a Yang Fudong Retrospective at the Berkeley Art Museum

By Yi Shan Tan

What's going on?
Yang Fudong, a major Chinese filmmaker and photographer, was the subject of a major retrospective show at the Berkeley Art Museum last year. The exhibition presents an extensive collection of Yang’s works, spanning two decades, from 1993 to 2013. Though internationally renowned as a film artist, the exhibition covers a comprehensive range of his works in various mediums, such as mixed media, photographs, video art, and even books and catalogues from past exhibitions.

Famous in China’s contemporary art scene, Yang is known for creating works, particularly films that pose critical questions about life in contemporary Chinese society. In ways that might seem foreign to an American audience, Yang chooses to focus his artistic lenses on the lives of young urbanites in contemporary China. This is a unique generation, socially, historically and politically, as they are trapped between two radically different worlds. One is a life centered on tradition, while the other is glitzy, modern and steeped in consumerism. Faced with living in such a split culture, Yang’s young protagonists appear caught in a hazy mixture of hope, ambiguity and isolation.

Together and alone
Upon entering the gallery, one is greeted by a series of large sized photographs. Originally trained as a painter at the China Academy of Fine Arts, Yang, given his social and political concerns, eventually slipped into the art of photography and film. It’s easy to see traces of his early training. Despite their modern, highly atmospheric feel, Yang’s photographs, which are composed of shades of black and white, are visually reminiscent of Chinese literati painting of the seventeenth century.

As seen in the series of photographs, Don’t worry, It will be better, Yang’s protagonists are often styled and dressed like film stars from the golden age of Chinese cinema in the 1940s. However, rather than looking confident, as a movie star would, his models often look distanced and detached from feeling. From our view, this can be seen as an expression of deep uncertainty, and the dominant psychological state of many of China’s young generation. It’s hard to be glamorous when you live in constant change.

It is interesting to note that most of Yang’s artworks, such as his photographs and videos, tend to be rectilinear in terms of visual presentation, a shape that is clearly reminiscent of the camera’s mechanical eye. These rectangles remind us of Yang’s deep involvement in contemporary Chinese film and how the moving image is an apt metaphor for China’s rapidly transforming culture. While some of his images are static, others evoke constant motion. Yang’s video-art installations are a perfect blending of both elements. Projected on bulky old television screens, his video art appears to flicker through time, looping indefinitely from scene to scene, and switching back and forth from monochrome and color. Often displayed in sets of three screens, the videos appear to blink rhythmically to a surreal, almost dysfunctional rhythm. It is a tempo that feels like life in modern China.

“Tonight Moon” is a particularly memorable example. The viewer is faced with a series of seemingly unrelated video images that are playing simultaneously on a large screen surface. While the main screen shows a projected, colored video of visitors, swimming, walking and enjoying themselves in the famous “scholar garden” in Suzhou, six smaller LCD screens can also be seen displaying seemingly unrelated scenes in grey-scale. Upon closer inspection, one notices that the screen surface has rectangular holes cut into it. Each individual hole has been designed to act like a window or peephole that extends slightly beyond the main video. This creates a visual effect that is both fantastic and absurd. It feels as if we are being offered glimpses into different overlapping realities that are happening all at the same time.

Reality is multiple
The show is filled with pieces in mixed media, photo collages, books and catalogues from past exhibitions, all documenting urban Chinese life. Seeing artworks from such a wide range of different media can be a confusing experience. Personally, I feel that this is Yang’s intention. Rather than emphasizing a sense of continuity and stability, it feels as if we are being offered sporadic glimpses of a new reality or world, as seen through the artist’s photographic lenses. In this way, the artist Yang is not a stand in for the people, but a stand in for change. It is a fascinating aesthetic position that is artistic, political and anthropological all at once.

This feeling of discontinuity is emphasized by the curatorial choice to exhibit the work in four separate exhibition spaces instead of one big space. These spaces are accessible from each other by moving up a flight of steps, which is a nice metaphor for the uphill climb of Yang’s artistic career in the past two decades, as well as China’s climb to world super power.

What are they feeling?
While meandering through the multi-layered interior of the Berkeley museum, one may be gradually overcome with feelings of loss and uncertainty. Yang’s often employs indirect means to express his ideas, whether they are video art or photography. His work is often unclear in terms of content. Many of his videos, such as “After all I didn’t force you” and “City Light,” are highly atmospheric, poetic and tend to star central protagonists whose motivations are left largely unclear. With no direct answers on offer, viewers have to infer, puzzle over and ultimately attempt to make sense of the artist’s message amidst all the contrary images and statements. In other words, Yang appears to intentionally throw us into a state of confusion.

Yang Fudong "Estranged Paradise, Works 1993-2013" reflects, in the way that a singular work cannot, the sheer breadth of the artist’s vision as well as the vast scope of his subject. For all their surreal atmospheric imagery, Yang’s work appears to reach into a space beyond their collective temporal surfaces, penetrating directly into the conflicted realities of contemporary China.

Tell us of the future

©Yi Shan Tan and the CCA Arts Review

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