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Journal of Chinese Cinemas

ISSN: 1750-8061 (Print) 1750-807X (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rjcc20

Digital and postdigital 3D animation in the


contemporary Chinese art scene: Miao Xiaochun
and Lu Yang

Jihoon Kim

To cite this article: Jihoon Kim (2017) Digital and postdigital 3D animation in the contemporary
Chinese art scene: Miao Xiaochun and Lu Yang, Journal of Chinese Cinemas, 11:3, 227-242, DOI:
10.1080/17508061.2017.1376553

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17508061.2017.1376553

Published online: 18 Sep 2017.

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JOURNAL OF CHINESE CINEMAS, 2017
VOL. 11, NO. 3, 227–242
https://doi.org/10.1080/17508061.2017.1376553

Digital and postdigital 3D animation in the contemporary


Chinese art scene: Miao Xiaochun and Lu Yang
Jihoon Kim
Chung-ang University, Dongjak-gu, Seoul, South Korea

ABSTRACT
This article discusses digital three-dimensional animations by Miao Xiaochun and Lu Yang.
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The two artists’ works are commonly based on the expressive possibilities of digital software
and virtual space, such as non-naturalistic rendering of objects, vertical and multiple
perspectives distinct from the linear perspective of traditional painting and photography, and
the virtual camera’s freedom of omnidirectional and gravitation-free movements. While this
article provides in-depth analyses of the works in terms of how these expressive possibilities
allow Miao and Lu to create the spatially and temporally complex worlds in which past,
present and future dynamically coexist and interact with one another, I also argue that both
artists are different in their technical and conceptual approaches to digital technology and its
impact on reality and subjectivity. To demonstrate these differences, I draw on the ideas of
‘digital’ and ‘postdigital’ art: whereas digital art is marked by the ambivalent tendency to
exploit the new properties of the digital while also seeking the ways of translating the forms
and techniques of traditional arts in the tools and space of the computer, postdigital art
means a variety of artistic responses to the situation that the internet and digital technologies
are no longer perceived as new but as fundamentally restructuring our subjectivity and world.

Introduction
Miao Xiaochun and Lu Yang established themselves as two prominent practitioners in the
contemporary Chinese art scene thanks to their own creative visual expressions across dif-
ferent media, including three-dimensional (3D) digital animation. Trained as painter and
photographer both in China and Germany, Miao adopted the toolbox of digital software
in the early 2000s and has extensively used it to create paintings, photographs and 3D dig-
ital animation pieces, traversing between the Western and the Chinese visual arts.1 A
younger generation artist than Miao, Lu has recently represented the vitality of Chinese
new media art and its technological and biological imaginations, as her works have widely
been showcased at major alternative spaces throughout China and international group
exhibitions.
The two contemporary Chinese artists’ 3D animations fall within what Suzanne
Buchan has called ‘pervasive animation’, that is, animation’s proliferation in contempo-
rary moving image culture across different media (film, video and the digital), interfaces
(cellphones, laptops, pads and other screen-based devices) and platforms (theaters, instal-
lations and exhibitions). For Buchan, this pervasiveness of animation across a wide range

CONTACT Jihoon Kim jihoonfelix@gmail.com, flaneur7@cau.ac.kr


© 2017 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
228 J. KIM

of creative and professional practices does not simply put into question the purist assump-
tion of animation as an art form grounded in a limited set of artistic mediums, but also
demonstrates animation’s increasing influence on ‘our understanding of how we see and
experience the world visually’ (2013, 1). Both Miao and Lu engage with this pervasiveness
of animation in contemporary moving image culture in the formal, technical and thematic
dimensions of their works. In terms of form and technique, Miao’s 3D animation pieces
are connected to his digital paintings and photographs, so his still and moving image art-
works share software-based tools and algorithmic rendering of figures and grounds. This
connection of 3D animation to other digitally created art forms is also the case with Lu, in
that her corpus of works encompasses 3D animations, video games, augmented-reality
sculptures, C-prints and 3D-printed objects. In Miao’s and Lu’s animation pieces, viewers
are able to appreciate a dense mixture of visual expressions that evoke not simply tradi-
tional but also contemporary subject matters: for Miao, the intersection of the scenes of
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recreated Western paintings with scientific, military and cybernetic imaginations, and for
Lu, the kaleidoscopic barrage of images drawn from Japanese magna and anime, online
worlds, neuroscience and religion.
Besides their engagement with the proliferation of animation in contemporary digital
culture, both Miao and Lu have employed the techniques and space of digital 3D anima-
tion in expressive ways that go beyond the realistic figuration of objects and perspective.
3D animation is effective to naturalistic rendering as long as it is defined primarily by con-
sistent linear single-point perspective. This does not necessarily mean, however, that it is
devoid of any possibility for non-naturalistic expressions of the visual world. As Pat Power
writes, ‘expressive 3D models can be designed by choice using distorted geometry for non-
naturalistic modeling effects’ (2009, 124). This expressiveness can be achieved by either
employing combined multiple projections (in contrast to single-point perspective) or
using algorithms enabling hyper-energized, fluid or other effects (in contrast to realistic
rendering). Both Miao and Lu have exploited these two expressive techniques for their 3D
animation. In particular, they configure their own 3D space in ways that multiply perspec-
tives and layers, thereby creating the sense of disorientation that transcends linear per-
spective, and making perpetual transformations of characters, objects and their
environments.
In this paper I will tease out these technical, aesthetic and thematic commonalities of
the digital 3D animations by Miao and Lu while also remapping each of them within the
‘digital’ and ‘postdigital’ frameworks, respectively. Miao’s techniques of algorithmic 3D
modeling and rendering have aimed to recreate such traditional art forms as painting and
photography in the virtual space. This attitude pertains to the ambivalent approaches of
digital art to the computer since the 1990s. In the age of digital or ‘new media’ art, digital
techniques were seen as new tools that do not simply investigate and manifest their own
properties but also repurpose and refashion traditional art forms. As Christiane Paul
notes, while digital art has extremely complex and multifaceted histories, including
experiments with new technical specificities of digital computing and cybernetics, some of
them can be traced from the ‘different types of optical environments’ (2016, 5) con-
structed by painting, photography, cinema and television. These lineages of digital art are
reflected in Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s (1999) concept of ‘remediation’ and
Lev Manovich’s (2001) idea of ‘cultural interface’. Both concepts commonly underline
that the computer-generated forms of art and entertainment (digital photography, digital
JOURNAL OF CHINESE CINEMAS 229

