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Yang Fudong, the Foreigner and the Search for Poetic Truth

Author: Marcella Beccaria Translator: Marguerite Shore 2006

"Thus, between two languages, your realm is silence. By dint of saying things in various ways, one just as trite as the other, just as approximate, one ends up no longer saying them." According to Julia Kristeva, silence irrevocably accompanies the foreigner who, separated from his or her country of origin, is squeezed, as if in a vise, between two languages. But as Kristeva understands it, the foreigner inhabits every human being, and the encounter with the other, or rather the enigma of one's true self, presents the same difficulties as for one who is living in an unfamiliar land.

Three months of silence: Yang Fudong's first work was a performance created during his third year of art school, in 1993, during which the artist forced himself to eliminate all oral communication. A strenuous exercise in self-limitation, the work emerged from a desire to engage in other forms of art, at a time when the artist was studying painting, a technique he then considered his primary focus. "I remained silent for three months," the artist recalls, "and for me it was an experience that was not only artistic, but extremely decisive. In three months you realize how much things change around you and you have a chance to construct your personality, your inner state, compared to everything that changes every day, including the way others see and feel." An action that is negation, the title Elsewhere indicates the search for a place, another dimension, a direction for an introspective journey. If this work can be understood as an introduction to works the artist created in subsequent years, the return from this symbolic voyage implies a distance and a new encounter, or clash, with reality.

A subtle existential discomfort and the difficult relationship with contingent reality are the conditions shared by the protagonists in Yang Fudong's subsequent works in film, video, and photography. Men and women in their twenties and thirties, the characters investigated by the artist's eye belong to a generation that still shoulders the burden of choosing and defining its future. The setting that contextualizes their actions is China, sometimes poetically transfigured by the artist into a place outside time, at other times recognizable as contemporary China, the new economic giant that has entered the global culture of consumerism. Born in Tong County, in a rural area near Beijing, Yang Fudong majored in painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, now recognized as one of the best schools in the country for multimedia technologies. Without formal training, in 1997 he began shooting his first film, Mosheng Tiantang / Estranged Paradise, and after moving to Shanghai in 1998, he finished the film post-production in 2002. While not expressly autobiographical, the film is tied to the artist's personal history and is set in Hangzhou, a city where contemporaneity and tradition still coexist. A place often described in Chinese culture as "paradise" because of its wealth of picturesque settings, for centuries Hangzhou has been a source of inspiration for painters and poets. Blind to such beauty, Zheng ChunZi, the protagonist in the film, idles away his days, despite the attentions of his fiancée and his friendship with another young women. Concerned about the constant fatigue that afflicts him, the man attempts to detect its origin. Numerous visits to doctors in the hospital offer no help and they fail to diagnose any illness. From his behavior it emerges that his malaise is really a paralyzing boredom, an existential melancholy that estranges him and prevents him from maintaining any true relationship with everyday existence. His inactivity contrasts with the fleeting view of another man who appears intermittently and is filmed while he howls and moves about restlessly. While the man may be insane, unlike Zheng ChunZi, he is capable of showing his reactions to life, even when these take the form of rage.

Dominated by long sequences and picturesque shots – a lesson on the compositional principles of Chinese painting functions as a prologue – the film is shot in black and white and is characterized by soft lighting, which the artist also adopts in subsequent films. Looking back over his work, Yang Fudong cites the influence of Chinese cinema from the ‘30s and ‘40s, films such as Street Angels, 1937, or Spring Time in a Small Village, 1948. Estranged Paradise also seems to reveal interesting correspondences with nouvelle vague cinema, but the artist claims that this is an indirect coincidence, due to both recollection of brief fragments, rather than specific plots, and reviews he read about films he only imagined. An expression of a human condition that, Western literature, from Saint Augustine to Baudelaire, Flaubert, Svevo and Sartre, has labeled XX ennui, spleen, or boredom, Estranged Paradise is a poetic analysis set in contemporary China. "What I wrote in the screenplay," Yang Fudong says, "is somewhat the feeling I seemed to see in the people who were around me during the period I spent in Hangzhou. They were people with whom I had studied and who, about to finish their studies, found themselves facing real life and therefore having to decide what to do, whether to work their entire lives or do something else. Suddenly it seemed that, faced with reality, they might lose the grand schemes they had had before." "The protagonist," the artist continues, "represents precisely this aspect that I saw in my young contemporaries, this incapacity to bring things to resolution, to act, to create something."

