A CGI model with four arms posing as a manifestation of Shiva is crowned with a golden medical apparatus. A decorated vehicle drives by and that same figure, without hair now, is making faces on the vehicle’s side- and front panels on the rhythm of funky music. It’s a scene from Delusional Mandala, a video artwork from the artist Lu Yang. The artwork, a reflection on creation, stimulation and delusions of religious icons, questions the artist’s (un)consciousness and brain function. Delusional Mandala displays a kind of destruction but does it as if it were a “delusion”1. But whose delusion is it? As stated in the video’s caption, the artist reflects on their personal, historical and current creation, but also that of their future. The avatar functions as a human simulator in Yang’s shape, an ‘idealized version of the self’, similar to Erving Goffman’s description of “the front stage”2. The avatar is the artist’s self “but someone else at the same time” as Ocula Magazine quotes Lu Yang. “That [sex-less] body,” referring to the avatar, “is the perfect body for me” states Yang in an interview with ARTnews. The character’s digital body and performance transcends ironically within the binary world of technology into a non-binary identity. Yang’s digital work attempts to surpass, I argue, Erving Goffman’s ”‘dramaturgical’ framework of self-presentation” (Goffman as cited by Jurgenson and Rey in Unlike Us Reader3, 2013, p. 64-66). I, therefore, interpret Lu Yang’s work Delusional Mandala as a digital reincarnation.
Lu Yang’s avatar communicates the author’s past, present, and future, but it doesn’t have a consciousness of their own4. The “backstage” as Goffman describes, “is the [individual’s] private work necessary to create a public persona” (Goffman as interpreted by Jurgenson and Ray, 2013, p.65). “The self resides in the performance”, and there is “no self beyond what is performed for the front stage, and there is no front stage without a back stage” explain Jurgenson and Ray (2013, p.66). I argue that Lu Yang, in this case, performs something that surpasses this self. The backstage is not the ‘real’ essence of the artist’s ‘self’, and the ‘frontstage’ is not an inauthentic or incomplete representation of that individual according to Goffman’s framework5. However, Yang’s digital avatar isn’t limited by the principles of validity. As a representation or ‘delusion’ the avatar reveals the author, and at the same time, allows them to control the given (social) situation.
Similarly, as a profile picture does on a social media website, selectively uncovering oneself to the world. Jurgenson and Rey cite Eric Hughes’s Cypherpunk’s Manifesto definition of privacy as the power to selectively reveal oneself (Jurgenson and Rey, 2014, p.64). This notion of privacy is not the same as secrecy but is defined through publicity. It is their interplay that gives the performer/artist control over their performance. Lu Yang’s avatar and the artwork itself in their publicity don’t change Yang’s identity. It is “not creating multiple identities in the psychological sense” danah boyd explains in her book: It’s Complicated, the social lives of networked teens6 (boyd, 2014, p.38). Like identifying with various(nick)names or handles on multiple platforms, a choice sometimes made as a conscious attempt “to control their self-presentation” and more often as “responses to sites’ requirement…online identities that leave plenty of room for interpretation.” (ibid). In an interview with The New York Times, artist Lu Yang answers their questions on how they identify. The artist wants to live on the Internet, where nobody knows or cares who you are. “By living on the Internet,” Yang says “you can abandon your identity, nationality, gender, even your existence as a human being.”
“There is no true self, the roles just are the performer.” explains a BBC Radio 4 video titled Erving Goffman and the Performed Self, narrated by Stephen Fry. Chinese or not, genderqueer or non-binary, forty or fourteen, muscle or endurance, all are a framework for an identity performance. “Some teens,” clarifies boyd on social media and game environments (although I argue that it reflects more generally on users of those spaces (most adults, gamers and artists in any digital environment, really) “purposefully construct their avatars in ways that they feel reflect their physical bodies; other teens choose characters based on skills or aesthetics.” (boyd, 2014, p.42) Is abandoning the ‘self’ in gameplay or on the Internet a delusion? How likely is it the possibility that the frontstage is actually surpassed?
1. Lu Yang, LuYang Delusional Mandala by LuYang https://vimeo.com/141005910 , n.d. [accesed 8 February 2021]
2. Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, New York: Doubleday, 1959.
3. Nathan Jurgenson and PJ Rey, The Fan Dance: How Privacy Thrives in an Age of Hyper-Publicity, Unlike Us Reader Social Media Monopolies and Their Alternatives, p.62-75, Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2013.
5. Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, New York: Doubleday, 1959. in The Fan Dance: How Privacy Thrives in an Age of Hyper-Publicity, Nathan Jurgenson and PJ Rey, Unlike Us Reader Social Media Monopolies and Their Alternatives, p.62-75, Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2013.
6. danah boyd, It’s Complicated, the social lives of networked teens, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. p.29-53