painting, virtual reality, video games, etc.) are grounded in the computer’s refashioning
and improvement of the forms and techniques drawn from its predecessors such as paint-
ing, photography and film. In this context, I argue that Miao’s 3D animations can be seen
as demonstrating the ambivalence of digital art insofar as his uses of digital tools and 3D
virtual space aim both to remediate the techniques, forms and themes of traditional West-
ern and Chinese paintings and to channel their new expressive possibilities into his reflec-
tion on contemporary and futuristic worlds.
On the other hand, the term ‘postdigital’, which has been interchangeably used along
with another term ‘postinternet’, refers to various artistic responses since the late 2000s to
the situation ‘after’ the internet and other digital technologies, from mobile interfaces to
software applications, were already settled down in our everyday life and are no longer
perceived as ‘new’ but as ‘banality’ (McHugh 2011, 16). Although there have been diver-
gent definitions on this term, the existing discourses on postdigital or postinternet art
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have identified its two common characteristics. First, while digital art practices are
grounded in their specific platforms such as the net or specially designed interactive inter-
faces, the expressions of the digital in the practices of postdigital or postinternet art can be
made and displayed in different versions, artifacts and platforms. In this context, postdigi-
tal or postinternet artists have tended to exhibit their artworks both on the internet and
inside the gallery walls, therefore attempting to dissolve the boundaries between the vir-
tual and the real (Vierkant 2010). Second, this multiplicity of digital-based or internet-
driven expressions both in virtual and material platforms indicates the extent to which
our sensibility, life and subjectivity are fundamentally reconstructed under the influence
of the digital or the internet. For instance, artist and curator Marisa Olson, who is known
to firstly coin the term postinternet, argues that postinternet art is the ‘art that embodies
the conditions of life in network culture’ (Warner 2013, 195). Similarly, Michael Connor
considers as a key condition of postinternet art the erosion of the ‘boundary between time
spent online and off…with the proliferation of smartphones and the growing pressures of
an attention-based economy’ (2014, 61). Given these two common features, I define post-
digital or postinternet art as an array of artistic production that focuses its attention to the
cultural impact of the internet/digital technologies, attempts to overcome the dualities of
the material and the virtual, and translates the technologically-influenced expressions,
activities and identities into multiple forms and experiences.
Indeed, postdigital or postinternet art has recently risen as a notable tendency in the
contemporary Chinese art scene. Robin Peckham, an established curator specializing in
this scene, has observed the emergence of the young Chinese artists born in the 1980s,
noting that their work expresses their ‘conscious awareness of the network and its influ-
ence over the production and consumption of images and objects’ (Tyrrell-Morin 2015/
16). Besides Lu’s (born in 1984) pieces, this work ranges from Lin Ke’s (born in 1984)
Photoshop-based polygon drawings for remapping natural landscapes to Miao Ying’s
(born in 1985) mock-up web pages and internet poetry for criticizing China’s censorship
of internet access. While her digital 3D animations clearly are seen as a variant of postdi-
gital art given their translation into video games, C-prints, etc., I particularly pay attention
to the ways in which the animations’ technical and aesthetic features are based on and
expressive of the digitally-enabled working method, mind, body and world.
230 J. KIM

