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The Aesthetic of Grotesque in Lu Yang’s Delusional Mandala and Delusional World

This article explores the aesthetic of the grotesque in Lu Yang’s recent work Delusional Mandala (2015) and Delusional World (2020). I argue that the aesthetic of the grotesque envisioned in these two works becomes a radical tool for the artist’s deconstruction and dismantling of the socially and culturally sanctioned boundaries of corporeality and normativity. My approach to Lu Yang’s aesthetic of the grotesque is based on Sara Cohen Shabot’s theorization of grotesque philosophy and the grotesque body as well on the concept of faciality proposed by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus (1980). Two questions guide my reflection and readings in this article: What are the characteristics of the grotesque aesthetic in Lu Yang’s films? In what ways does this aesthetic deconstruct concepts such as the human and normativity?

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Aesthetics of Futurism

Lu Yang’s Art and an Organological Redefinition of the Human in the Planetary Age

Studying artworks on the human body and the brain, as exemplified by Lu Yang’s work, enables a new perspective in the debates over the redefinitions of the human, whether anthropocenic redefinitions of the human (in the scholarships of the Anthropocene, posthumanism, new materialism, and speculative realism) or a technoscientific redefinition of the human (in the scholarships of technological transformations). Not only does Lu Yang question the defining properties of the humanness but the artist also creates an organological form of the human. This organological perspective enables an aesthetics of futurism based on both a nonreproductive kinship between the human and the nonhuman, and a new regime of the future grounded in the habitability of the human as a more-than-human agent in the planetary age.

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Avatar vs. Artist

Climbing, climbing the circular staircase of a decaying art deco apartment house, a throwback to Old Shanghai’s grandeur in the 1930s, I felt like I was stepping back in time. It was fall of 2011, and I was accompanied by a twenty-seven-year-old artist named Lu Yang who led me on this upward trek to a studio. As Lu Yang opened the green door to the space, I was immediately thrown forward from the past to the future. The darkened room was packed with computer monitors flickering with the running text of chatrooms. Aquariums, filled with dead frogs floating in formaldehyde, gave off an eerie green light. There were no sketches or paintings or anything like traditional art making. What an awakening! I realized that this was the kind of art I had been searching for on my trips to China since 2004. I was looking for an artist whose work reflected the enormous upheaval of the Reform era, the influx of Western goods, the possibilities of the internet, and the shock to the psyche that these changes had wrought. Lu Yang completely fit the bill.

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Book Reviews

Martin P. Rossouw. Transformational Ethics of Film. Leiden: Brill, 2021, 316 pp., $150.00 (hardback), ISBN: 9789004459953. Grant Tavinor. The Aesthetics of Virtual Reality. New York: Routledge, 2021, 163 pp.,$160.00, ISBN: 9780367619251.

Rebecca A. Sheehan. American Avant-Garde Cinema’s Philosophy of the In Between. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020, 292 + xi pp., $41.95 (paperback), ISBN: 9780190949716. Deborah Walker-Morrison. Classic French Noir: Gender and the Cinema of Fatal Desire. London: I.B. Tauris, 2019, 272 pp.,$77.00, ISBN 9781350157446.

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Challenging Binaries in Posthuman Worlds

An Analysis of Lu Yang’s The Great Adventure of Material World

The Material World Knight is an anime-style superhero from Lu Yang’s artwork The Great Adventure of Material World—Game Film (2020) who battles oppressive binary systems on his quest for transcendence. This article uses discourse and visual analysis to study how this short film employs references to Buddhist philosophy and Japanese anime to reconceptualize subjectivity. The study draws on posthuman theory by Rosi Braidotti and Donna Haraway to show how the artwork produces a post-dualist, posthuman, relational concept of subjectivity while also complicating any straightforward interpretations in favor of maintaining complexity and “staying with the trouble.”