The series of photographs Don't Worry It Will be Better (2000) and Di yi ge zhi shi fen zi / The First Intellectual, 2000, represent two subsequent expressions of this theme. There is an abrupt change from the rarified atmosphere of Estranged Paradise, but Yang Fudong's work is always characterized by his ability to use different styles, bringing out the distinctive qualities of the medium employed. Both series are distinguished by a direct allusion to the language of advertising. In Don't worry It will be Better the protagonists are four young men and a woman, photographed inside a contemporary dwelling (high rise building apartment). Good looking and elegant, they seem to embody the self-confidence of the new middle class that is driving the heated Chinese economy. However each image is supplemented by English words, forming a title; positioned against a red background, the words introduce a dissonant element. The expression of an idea that would otherwise remain hidden behind safe manners and behaviors, the phrase expresses a sense of uneasiness and becomes a commentary on the present moment portrayed in each image. In one image, shot from above in the apartment, the group looks out over the city. Deliberately cut out from the field of the image, but potentially reflected in the young people's eyes, one can imagine the aggressive verticality of Shanghai's new skyscrapers, the noisy cacophony of construction sites, and the intense activity of a city in a state of constant growth. The difficult relationship with the city is also the subtext of the triptych The First Intellectual. A representation of a wounded office worker, the series describes different moments of a defensive action by a man who, armed with a brick, is attempting to hurl it. Shanghai is seen in the background, not described but present, like the aggressor the man would like to attack. According to the artist, "the protagonist of this work is a man who has been assaulted. He would like to fight back, but there is no target for him to strike." Lost in the very society that has shaped him, the man is portrayed by Yang Fudong in the middle of a road, alone and distraught.

"I feel like a foreigner in Shanghai and it's as if I'm trying to make things happen in a context where there are political pressures that might get in the way. Like all of us, I'm a bit like that 'first intellectual'… One wants to accomplish big things, but in the end it does not happen. Every educated Chinese person is very ambitious, and obviously there are obstacles coming either from society or from inside oneself. The 'first intellectual' doesn't know if the problem stems from him or society." On numerous occasions, the artist has described his complex relationship with the city in which he has chosen to live, expressing his alienation from the urban context, observing that his uneasiness also seems palpable in many of his fellow-citizens. "The feeling of the city," he states with regard to Shanghai, "is precisely the feeling of these legions of people, leaving in their own dreams." Perhaps this is the city in the world that has grown more rapidly in the last decade; in a celebrated speech to the nation in 1992, Deng Xiaoping described Shanghai as a laboratory for launching China into the new millennium. A city open to consumerism, Shanghai is the place where China is developing its own capitalistic model, mirrored in the expanse of futuristic skyscrapers that distinguish the Pudong area. The current population of nine million inhabitants is destined to grow, as is the middle class, the white-collar segment that makes up a numerically significant portion of the city's labor force. In the video City Light, 2000, Yang Fudong also turns his attention to this new social class, creating a portrait marked by surreal irony. Punctuated by the sound of traditional Chinese music, the video's protagonists are two men dressed as white-collar office workers, clones of each other, or perhaps the same person cut in two. Shot against the backdrop of the city, an apartment, or an office located in a skyscraper, the two walk about, act out a chase, pass an umbrella back and forth, or dance. This is their day, probably preceded and followed by other identical days. Their actions, occasionally devoid of logic, almost comical, and suspended between dream and nightmare, seem to interpret the psychological effects that the urban context has on its inhabitants, the schizophrenia that afflicts individuals. Symbolically, at the end of the video one of the two men takes aim with his pistol. Edited with the effect of an abrupt juxtaposition, the next scene shows one of the city's numerous noisy construction sites.

