“Put these on before coming in, please,” Cole Lu told me as I stood in the hallway. “Sorry, the landlord has been strict about avoiding outside dust.” Sporting a black t-shirt, black tapered joggers and black boots all spattered with some sort of white powder, Lu handed me a pair of disposable shoe covers as I entered the studio on Ingraham Street.
Cole Lu’s art work uses texts, sculptures, digital images, and mixed media to explore concepts of otherness and alienation. It has traveled to galleries and museums both in and outside the U.S., from New York to Miami and from Greece to Germany.
On a warm Sunday morning in February, the 35-year-old artist, who is queer and doesn’t use any pronouns, welcomed me into the Bushwick studio, a warehouse-like space with exposed pipes on the ceiling and wooden floor. Several sheets of concrete and sawing equipment took up over half of the room. At the far end sat a couple sculptures from Lu’s Dust Enforcers collection, both made from fiberglass, aqua resin and concrete: the two-headed dog Orthrus lying on its side and the monster Geryon curled up in a ball.
Lu’s latest installations include a silicone replica of Lu’s elbow inked with the uncertainty principle formula in quantum mechanics; and a similar model of Lu’s forearm with another tattoo of the Moonlight Tower from Dazed and Confused. In the same installation, Lu showed me a bronze sculpture of a monster with a bull’s head and a human face.
Wait, did you say that human face is actually your face??
Yeah. It doesn’t matter if you can identify it or not. I don’t feel comfortable using anyone else’s face—I think it would be commodifying others. I chose to use myself and I just had to get over my, ugh, egotistic mentality [as an artist]. My face has also changed after this testosterone treatment. I’m definitely rendered more masculine right now.
What’s the message here?
This was the first major piece where I tackled mythology. In folklore or fairy tales, many times the villain is the monster. Or in Disney movies, someone who has a weird accent, someone who is flamboyant, someone who obviously is queer or someone who’s born with disability, is usually portrayed as evil. I think that is a really very common thing you see in Western values that generate this xenophobic mentality since youth.
Using Western mythologies is also me trying to actively refuse the white gaze, refuse this exotification of “Oh, why don’t you make Eastern mythology” kind of mindset. There’s nothing wrong with either approach but for me, that’s spoon feeding a certain kind of knowledge or culture that can be easily overpowering by shock value.
In your early works like “Super Sad True Love Story,” you seemed to enjoy manipulating texts in different forms, whether it was poetry or prose, while inviting spectators to fill in the blanks.
Oh God, that was my first show after I graduated. I think my earlier work is really rooted in a very hyper- intensive, conceptual thinking. Conveying the concept is the key and the material is whatever comes suitable. But the more recent work since I moved here really dives into sculpture, mainly because of immigration.
So immigration processes have affected your work medium?
For the artist visa or artist green card, there’s a very intense requirement of productivity—you have to be extremely productive, extremely active. Because of that, it was almost impossible for me to dive into something that would take longer to create, like sculptures. I have been more productive than before, when I was sick.
You were sick while applying for your visa?
Right after I got out of grad school, I was doing curatorial work at a nonprofit in St. Louis and my own artwork at the same time. It was really overwhelming so my body just crashed and my immune system dropped. My last year in St. Louis, I contracted tuberculosis… almost died [chuckles]. At the time it was just like, “Oh, my immigration process is in limbo, and my physical health is in limbo.”
What was going through your mind during that period?
I think both illness and immigration are extremely alienating. I believe everyone who’s an immigrant in the United States has PTSD from this structural violence. It’s so dehumanizing. Your identity is ripped apart into your skin tone, your eye color, your nationality, your body, your organs, your symptoms, or any sort of those. At the back of my mind I knew I still had to keep creating and during that time I was only able to make videos.
You were still making videos during your treatment?
Yeah, I was in quarantine in a hospital for couple days and then the enforced quarantine regulated by state government proceeded at home. I could not leave. The nurse sent by state government assigned clinic would come every day to give me medication and observe me. It’s called Directly Observed Therapy (DOT) in TB treatment. I just lay in my bed and made videos. Since my body [was] rejecting the first line medicine, I was treated with chemo medicine, and the chemo medicine clogged my brain for five hours every day. I would look at the screen and then the subtitles wouldn’t go into my head so I can’t even watch TV. I had to beg my nurse to come at 8am so then I can be free at 2. If she comes later then I’ll lose the entire day and I’d go crazy.
So what does your family think about your life right now?
I’ve been on testosterone for six months now but just in small doses, mainly because I want to remove myself from the binary gender. I just want to be really unusual, like androgynous.
I took a photo of my t-gel and sent it to a group chat with my parents. And my mom was like, “Ugh, does it harm your body?” And my dad was like, “heart eye emoji.” I’m like, okay dad, way to go! You’re super supportive! I think my mom took it more personal than my father mainly because for her it’s like, “I gave birth to you. Why do you not like the body that I gave you?” But even before that my parents were extremely supportive. I came out to them when I was 14 and they have only been supportive, which is super rare in Taiwan then.
I notice that you almost always write very long titles and detailed descriptions for each of your pieces of art. Do you prefer that your art is perceived in a certain way?
You can definitely just look at the work as you like, but offering titles on my end is more about how I frame this. A lot of them are going into a fictional or poetic aspect, they are presenting emotions in an incident in a way. People will ask me, “What do you consider your audience? I think every time I make art, it’s for a beloved, so it’s either for my cats, my friends, my lover or my family.
My cats are so important to me. Their names are Puerto Rico and Istanbul. The two-headed dog I made in Dust Enforcer was actually a romantic gesture toward my cats. The reason behind it is, you know, TB bacteria are transmissible between humans and dogs. So if I had a dog I don’t think the dog could have gone through the treatment with me. The dog might need to be put down. And so fortunately I have two cats!
And cats are immune?
Yeah. The doctor was like, “Oh, you can have your kids with you.” That entire year I was in quarantine, they were my only emotional support.
Cole Lu is a participating artist in The Immigrant Artist Biennial 2020, Here Together.
Editor’s note, March 11: The original version of this post was corrected to more correctly characterize Cole Lu’s gender identity and period of time in quarantine. The answer to the seventh question was revised at the subject’s request because it added necessary context about the quarantining.