Miao Xiaochun
As in his paintings since the late 2000s, Miao Xiaochun’s 3D animation pieces share the
same type of human figures as their recurring characters: naked men with no hair and
eyeballs. They have muscles and bodily movements. Due to the lack of hair and eyeballs
and the extreme smoothness of their skin, however, the characters look like living 3D
marble or bronze statues. Miao multiplies the figures’ hovering between realism and
expressionism in the formal, temporal and spatial dimensions of his 3D animation pieces,
therefore unfolding the rich crossover of the Western and the Chinese, of past, present
and future. While the characters often evoke humans, angels, saints, devils and holy spirits
in the Medieval and Renaissance painting and sculpture, Miao strips them of their gender
and religious symbols, therefore rendering them in the guise of a single figure. Thus, while
Miao has recycled European masterpieces as the source material for his 3D animation and
painting, their characters’ lack of individuality and distinctive identity has been read as ‘a
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statement on Communist ideology (post-Mao) and the trademark traditional ‘selfless’ per-
spective of bygone Confucian ideals’ (Guertin 2012, 230). This cross-fertilization of the
Chinese and the Western traditions also mirrors the temporal complexity of the objects
and backgrounds that fill Miao’s 3D virtual space of the still and moving images. While
his animation pieces and paintings are mostly characterized by the familiar biblical scenes
(such as the depictions of the Earth’s genesis, the Judgment Day, and the Heaven and
Hell), natural landscapes and historical imaginaries that were represented in the Medieval
and Renaissance paintings, they are also filled with such objects as modern weapons, cal-
culators, computers, vehicles, biological entities, etc.
Miao’s effort to recreate and deconstruct the formal and symbolic traditions of Renais-
sance painting within computer-generated worlds and objects begins with The Last Judg-
ment in Cyberspace (2006), his first venture into 3D digital animation derived from five
digital photographs of the same title that appropriate Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment
(1541). For this work, Miao firstly created a 3D digital model of a figure based on his
image, then employed Autodesk’s 3ds Max software to manipulate the model’s gestures
and movements, and finally integrated the figures into a 3D virtual space according to the
composition of the original painting (Wu 2006). Besides Miao’s rendering of the sky with
a small number of clouds and blank space in grey, a key specific feature of the 3D virtual
space lies in the viewer’s experience of free fall. At the beginning of the piece, a small dot
keeps falling on the sky until it turns out that it is a man running across the clouds. The
viewer’s perspectives are multiplied in different directions and movements as she is guided
toward the crowd floating on the sky in varying postures. Close-ups and long shots are
smoothly alternated with the same flow, and their corresponding viewpoints continually
change up to the point that everything is seen upside down. Here it becomes obvious that
the horizon of Michelangelo’s two-dimensional (2D) painting is deconstructed and over-
whelmed by the 3D virtual space in which the hierarchy of height and distance is disman-
tled. Miao’s statement on the conception of The Last Judgment in Cyberspace attests to
this point: ‘In the construction of the entire scene, I transformed a previously 2-D image
into a 3-D space. I can view it not only from the back, but also from the sides, from the
top and from below’ (Miao 2006). This comment echoes artist Hito Steyerl’s account of
the aerial views and vertical perspective aided by the computer-based vision. For Steyerl,
they signal the decreasing importance of linear perspective that long dominated our
JOURNAL OF CHINESE CINEMAS 231

vision, while also opening up a new regime of visually characterized by multiple perspec-
tives, distorted flight lines and divergent vanishing points: ‘Traditional modes of seeing
and feeling are shattered. Any sense of balance is disrupted. Perspectives are twisted and
multiplied. New types of visuality arise’ (Steyerl 2012, 13). Miao seems to respond to
Steyerl’s insight on the impact of the computer on the dominance of vertical perspective
in the piece’s final sequence, where all the figures are seen to fall on the grey sky at such a
long distance that they evoke the scrolling mass of zeros and ones as an iconic image of
The Matrix trilogy (the Wachowskis, 1999–2003).
Besides The Last Judgment in Cyberspace, other 3D animations by Miao are grounded
in his ideas of creatively translating the formal and thematic traditions of Western and
Chinese painting in the space and perspective of computer-generated imagery, and in so
doing, of offering viewers rich dialogues between past, present and future. Miao’s own
remark emblematizes these two ideas as follows: ‘a two-dimensional representation is
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translated into a three-dimensional representation, a standard religious theme becomes


the subject of personal speculation, a conclusion is turned into a question, a still canvas is
made into active images, and an ancient work is taken as the site of a contemporary dis-
course’ (Wu 2006). Miao’s approaches to digital tools for realizing these two ideas in his
3D animations are accordingly twofold: seeking the ways of adjusting the techniques that
he learnt from his practices of traditional painting to the expressive possibilities of digital
rendering, and exploiting the technical and aesthetic features inherent in the computer-
based toolbox and space. What Miao has called ‘algorithmic painting’, his technique for
incorporating 3D modelling, cutting plotter and hand drawing that is applied to his 3D
animation and painting is thus based on in these twofold approaches. He devised this
technique in his effort to emulate the ‘incomparable expressive power of the line’ (Miao
n. d.) on which traditional Chinese painting put an emphasis, with the 3D computer
graphic procedures from constructing a virtual model composed of points to drawing
lines to form the surface and contours of a desired object. 3ds Max, the software applica-
tion Miao has consistently used, provided him with an array of tools for detailed drawing
of his figures, such as texture editing and skinning. Yet, the artist’s use of the computer’s
ability to remediate the manual techniques of the traditional visual arts necessarily
involves considering how this ability renders the space and object in different ways than
the arts. Miao had this point in mind in his development of algorithmic painting: ‘3D
drawings differ from the traditional line drawings because the latter depict only the visible
aspect, as it would be seen from the viewer’s perspective… . Objects in 3D line drawings
are, in effect, transparent as the viewer can gaze through them to what is behind them’
(Miao, n. d.). Miao’s awareness of the two differences, namely, transparency of objects
rendered in 3D line drawing and the computer’s vision that is not bound to the eyes of
either the human being or physical camera, serves as the building blocks for his 3D ani-
mations that remediate painterly techniques and recreate the scenes of traditional
painting.
While being populated with both artificial entities and natural or artificial environ-
ments, the world presented in the opening scene of Microcosm (2008, Figure 1), Miao’s
retake of Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych painting The Garden of Earthly Delights (1503–
1515), manifests itself as the virtual space that simulates physical reality yet is liberated
from its laws, a 3D space modeled by the code-based and algorithmic properties of com-
putation. A free-floating camera movement guides the spectator toward an overhead view
232 J. KIM
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Figure 1. Still from Miao Xiaochun, Microcosm (2008), digital 3D animation, 15 min 55 sec., courtesy by
the artist.