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Constructing Film Emotions

The Theory of Constructed Emotion as a Biocultural Framework for Cognitive Film Theory

In the classical view of emotion, the basic emotions (anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise) are assumed to be natural kinds that are perceiver-independent. Correspondingly, each is thought to possess a distinct neural and physiological signature, accompanied by an expression that is universally recognized despite differences in culture, era, and language. An alternative, the theory of constructed emotion, emphasizes that, while the underlying interoceptive sensations are biological, emotional concepts are learned, socially constructed categories, characterized by many-to-many relationships among diverse brain states, physiological signs, facial movements, and their emotional meanings. This biocultural view permits a greater degree of cultural-historical specificity when interpreting the emotions of others. In this article, I consider the implications of the theory of constructed emotion for cognitive film theory, especially regarding the interpretation of depicted facial expressions of emotion as one aspect of cinematic expression. Particular attention is given to recent work revisiting the Kuleshov effect, in which the meaning of a character’s facial expression is thought to change in the context of a montage.

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Cyclic Existence, Iteration, and Digital Transcendence

Lu Yang’s Live Motion Capture Performances

This article explores MetaObjects’ ongoing collaboration with Lu Yang to develop a live motion capture performance. As a studio facilitating digital production with artists, the knowledge acquired delves into the worldview of the artist reflected in works and in practice. Lu Yang’s work is inherently collaborative and evolves in increasing complexity with each iteration. Similarly, reincarnation and repetition are present in Buddhist conceptions of cyclic existence and the wheel of life. Lu Yang connects an interest in folk beliefs and Chinese medicine to neuroscience presenting a multi-layering of temporalities in contemporary culture. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the performance was transformed into an online experience, deepening Lu Yang’s interest in digital reincarnation. The work presents an interest in digital reincarnation where identities are fluid and open to reinvention in the virtual realm.

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Dr. Strangelove and the Psychology of Comic Distance

In 1964, near the height of Cold War nuclear anxiety, millions of Americans flocked to movie theatres to see their own nuclear annihilation hilariously enacted for them in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. How did Kubrick transform one of his time’s most pressing causes of psychological distress into a source of humorous pleasure? To answer this question, I offer a cognitive account of how comic distance works on film, building on research indicating humor to be an evolved response to benign violations. I show that Kubrick consistently optimized for psychological distance in Dr. Strangelove, comparing his narrative and stylistic choices to those of Sidney Lumet in Fail Safe, a contemporaneous film that plays the same essential story for drama instead of laughs.

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Evolution of the Depiction of Telephone Calls in Popular Movies

Since Aristotle, tradition has it that stories are defined as unified wholes, divisible into smaller inter-related parts. In many narrative forms these parts are called scenes. Scenes, too, are regarded as wholes, typically unified on three grounds: a constancy of characters and location within a continuous time frame. Generally, if a storyteller changes one or more of these, the story has moved on to the next scene. But this rule is not universal. The most obvious exception in movies is the telephone call, which can change locations to accommodate images of the two conversing characters. Here, I explore a century’s worth of popular, English-language movies to discern how two-sided telephone conversations (which violate spatial unity) are portrayed on the screen, and how they compare to face-to-face conversations (which do not violate spatial unity) in the same movies. The portrayal of both types of conversations has evolved, sometimes independently and sometimes in synchrony, and popular filmmaking has arrived circuitously at a system in which both are generally portrayed in the same way—two characters in alternating shots, slightly to opposite sides of the midline and turned towards one another. I discuss the social and psychological reasons why this might be the case.

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“Like a Dream, an Illusion, a Drop of Dew, a Flash of Lightning”

Buddhist (Un)reality, Thought Experiments, and the “Ecological Dharma Eye” in Lu Yang’s Material World Knight Game Film

This article argues that the conceptualization of the (un)reality of the phenomenal or material world (qishijie) in Lu Yang’s animated short Material World Knight Game Film (MWKGF, 2020) at once follows and departs significantly from the Theravada and Mahayana traditions it references. MWKGF’s reconfiguring of Buddhist notions of (un)reality is especially apparent in its representation of samsara (cycle of birth and rebirth) and in its questioning of Buddhist wisdom through the lens of neuroscience, psychotherapy, and (popular versions) of quantum theory. The film further suggests that Buddhist philosophy can be effectively expounded and played, as an “executable thought experiment” in/as a video game. The article shows in conclusion that MWKGF also envisions an “ecological dharma eye manifesto” that seems to call for an epistemic-technoscientific-spiritual revolution.