ACMI holds Yang Fudong’s first-ever survey exhibition in Australasia.
A major exhibition of Yang Fudong’s work provides an immersive experience into the artist’s lyrical and dreamlike repertoire. His artworks examine the dramatic transformations in China’s contemporary life, triggered by an era of profound and rapid economic growth and urbanisation.
Within its “China Up Close” special season on Chinese moving image art and cinema, Melbourne’s Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) launched “Yang Fudong: Filmscapes”, running from 4 December 2014 until 15 March 2015, before travelling to New Zealand’s Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.
The exhibition comprises four films and video installations, including a new video work co-commissioned by ACMI and the Auckland Art Gallery, and a special one-off screening of the artist’s acclaimed film-cycle Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest (2003-2007). All these works explore the life of young people in modern China.
In the press release, previous ACMI Director Tony Sweeney is quoted as saying:
Profound socio-economic change in China through enterprise and urbanisation has dramatically transformed Chinese contemporary life, and Yang Fudong’s lyrical and dreamlike works examine this transition through a lens that’s both powerful and accessible to audiences worldwide.
China’s prominent video artist
Having exhibited across continents in important institutions and events, Shanghai-based Yang Fudong (b. 1971, Beijing) is one of the most prominent moving image artists to emerge from China’s contemporary art scene in recent decades. He has cemented his reputation as a visionary whose lyrical, dreamlike works meditate on the dramatic changes in the life of China’s youth. His style is inspired and informed by film directors such as Jim Jarmusch, Jean Luc Godard, Federico Fellini and Jia Zhangke.
In the foreword to the exhibition catalogue, Sweeney and Auckland Art Gallery Director Rhana Devenport wrote:
Drawing stylistically on different periods in Chinese and Western cinema, Yang creates open-ended, existential narratives that interweave quotidian ritual with dream states. Using 35mm film and digital video to produce powerful works about the human condition, he teases audiences with new cultural visions that are at once utopian and nostalgic, sophisticated and obscure.
Painting abstract films
Yang refers to his art as “abstract cinema” and aims to “conjure up thoughts and emotions lying dormant in his viewers’ minds and souls.” With a background in painting, Yang considers filmmaking as “another brush”. As he tells the Wall Street Journal, “painting and filmmaking achieve the same end.” Yang transposes ideas taken from ancient Chinese painting into his video art.
Quoted in the press release, he says:
In ancient Chinese painting, there has always been an emphasis on liu bai – what’s left undrawn on the paper. For me, no matter whether I am making a video or a film, the same idea applies… The undrawn part in a work is there for audiences to engage with, using their imagination for viewing and interpretation.
As Ulanda Blair, Assistant Curator at ACMI and curator of the exhibition, points out in the catalogue essay, Yang’s moving image art relies on ‘gesture’. This is an element whose role the artist has elevated in his filmmaking since his first artwork – the performance of a three-month vow of silence.
Interrogating shared cultural histories through “slow, suspended sequences”, Yang employs gesture as a “vital narrative device”, writes Blair, and words become secondary. She quotes Yang in the essay as saying:
I think about how to tell a narrative, not through people speaking, but how the wind tells a narrative, or how the trees tell a narrative.
Gesture has the power to invoke audience empathy and imagination, as is evident in Yang’s films and videos.
The seven-channel video installation The Fifth Night (2010) captures seven pensive youths on separate cameras, filmed at the same moment, and presented in a continuous seven-screen installation like a Chinese scroll or a live-feed. Shot in the high-contrast lighting and lustrous black-and-white characteristic of Yang’s work, the characters wander through a plaza in 1930s Shanghai through an inconclusive, mysterious narrative rich in surrealist imagery, echoing film noir conventions.
The six-channel East of Que Village (2007) can be interpreted, as Blair writes, as “an allegory of life and the fine line between civilisation and savagery”. It references the impact of industrialisation and urbanisation on rural communities. Filmed in a faux-documentary style, a pack of wild dogs are scavenging in an arid and desolate landscape in Northern China.
The grainy black-and-white photography and the naturalistic soundtrack, reminiscent of Sixth Generation Chinese filmmakers like Jia Zhangke and Zhang Yuan, reinforce the work’s “documentary realist sense of immediacy and brutality”.
In Yejiang / The Nightman Cometh (2011), past and present, reality and fantasy have begun to blur through imagery rich in filmic, artistic and literary references. A wounded soldier questions his path in life as the narrative unfolds with the appearance of three ghost-like figures that represent his inner suffering, romanticism and regret.
The newly commissioned five-channel video installation The Coloured Sky: New Women II (2014) marks a new turn in Yang’s practice as he forgoes his signature 35mm black-and-white film for high definition colour digital video. As Blair writes, the work “examines the secret dreams and anxieties of contemporary young women.”
The work departs from the classical references of his New Women (2013) and turns the camera on a more vivid and intimate relationship with three young women as they pose on a beach behind Technicolour-tinted glass. References of female sexuality and the illusion of intimacy become obvious.
His acclaimed film cycle Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest (2003-2007) was screened at ACMI on 14 December 2014, marking the first time the work was shown in its entirety in one single event.
The film takes inspiration from an ancient legend about seven literati who retreated to forest life during the Wei and Jin Dynasties, and translates it into the peregrinations of two modern women and five men lingering among classic Chinese landscapes, farmers’ fields and modern construction sites.
Four of Yang Fudong’s works spanning his entire career are also on show at the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Singapore, marking the artist’s first major exhibition in Southeast Asia. The exhibition is entitled “Yang Fudong: Incidental Scripts” (12 December 2014 – 1 March 2015).
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
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