of a humanoid character that reads zeros and ones printed on the paper. As Michael
Nitsche writes, the virtual camera, widely applied to the rendering of 3D worlds in video
games and other similar applications, is a mathematical entity because it ‘does not depend
on any physical mechanism other than the computer hardware it runs on’ (2008, 90). For
this reason, virtual cameras do not simply mimic the behaviors of the real camera but also
cater to any possible changes of the events unfolding in the virtual 3D spaces, including
continuous fly-thorough of the spaces from any perspective and independently from any
physical setting. Miao’s virtual camera armored with its omnidirectional movement serves
as a key expressive technique for his elaborate strategies of creating dynamic and smooth
transitions between the mythic and the programmed worlds, between living organisms
and mechanical artifacts, and between the human and the inhuman. The computer, with
its sound effect of typewriting, turns out to be an apparatus that plays a pivotal role in cre-
ating human civilization, as the virtual camera focuses on the duplication of the apple that
symbolizes the human being’s tree of knowledge. The camera repeats this association
between the Catholic myth and the computer age, or the initial harmony of nature and
civilization, when it smoothly flies from the humanoid and rotates around a group of
giraffes idyllically playing on the forest. This celebration of the computer’s harmony with
the human being and nature culminates in the next moment in which several ribbons of
zeros and ones in different colors float over the white sky and are transformed into a
number of abstract lines that resemble firework. Along with the free-floating virtual cam-
era, the lines and numbers again testify to Miao’s attention to the materiality of the com-
puter-generated space and objects.
This harmonious sequence, which corresponds to the scene of heaven in Bosch’s paint-
ing, is followed by the sequences of hell and limbo as the creative force of the computer
brings about chaos. The virtual camera, moving in different directions and offering multi-
ple perspectives, unfolds a series of the events that highlight the destruction of the
JOURNAL OF CHINESE CINEMAS 233

harmony, including a huge traffic jam, a horse running between the rally of cars, the
horse’s stumbling on the road, the horse’s getting hit by a car, scattering of the horse’s
body into skeletons and transformation of its still beating heart into another car swiftly
running on the road. This scene of the hell caused by technology and human corruption
necessitates the limbo as another possible world, which is depicted as the men who are
coiled with vines and locked inside transparent capsules. With the guidance of the virtual
camera, the viewer is invited to the interplay of paradise, hell and limbo, through which
human figures continue to be transformed into different entities, from sliced cucumbers
to genetic codes to skeletal soldiers, and through which computers, bombs and tanks
dynamically overlap with natural objects and animals. The final scene of Microcosm
amplifies Miao’s imagination of mixing the mythic past and the technological present and
future as the virtual camera floating omnidirectionally creates a leap from the apocalyptic
vision of a failed technical instrumentality to the origin of the world. A group of men
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surges up from a cosmic egg, and a book that contains pictures of animals is opened and
closed. These are dissolved into the image of the planet earth beneath which there is a tree
with overgrown branches and green leaves. Then the branches and leaves are transformed
into abstract lines against the backdrop of the cosmos, which underlines the transparent
and multi-perspectival aspects of the 3D virtual space once again. In accordance with his
double-sided effort to translate the techniques, forms and themes of traditional painting
with the digital tools and space and simultaneously to exploit their media-specific expres-
sive possibilities, this final scene incarnates Miao’s underlying idea on algorithmic paint-
ing: ‘We can even create people and objects purely with our imagination that have never
existed in reality. We can almost form a virtual world that is in parallel with the real objec-
tive world relying on computer’s powerful calculating capabilities and software’s seem-
ingly limitless variations’ (Miao 2014).
Disillusion (2009–2010) also demonstrates Miao’s idea of algorithmic painting as a
technique of both creating people and objects that ‘have never existed in reality’ and posi-
tioning them within a virtual world ‘that is in parallel with the real objective world’,
including the world that had recursively been depicted in the traditions of Western paint-
ing. The work starts with a series of transparent tube-like objects floating on the blank
space. While these objects evoke 3D microscopic organism virtually created with in the
domain of molecular biology and genetics, they are assembled into two Chinese characters
(覺醒) that signify the work’s title ‘Disillusion’. Its calligraphic shape reminds one of ora-
cle bone script (甲骨文), the earliest form of Chinese characters inscribed on animal
bones or turtle plastrons in the late second millennium BCE. Here, it is apparent that
Miao’s idea of algorithmic painting aims to seek visual expressions unique to and indica-
tive of digitally synthesized virtual entities and to translate the techniques and forms of
non-digital arts, including not simply Western painting but also Chinese painting and cal-
ligraphy into the digital brush. The following scenes recycle the drama of birth and death,
of origin and future, of human flesh and genetic codes, and of civilization and myth in
Microcosm by taking as their source material Bosch’s St. Anthony Triptych, or the Tempta-
tion of St. Anthony (1490-1500), Sandro Botticelli’s The Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto
XVIII (1480s), Caspar David Friedrich’s The Wanderer above a Sea of Mists (1818) and
Michelangelo’s Pieta (1499). A notable difference from Microcosm lies in Miao’s manner
of rendering his human characters. While their contours traverse between flesh-skin and
transparent lines as in the case of Microcosm, Miao’s drawing of the lines of the characters
234 J. KIM

sometimes reminds viewers of those in traditional Chinese painting inasmuch as the lines’
thickness is irregular and their shapes vary in different curves. The Chinese heritage of the
naturalness in these lines is also manifested as some characters are turned into formless
black shapes, with the similar effect of spreading ink appearing. Along with the transfor-
mation of the characters into 3D models marked by abstract lines, this visual effect once
again demonstrates Miao’s double-sided approach to digital tools and space.
In sum, Miao’s 3D animation is driven by an ambivalent relationship of digital art to
the art forms of traditional, non-digital media and their thematic or symbolic motifs: recy-
cling and rehabilitating these forms and motifs with the possibilities afforded by the tools
of software applications while also seeking to transform these forms and motifs in ways
that explore and reveal the technical and aesthetic specificities of the digital which are
unique to the computer. Thus, Miao’s 3D animation as digital art situates itself as some-
thing that incorporates and simultaneously transcends the traditional arts. This is also
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applied to Miao’s configuration of cyberspace that pervades all of his 3D animations: it is


