto different bodies, so that I can be less anxious about my real body”. This emphasis on the digital recreation of the self shines a light on our increasingly online societies in which many younger people feel that their digital avatars, whether in social media or video games, have become a direct extension of themselves. What becomes of Foucault’s biopolitics when the digital becomes more real than the biological?

This question was most prominently predicted 30 years ago by Deleuze in Postscript on the Socities of Control (1992). Deleuze claimed that the disciplinary societies analysed by Foucault, which utilised their power via the direct physical control of the subjects’ bodies, were a mere transitory stage in the progression of power following the second world war: “a disciplinary society was what we already no longer were, what we had ceased to be” (p. 1). We were now living in societies of control; societies which had moved beyond simple disciplinary enclosures, instead utilising a more adaptive and flexible form of power: “Enclosures are molds, distinct castings, but controls are a modulation, like a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other, or like a sieve whose mesh will transmute from point to point” (p. 4).

This phenomenon has been taken up by many contemporary thinkers including Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han who claims in The Transparency Society (2015) that the desire to recreate oneself digitally leads to an exhibitionism that contributes to the ever increasing surveillant powers of the hyper-industrial capitalist industries:

Exhibitionism and voyeurism feed the net as a digital panopticon. The society of control achieves perfection when subjects bare themselves not through outer constraint but through self-generated need, that is, when the fear of having to abandon one’s private and intimate sphere yields to the need to put oneself on display without shame (p. 47)

However, the bleak picture painted by Han does not tell the whole story. LuYang’s DOKU is a prime example of the positive use of digital exteriorisation to reflect the artists self-image in a way that was not possible before. Here, the digitally reincarnated self is no longer the subject of the control societies, it is a source of free expression; of individuation. LuYang’s choice to make each of the DOKU characters androgynous reflects their own non-binary self-image in a way that the physical body could not. This idea is reflected in LuYang’s own statement in their introduction to the exhibition: “I think media, all those technologies, they’re just tools, but the most important thing is if we unpackage what’s inside. This is most important actually.”

Indeed, although LuYang’s digital art is very much something of the twenty-first century, in Shanzhai: Deconstruction in Chinese (2011), Han highlights how Chinese art throughout history has embodied many of the same characteristics we see in LuYang. In particular Han claims that Chinese art has always been grounded in a worldview defined by process rather than stasis:

With its unrelenting metamorphoses, process also dominates the Chinese awareness of time and history. … Not creation with an absolute beginning, but continual process without beginning or end, without birth or death, defines Chinese thought. For this reason neither death in the emphatic sense, as in Heidegger’s work, nor birth in the emphatic sense, as in the writings of Hannah Ardent, arises in Far Eastern thinking (p.3)

Nowhere is this more evident than in LuYang’s psychedelic hellscapes which paint a picture of birth, life, and death as a cyclical movement. The introduction of the digital into this movement only draws more attention to it. Thus, with LuYang’s work we are shown a new way of using digital technologies to create art that also resonates with a processual nature that has, according to Han, always been at the core of Chinese art. However, with the focus on video games, anime, and neuroscience, LuYang’s work has brought these ideas of transience and process into the modern era.

In summary, this in an exhibition unlike any you’ll have seen before. It will challenge the viewer’s idea of what art is, or what it could be. It also addresses some of the fundamental philosophical and religious questions surrounding life and death, all the while maintaining a certain playful dark comedy at its core. There is no doubt that anyone who experiences LuYang’s work in this setting will leave without a strong impression one way or another, and for that reason it’s a must-see for Londoners in 2023.

LuYang NetiNeti will reopen at the Zabludowicz Collection in Chalk Farm, London from 12 January 2023 until 12 March 2023. A live motion-capture performance of LuYang DOKU will be performed in the exhibition on 28 January 2023.


Deleuze, G. (1992) Postscript on the Societies of Control. October 59, 3-7.

Han, B. C. (2015) The Transparancy Society. Stanford: SUP.

Han, B. C. (2017) Shanzhai: Deconstruction in Chinese. Boston: MIT Press.


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