Lu Yang’s “DOKU – The Binary World”
By HG Masters
I wanted it to take place in a night club—that was my first thought at the end of the all-too-short but intensive multimedia performance DOKU – The Binary World (2022), choreographed by the multimedia artist Lu Yang. Others in the room, similarly electrified by the energetic pace, pulsating beats (from liiii, aka Li Xin 李鑫), and dizzying imagery of the 45-minute hybrid virtual-live dance performance, immediately said the same.
We were a small audience standing before the stage in one of the black-box theaters at the multimedia venue Freespace in Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District, watching a dancer, Kenny Leung Kim-fung, who was strapped into a motion-capture suit (or “mo-cap”) and animating a cast of virtual characters playing on screen behind him in real time. Simultaneously, another dancer was performing in Sydney—the event was presented in collaboration with the Sydney Opera House—and the performer in Australia, Taiga Kita-Leong, would alternate segments with Leung. The opening scene immediately swept us away to an icy polar dream world with a white-haired, white-frilled-suited character; not long after, Leung was performing as Doku, who destroyed a block of buildings in Tokyo with wild sweeping motions and lasers shooting from their eyes.
With their many outfits and personas, Doku, from the Buddhist phrase Dokusho Dokushi, or “We are born alone, we die alone,” is the nonbinary “digital reincarnation” of artist Lu Yang. Doku’s many embodied personas inhabit wildly rich landscapes that reflect the six realms of Buddhist reincarnation: Heaven and Hell, Human and Animal, Hungry Ghosts and Asura. MetaObjects (Andrew Crowe and Ashley Lee Wong) capture the choreography with virtual cameras that follow the movements of the dancers and transform them into avatars. The delay between human movement on stage and the avatar was just a split second, visible but barely. In Hong Kong, you could watch the Sydney dancer perform their parts on a small side screen, and the audience in Sydney could do the same. You were constantly toggling between the live events in front of you and the elsewhere on screen. It was overstimulating at times, but the live elements also prevented it from tipping into repetition.
There’s no plot, per se, but signs that Lu Yang is building on the landscapes and personas developed for works such as 2021’s Delusional World, with a single performer. In the grand finale of DOKU – The Binary World, the two performers inhabit one avatar, with one controlling the upper body, the other the lower half while they were dancing on a giant spinning mandala. It was a mesmerizing synthesis, as their physical bodies, thousands of kilometers away, conjoined into a virtual avatar performing on a spinning mandala in a virtual universe. They gave each other a hug at the end—an air-hug in Hong Kong and in Sydney, as the two avatars met on screen. Where was Lu Yang at that moment, in reality? Maybe in Shanghai, but it hardly matters as the artist’s nonbinary personas cohabited—and danced incredibly—in worlds beyond our imagining.
At times throughout the performance, I didn’t know whether I should watch the performer or the screen. I felt torn between the visceral reality of the human body meters away and the totally unreal-seeming but visually fascinating alternate universe on the big screen behind them.
My mind gyrated with the possibilities, as this virtual experience is capable of transforming space in the living world. The hybrid live-virtual performance seemed like it is made for a large, energized crowd that might worship and fear the gigantic virtual characters like the deities they represent. Maybe that is where this “mo-cap” technology is going—stadium concerts for pop stars, as the “meta-tainment” business goes mainstream. But nothing is likely to be as visually rich, surreal, or culturally layered as Lu Yang’s vision. This virtual experience just needs to find the right physical reality for the audience to participate with it the way it truly deserves.
Lu Yang’s DOKU – The Binary World took place from October 7–9 at Freespace, West Kowloon Cultural District, Hong Kong as part of the “Phygital D” program series, and at the Sydney Opera House.
HG Masters is ArtAsiaPacific’s deputy editor and deputy publisher.