the space that is governed by its own laws of perpetual transformations, but it is also the
one for the projection and recreation of the desires and imaginations that have been
recurrent throughout history. Cyberspace thus emerges as a point of intersections between
painting and algorithmic rendering, between the thematic and formal traditions of classi-
cal painting and the expressive possibilities of digital graphics, and between the past and
the future. Seen in this light, Miao’s 3D animations are a prominent case of digital art that
is based on the idea of interface as a point of convergence between the remediated forms
of old media and what is specific in new media.

Lu Yang
Lu Yang’s digital animation and multimedia works are in line with Miao’s pieces in that
they extensively rely on 3D modeling and rendering. Unlike Miao’s primary preoccupa-
tion with the traditions of Western painting, however, Lu has more rigorously intersected
Chinese ideas of corporeality and spirituality with contemporary technological, biological
and medical imaginations. In several interviews, Lu has specified body and religion as two
most recurring subject matters encompassing her body of work: ‘When I was a child, I
spent a lot of time in hospital emergency rooms because I had asthma. So naturally I
became interested in the idea of medical treatment and the body…[And] I often read my
grandmother’s books about Buddhism, which made me really interested in religion’ (Qin
2015). Lu’s interest in the Western medicine, anatomy and neuroscience has repetitively
been reflected in her works of the moving image since her early video pieces including
The Cruel Electromagnetic Wave about Absolute Zero (2013), a short video shot with a
digital infrared camera. The video’s images, including scenes of a surgical operation and
animal autopsy juxtaposed with close-ups of dissected organs and of a young fat man eat-
ing food, are obscured by the surreal effect of blurred colors and contours, which springs
from the camera’s infrared radiation. This surreal effect, then, suggests the ways in which
under the temperature-sensing mechanical eyes of the infrared camera the boundaries
between life and death, living organisms and non-living matters, and flesh and object are
fundamentally dismantled and questioned.
All of these border crossings recur in her 3D animations such as Uterus Man (2013)
and Delusional Mandala (2015). These works emblematize Lu’s preoccupation with the
JOURNAL OF CHINESE CINEMAS 235

idea of posthumanism, in that they dramatize the transformation of human bodies


through their connection to non-human technological (both physical and virtual) arti-
facts. This testifies to the most prevailing idea of posthumanism as referring to an ‘onto-
logical condition in which many humans now…live with chemically, surgically,
technologically modified bodies and/or in close conjunction (networked) with machines
and other organic forms’ (Nayar 2014, 13). In the words of Rosi Braidotti, this interpene-
tration of the human and other non-human (technological and organic) forms enables
posthumanism to reconfigure human subjectivity as predicated upon the ‘assumption
about the vital, self-organizing and yet non-naturalistic structure of living matter itself’
(2013, 2). Still, Lu’s posthuman imagination of the Western culture and technology is bal-
anced by her dense and heavy figuration of religious symbols. For instance, in Moving
Gods (2015), a live-action video featured in the Chinese Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Bien-
nale, a group of half-naked men in different races are presented in wearable security vests
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and safety belts, which serve to render them as armored warriors. What Lu installed on
each man’s vest or belt is a hand-carved and painted wood nimbus, a sign that to most
religions symbolizes holiness. These international figures then function to be new Gods in
the flesh as Lu’s digital compositing juxtaposes them with an array of different back-
grounds that reference religious iconography from Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, Chinese
Mahayana Buddhism, Hinduism, Shingon Buddhism and Christianity.
What makes Lu further distinct from Miao is her approach to digital software and tech-
niques. As I discussed above, Miao recognized 3D virtual space and algorithmic tools as
new and revolutionizing. His technical approach to the digital tools and space is thus pri-
marily predicated upon his experience of being versed in the forms and techniques of
Western and Chinese paintings. Thus, Miao’s exploration of the digital tools and space
has aimed to reinvent the forms and techniques of the traditional arts while also bearing
in mind their specific properties. Miao’s awareness of virtual space and algorithmic tools
as new, as well as his effort to negotiate new media with old media, is not the case with
Lu’s attitude toward digital technologies. For Lu, the computer and the internet are no
longer the new means of artistic expression that should be adopted to, or replace, the
forms and techniques of traditional arts such as painting: rather, they are the basic condi-
tion of life and art that is given to her as default. Lu has expressed this point in an inter-
view: ‘Why do people isolate the technology and nature so clearly? Why not treat
technology as it is now, as a day’s tool?’ (Bartlett 2015). While the dissolution of the
boundaries between technology and nature is a key subject matter in Lu’s body of work,
her treatment of the computer and the internet ‘as they are now’ goes beyond the profes-
sional applications of 3D rendering and modeling as in Miao’s case. ‘Searching’ or ‘surf-
ing’, which suggests Lu’s all-time connection to the internet, could be raised here as a
keyword for indicating how her behavior is rooted in the fundamental overlap of the
online and the physical worlds, and how this overlap is extended in her working method.
In explaining her collaborations with musicians for the soundtracks accompanied with
her videos and animations, Lu remarks:
Sometimes I search for musicians and sometimes they find me…They are usually acquaintan-
ces or people I’ve discovered on websites like SoundCloud. The Internet is quite useful,
because I don’t really interact with people that much. As long as I have access to a computer, I
can make art (Qin 2015 emphasis added).
236 J. KIM

