Leo Deng ’21 Explores the Intersection Between Art and Philosophy

On a makeshift stage, a costumed figure periodically pours rice pudding onto Leo Deng ’21, who twists his body in accordance with the accompanying beats of a thumping rock tune. Produced in the Fall Term, the video of this absurdist artwork is Deng’s first piece of performance art, “Expensive Humanity.”

“[This piece] served as a social criticism of materialism and consumerism in a Western capitalist society, where I made fun of people who drank expensive glass bottled water, critiquing why we need to buy such expensive water [and] value these very arbitrary things in an existential manner. The character that I was acting out was dancing and losing his rationality in the very loud blaring music in order to tell the audience that they have to wake up, in some sense,” said Deng.

Since his first still-life class in the third grade, Deng transformed his technical foundation into tools for abstract and conceptual art. Deng’s Lower year philosophy course, “Faith and Doubt,” ignited his interest in the subject. Delving deeper into the topic has enabled philosophical concepts, such as existentialism, to emerge as recurring themes in his artwork.  

“The biggest passions of my life are art and philosophy, and I love combining them. Every piece of artwork I create starts with a concept first, then the visuals. [They] each deal with different themes and issues, [and] most of the time, I address them more implicitly,” said Deng.

In the Fall Term, Deng created an installation in his basement with a teddy bear hanging on a noose, with a mess of excerpts of fascist writing, random junk, and instruments scattered around. According to Deng, the project spoke to the danger of subjectivism.

“[I enjoy] portraying certain messages to people in very extreme ways. I like creating very abstract and loud or eye-catching compositions that people don’t usually see. I want to surprise [and] shock people, make them think about political, cultural, or social constructs, norms, issues, or anything that impacts more people than just me, and make them think about whatever I’m trying to discuss in a respective piece,” said Deng.

According to his friend, Harry Chanpaiboonrat ’21, Deng’s love for philosophy is evident in the complexity of his artwork. In contrast with artists who largely focus on artificial aesthetics, Chanpaiboonrat noted that the underlying themes in Deng’s artwork push his viewers. 

“[Deng] is a philosophical artist. He is not scared to disagree with people, to be controversial, and to [defy] the norms or the status quo of what people think art should be. For him, art is limitless. That is really powerful, because it gives him the ability to convey what he wants in whichever way he wants,” said Chanpaiboorat.

This motto has already motivated Deng to produce various pieces that pertain to this mindset in his portfolio. Immersed in this ultimate ideal balance of philosophy and art, Deng will continue exploring the intersection by applying for an independent project in the Spring.

“I indulge in emotions or even just thoughts and feelings in ways that used to be very uncomfortable for me. I tried to embrace that discomfort as much as possible in order to make my art what it is… To me, art is not about the aesthetic. It’s always about the idea. Art is just self-expression without any constraints,” said Deng.