Digital incarnation

A digital avatar with four arms posing as a manifestation of Shiva crowned with a golden medical apparatus. A decorated vehicle drives by, and the avatar, without hair now, is making faces on the vehicle’s side- and front panels on the rhythm of funky music. This description is 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 functions. The work itself is a Delusional Mandala illustrating destruction as a head trip. As stated in the video’s caption, artist Lu Yang reflects on personal, religious, cultural, historical, and future creation. The avatar simulates Lu Yang’s identity. Yang’s idealized digital version of themself plays with Erving Goffman’s description of “the front stage” in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959). The avatar is the artist, “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”, says Yang in an interview with ARTnews. Yang’s computer-generated body and their performance transcend absurdly from the binary world of the digital into a non-binary identity.

Delusional Mandala Video still (2015), image by Lu Yang via Vimeo


Lu Yang’s avatar communicates the author’s backstory, but it does not have a consciousness of its own. The backstage is more evident in Yang’s latest avatar (Doku), as is discussed with ARTnews. This “backstage”, as Goffman describes it, is an independent private practice behind the scenes required for any creation of ”a public persona”. The self exists within the (virtual) performance. Doku is Lu Yang. Lu Yang is Doku.

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 in The Fan Dance: How Privacy Thrives in an Age of Hyper Publicity. Yang’s digital work, however, attempts to surpass a digital ‘dramaturgical’ framework of self-presentation as Jurgenson and Rey re-define Goffman’s theories to our computer-mediated age. The backstage is not the ‘real’ essence of the artist’s characters, but they cannot be cut loose from Yang’s organic self. According to Goffman’s framework theory, this persona, a.k.a. the ‘frontstage’, is not an inauthentic or incomplete of Yang either. However, like other digital avatars, Yang’s digital avatar is not limited by the principles of truth or validity. As a representation or ‘delusion’, the avatar reveals and hides the author while allowing them to control the given (mediated) situation.

Similarly, photos on social media selectively uncover oneself to the world. Eric Hughes’s Cypherpunk’s Manifesto defines privacy as the power to selectively reveal oneself. His notion of privacy is not the same as secrecy but is defined through publicity. It is the interplay of public and private that gives the performer/artist control over their performance. Despite the play with death and revival in Yang’s work, the avatar and the art itself do not change Yang’s identity. We could decode the Delusional Mandala as a misleading reincarnation. After all, avatar creation is “not [similar to] creating multiple identities in the psychological sense”, danah boyd explains in It’s Complicated, the social lives of networked teens. Avatars correlate to online platforms, various nicknames, forms of self-presentation and a wide range of interpretations. Because as an avatar, “by living on the Internet,” Yang states in an interview with The New York Times, “you can abandon your identity, nationality, gender, even your existence as a human being.”

Self-deceptive ritual

In Hindu mythology, the avatar incarnates in an earthly form instead of a computer-generated character, but who knows what we can incarnate to nowadays. Is the digital delusion, as with Yang’s Delusional Mandala, to surpass all frontstages and become a programmed new? If so, then the Mandala must be a meditative tool instead of a digital reincarnation, constantly circling back to the self as an identifiable centre point.