Lu’s ‘searching for musicians’ on the Web 2.0 platforms like SoundCloud reminds me
of pro-surfers that Marisa Olson refers to as a leading subject of postinternet art who pre-
figured a defining idea of postinternet art that internet art would not necessarily remain
online. For Olson, pro-surfers’ activities since the mid-2000s, such as appropriating pho-
tos and video clips on websites, manipulating and remixing them with software applica-
tions or open-source codes and sharing them in their personal websites and blogs, all
have paved the way for the proliferation of internet-based artifacts in physical spaces and
different art forms (texts, photo prints, videos, sculptures, installations and performan-
ces). These activities of propelling the emergence of postinternet art, according to Olson,
presuppose and engage with the idea of ‘circulation’, one that means ‘the ways in which
the images are produced and exchanged, and their currency or value’ (2008, 276). In the
incessant and accelerated circuit of circulation under the networked environment, Olson
writes, ‘the images that get appropriated…are at times “camera-less” (i.e. created by soft-
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ware or other lens-less tools that nonetheless aspire to optical perspective, typically follow
normative compositional rules, and tend to index realism), while others are created with
another being behind the aperture, only to be found and appropriated by a surfer’ (2008,
276).
More than her collaborations with musicians, the pro-surfers’ activities of appropriat-
ing and remixing various images and art forms lay the groundwork for the technical and
aesthetic dimensions of Lu’s 3D digital animations. Unlike Miao’s reliance of 3ds Max as
a single tool for recreating the forms and symbolic themes of Western paintings, Lu Yang
has employed a variety of software applications for her modeling and rendering of 3D fig-
ures and spaces: besides 3ds Max, the applications include Maya (one of the most popular
applications in film, television and computer game development for generating interactive
3D objects), Zbrush (a software useful for sculpting objects in high frequency details and
stretching them flexibly), Daz 3D (specializing in creating detailed human 3D models)
and Cinema4D (capable of procedural and polygonal modeling, lighting, texturing and
animating in 3D), to name just a few.2 All these applications are able to provide the tech-
niques for defining 3D forms that were previously derived from painting, sculpture and
other traditional media. Also, they offer users ‘dozens of new techniques for defining and
modifying forms not available previously: extrude, spherize, randomize, smooth, loft,
morph, simplify, subdivide, and so on’ (Manovich 2014, 203). By taking advantage of the
techniques provided by the various 3D graphics applications and remixing them freely in
her production process, Lu has established her 3D animations as the hybrid of different
media expressions. As Lev Manovich has explained, these expressions are made possible
thanks to the capacity of the software applications developed since the 2000s to simulate
and combine any of the techniques of graphic design, typography, painting, cinematogra-
phy, computer animation and 3D modeling (Manovich, 2009; Manovich 2014, 161–198).
Uterus Man is the first work of Lu that attests to my characterization of her 3D pieces
as postdigital animation, demonstrating that she associates the idea of circulation with
her obsessive imagination of posthuman subjectivity. Its character, Uterus Man, is a per-
verse sci-fi superhero with a female reproductive organ (uterus) that according to Lu,
‘resembles the outline of a person standing straight with her arms’ open wide’ (Gaskin
2013). She blends this imagination with her inspiration from the story of Mao Sugiyama,
a Japanese man who performed self-surgery of removing his genitals in order to search
for an unknown sexual identity in 2012. In so doing, Lu renders this character to be a
JOURNAL OF CHINESE CINEMAS 237

hybrid of biopower and genetic engineering, and of the human being and the cyborg.
Accordingly, each bodily components of the character evokes different parts of the uterus,
and his weapons and a fancy mount (named the pelvis chariot) mirror the formal and
functional versatility of the organ. Thus, the protagonist expresses sexual and organic mal-
leability as indicative of posthuman subjectivity: a key trope of anime that is exemplified
by Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1982). Besides his versatility of using his own organ-
weapons both to eliminate enemies and to deliver a baby, the hero’s supernatural force is
also presented as his freedom to fly through different spaces in which dimensional and
gravitational laws are obliterated (from the video game space as datascape to the cosmic
space), traversing and blurring the boundaries between the endoscopic and the macro-
scopic views.
It is not simply Lu’s digital rendering of Uterus Man with manga-style but also her
appropriation and dense mixture of different visual media (anime as cel animation, car-
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toon as 2D still image, video footage and 3D graphics applied to video game) that makes
possible Lu’s expression of posthuman fantasy populated with gender fluidity, mythologi-
cal fantasy, neuroscience and psychedelia. Some sequences of Uterus Man, including the
hero’s traveling through the inside of a spaceship and his standing against the backdrop
of a factory, differentiate the landscapes into distinct multiple planes. These layered images
based on the technique of compositing remind one of what Thomas Lamarre has called
the ‘multiplanar image’ as a key aesthetic tendency of anime distinct from that of cellu-
loid-based cinema (2009, 6–7). However, the scenes of illustrating Uterus Man’s energy
power and weapons (such as ‘blood cells attack’, ‘DNA attack’ and ‘ovum light wave
attack’) present less separation of layers but the smooth, transparent layering of objects
and backgrounds on multiple perspectives, which is a characteristic of 3D virtual space.
Thus, these scenes’ spatial structure is akin to what Jens Schr€oter (2014) has called the
‘transplane image’, a type of images that offer viewers the volumetric spatial structure of
objects in contrast to the images projected in linear perspective. While a series of different
transplane images have been produced since the nineteenth century from stereoscopy to
holography, for Schr€oter such algorithmic techniques as ray tracing and virtual perspective
enable the transplane image to be easily integrated into digital spaces across scientific, mil-
itary and entertainment platforms. By visualizing Uterus Man’s capacities with textual
information and grids, Lu demonstrates not simply that he is also a video game charac-
ter,3 but also that he lives in the transplane image that structures video game’s diegetic
and extra-diegetic spaces. All the 2D and 3D – or the multiplanar and the transplane –
images are juxtaposed with the medical footage of the close-ups of human organs and
organisms at fast pace. This dense mixture of the different media images, as well as their
rapid alternation, is derived from and embodies the concept of ‘circulation’ that Olson
sees as a key logic of postinternet art. The fact that Lu also conceived Uterus Man as the
star of a franchise that encompasses Japanese manga and a professionally developed video
game, too, testifies to the spreadability of digital artifacts and styles across different digital
and non-digital platforms or objects as another feature of postinternet art.
Delusional Mandala (Figure 2), a highly mesmerizing 3D animation, expands Lu’s
exploration of posthuman subjectivity in relation to science technology (blended with reli-
gious icons, too) into more full-fledged postdigital imagination. Its protagonist is Lu her-
self, who is transfigured into a virtual avatar via 3D scanning technology. This avatar is
continuously manipulated by the extensive software environment in which anatomy,
238 J. KIM
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Figure 2. Still from Lu Yang, Delusional Mandala (2015), digital 3D animation, 15 minutes, courtesy by
the artist.

neuroscience and religion are deeply hybridized. The most notable here are two neurolog-
ical experiments with Lu’s own brain system which are aided by stereotactic mapping: the
first experiment is deep brain stimulation of the limbic system, a brain network concerned
with instincts and affects such as fear, pleasure and sex; and the second is transcranial
magnetic stimulation, a procedure of stimulating nerve cells in the brain to improve
symptoms of cerebral depression. These two experiments are made on Lu’s avatar that
undergoes simulations of neurological disorder and stages of dying. As in her previous
works, Lu superimposes medical and religious perspectives on human consciousness and
body, therefore challenging the dichotomy of the two. The 3D virtual images of medical
experiments, including simulations of Lu’s bodily organs and brain, are juxtaposed with
the similar religious icons as those in Moving Gods. The dissolution of the boundaries
between science and religion culminates in the animation’s last sequence, in which a
hearse is constructed from a 3D model and decorated with an ornate Chinese roof, a lotus
pedestal, traditional Chinese patterns of flowers and ribbons, and LED screens that display
the portraits of Lu’s avatar wearing the prosthetic tool of stereotactic system.
The work starts with Lu who has her processed with a 3D scanner, during which a male
voiceover explains its operations and functions in Chinese as follows: ‘A 3D scanner is a
device that analyses a real-world object or environment to collect data on its shape and
possibly its appearance (e.g. color)’. This procedure of extracting and collecting the data
on the shape and appearance of Lu’s face is then used to construct her digital 3D models
(which are later incarnated into her avatar). The space and interface of 3D scanning are
clearly foregrounded throughout this opening sequence in which Lu is transformed into
her virtual models. For instance, after the end of scanning Lu’s three scanned models are
presented side by side in different ways: a default model of her face (in color), its second
model in profile and its third model in profile (but at a different angle than that of the sec-
ond) and greyscale. This triple presentation of the same figure in different colors and
JOURNAL OF CHINESE CINEMAS 239

postures calls the viewer’s attention to not simply the malleability of the digital image
under the same software environment, but also the 3D nature of the environment in
which any virtual – simulated or scanned – object can be moved omnidirectionally and
manipulated variously. An array of the following scenes amplifies Lu’s self-reflexive
approach to 3D scanning as one of the models is positioned within the transparent grid of
the graphic software interface along with its palette of filters and effects and undergoes a
series of transformations: first, the model’s head is extracted with its hair removed; sec-
ond, 3D rendering firstly turns the model into 3D wire frames and then convert them
into 2D images, which are subject to either 3D photorealistic effects or non-photorealistic
expressions. In either case, these images are eventually incorporated into digital animation
effects through which Lu’s skinhead avatar is given full organs, facial expressions and
muscular movements.
Lu’s fast-paced editing punctuates each of these procedures, while also highlighting the
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equivalence and interchangeability between the wire-framed model and the avatar created
with photorealistic effects: that is, all the organic and mechanical details, such as brains,
internal organs, prosthetic tools for stereotactic mapping, and brain or magnetic simula-
tions, emerge as images created and processed by the same software environment filled with
grids and data. The images, then, fit into what Ingrid Hoelzl and Remi Marie (2015) have
called the ‘softimage’, a concept that refers to the specific forms of the digital image that are
intrinsically merged with software and its programmability: ‘The image is not only part of a
program, but it contains its own ‘operation code’: It is a program in itself. What was sup-
posed to be a solid representation of a solid world based on the sound principle of geometric
projection… . Is revealed to be something totally different, ubiquitous, infinitely adaptable
and adaptive’ (Hoelzl and Marie 2015, 132). Lu’s virtual avatar and her bodily components
are as much flexible as the data and tools used for the mapping and simulations, and both
types of the images internalize the codes and algorithms of the software whose operation
enables them to appear. Lu’s self-reflexive experiment with 3D scanning here suggests that
all these images as ‘softimage’ are no longer limited to the virtual environment, but funda-
mentally redesign our corporeal subjectivity in ways that dissolve the boundaries between
the virtual and the real, and between online and offline. It is here that Lu’s conceptual
approaches to digital technology mark another difference from Miao’s.
By associating her digital avatar with her posthuman and postdigital imagination, Lu sug-
gests that the softimage deeply infiltrates not simply physical spaces and organic bodies, but
also affective and spiritual domains such as emotion, religion and afterlife. Lu’s avatar firstly
undergoes stereotactic surgery, a medically invasive form of surgical intervention which
makes use of 3D coordinate system to locate small targets inside the body and to perform
on them such actions as ablation, biopsy, lesion, injection, implantation, etc. These medical
procedures then propel the avatar to experience a series of emotional responses (such as joy,
sorrow, anger, etc.) triggered by the activities in the somatic nervous system. These
responses also lead to a religious fantasy in which the avatar’s prosthetic tool for stereotactic
surgery is transformed into a golden nimbus (which symbolizes holiness as in the case of
Moving Gods) and she is multiplied against the backdrops of Buddhist mandala icons. This
transformation continues until the avatar’s bodily parts are removed except her internal
organs and her head at the stage of simulating brain death. Metabolism, religion and death
are thus programmable in Delusional Mandala: their corresponding images are expressive
of the same digital system that is fundamentally naturalized in our world, body and mind.
240 J. KIM

This awareness that everything is connected and subject to the same digital system echoes
James Bridle’s reflection on the ontology of the image in the postinternet art: ‘Each image is
a link, hardcoded or imaginative, to other aspects of a far greater system, just as every web
page and every essay, and every line of text written or quoted therein, is a link to other
words, thoughts, and ideas’ (Bridle 2014, 23).
Consequently, Delusional Mandala demonstrates how digital software’s 3D virtual
space is now capable of simulating and incorporating previous media techniques and
expressions and of reconstructing our body, mind, and reality in posthuman and postdigi-
tal fashions. In remediating photographic and graphic visual expressions and creating a
dense mixture of medical data and religious icons, Lu takes advantage of the fact that ‘the
representational structure of computer graphics, i.e. a 3D virtual space, came to function
as an umbrella for all other image types regardless of their origin’ (Manovich 2014, 294).
More than relying on the 3D virtual space’s compositing paradigm of interacting with
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and remixing already existing media expressions, Lu creates her digital images not simply
as the hybrid of those expressions, but also that of the virtual and the real. Or, to be more
precisely, Lu’s avatar and virtual realm point to Steyerl’s insight into the world after the
internet stopped being a new utopia or possibility, a world in which our body and mind
are deeply linked to the images that are subject to infinite circulations and diverse manip-
ulations governed by the operations of networks and software applications. Steyerl writes,
‘Reality itself is postproduced and scripted, affect rendered as aftereffect’, she writes, ‘Far
from being opposites across an unbridgeable chasm, image and world are in many cases
just versions of each other’ (Steyerl 2015, 444).

Conclusion
The software’s digital toolbox offers Miao and Lu the means to expressively render their
worlds in which the Western and the Chinese, and the technological and the spiritual
dynamically coexist and intersect with each other. The temporal complexity created by
the dissolution of the boundaries between these dichotomies in both artists’ works is
indebted to their rigorous uses of the technical features specific to digital 3D space, such
as vertical and multiple perspectives and the virtual camera’s freedom of omnidirectional
and gravitation-free movements. While these temporal and spatial complexities are com-
mon to Miao and Lu, the two artists’ animations reflect their different approaches to the
digital techniques and 3D space. Despite his effort to seek the expressive possibilities
unique to the computer, Miao’s animations illustrate that he has projected the icons,
imaginaries and techniques of traditional Western and Chinese paintings into the digital
techniques and 3D space. By contrast, Lu’s kaleidoscopic remixing of various media
images in the virtual environment, as well as her radical self-experiments with 3D scan-
ning and virtual medical surgery, is indicative of her sensibility distinct from Miao’s
awareness of the computer as new media and his effort to reconcile it with old media. For
Lu, all images are intrinsically connected to the same world-as-digital, perpetually being
manipulated, circulated and turned into various other images, and these technically pro-
duced and mediated images are concerned with the posthuman transformation of our
world and subjectivity. Despite these differences, however, it is of little doubt that both
Miao and Lu demonstrate the vibrant creative forces of contemporary Chinese art that
are enabled by digital techniques and 3D space.
JOURNAL OF CHINESE CINEMAS 241

Notes
1. Although I do not discuss Miao’s photographic works in this essay, it is worth briefly noting
that they document and simultaneously distort the urban landscapes and people of postsocial-
ist China. His panoramic photograph series, such as New Urban Reality (2004–2005) and
Beijing Index (2007–2009) commonly present his effort to use digital photography to engage
with the precarious conditions of contemporary subjectivity in the urbanized environments of
China. The sense of spatial expansion in vertical and horizontal directions that is notable in
the photographs is clearly indebted not simply to his employment of a 360-degree camera for
panoramic photography, but also to the construction of 3D virtual space in his animation
pieces.
2. Lu, in an email conversation with the author, February 20, 2017.
3. Lu also produced an arcade game of Uterus Man in 2014, which was commissioned by the
Fukuoka Asian Art Museum.
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Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.

Notes on contributor
Jihoon Kim is an associate professor of cinema and media studies at Chung-ang University,
South Korea. He is the author of Between Film, Video, and the Digital: Hybrid Moving Images
in the Post-media Age (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016). Currently he is working on a new book
manuscript entitled Documentary’s Expanded Fields: New Media, New Platforms, and the
Documentary.

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