Fragmented editing and a predilection for non-linear narrative are recurring elements in the artist's films and videos. These technical choices correspond to his intention to develop works that are open to differing interpretations. Earlier, in the aforementioned Estranged Paradise, Yang Fudong positions in sequence a shot of the protagonist about to plunge into a river and swim, followed by an image of the man training in a swimming pool. Thoughts and dreams cannot be distinguished from reality: does Zheng ChunZi awaken from his lethargy and go back to swimming outdoors, or is he only dreaming of recovering his lost courage, preferring, instead, the security of the swimming pool? "According to me," the artist observes, "there are no finished films. I made this first film of mine exactly as I conceived it. The ending leaves open many possible directions." In the film Backyard, Hey Sun is rising, 2001, four men dressed in the uniform of the Cultural Revolution seem engaged in battle exercises, perhaps not unlike those seen by the artist during his childhood, when he followed after his soldier father. However the excitement of the gestures of the group has no recognizable purpose and seems empty of meaning. The men appear to be a legacy from another era, characters out of a comic strip set in the past. Again, in the video Honey, 2001, the protagonist stages multiple identities through continuous changes of clothing. Around her, some men meet, play cards, and smoke, weaving a conspiracy that is never described. Yang Fudong seems to be quoting sequences from detective films, or from TV series, and, like characters in a videogame, the protagonists of these works are obliged to act, but they seem deprived of the ability to reflect on their actions. In certain works, Yang Fudong exploits the potential of electronic media, multiplying the installation on several channels. In works such as Tonight Moon, 2000, or Su Xiao xiao, 2001, the saturation of the exhibition space immerses the viewers in an experience that is visual, auditory, and almost tactile. Progressing to the use of twenty-four channels, in Tonight Moon the artist recreates the experience of an oriental garden, heightening the contrast between luxuriant vegetation and the presence of men dressed for the office.

In the works described thus far, the presence of many narrative planes corresponds to the artist's intentional search for multiple meanings, for a positive ambiguity meant to stimulate various interpretive levels. With its open musings on contemporary China and the great changes its centuries-old civilization is undergoing, Yang Fudong's work poses numerous questions, without offering the banal certainty of answers. "It seems as if the younger generation has lost its ideals. I try mot to make judgments about it, but in my work I go in search of what is left of them," the artist has stated. Like a large epic saga, the project Zhu lin qui xian / Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest, sets out to investigate the anxieties of that generation through five films. "The idea of the project," the artist says, "emerged between 2001 and 2002. I wanted to set my story in the contemporary world and I wanted the protagonists to be young. My intention was to give expression to their thoughts, their feelings, to try to understand their expectations for the future." The first part, completed in 2003, takes place on Huang Shan Mountain (Yellow Mountain), a well-known site in Chinese painting and a popular tourist destination today. Enveloped in mist, the mountain described by Yang Fudong is a mysterious place, whose landscape of rocks, trees, vistas, and cliffs represents a romantic equivalent to the tormented state of mind of the film's protagonists. In non-linear fashion, the film describes the ascent of the mountain by a group of young people, two women and five men. In the initial scene, the figures are seen nude, striking iconic poses, seated on the rocks. Their nudity, and element that has no place in the Chinese pictorial tradition, can be interpreted as a new beginning, a moment of spiritual rebirth and purification. Other elements in the film – the black and white blurry images, the outdated outfits, the absence of verbal exchanges – combine to emphasize a search for detachment from the contingent reality.

The film is characterized by the movie camera's slow movements. Made up of drum beats and breaths, the musical accompaniment stresses the dramatic nature of certain frames of the landscape and the intense close-ups of the protagonists. Occasionally each of the young people becomes the narrating voice. Their sparse and carefully measured words, suspended between childhood memories, anxiety about the present, and future aspirations, correspond to each character's flow of thoughts. Intentionally lacking in specificity, the present described by Yang Fudong is difficult to place historically, and instead there is a stress on the universal value of the quest undertaken by the group. "This film," according to the artist, "is atemporal. The protagonists wear clothes from the 1940s, a bit like certain photos of French intellectuals that I remember having seen on book covers. The language they use, instead, is contemporary Chinese. I want to leave a certain ambiguity, since every era has its young people." To western eyes, the temporal immobility of the film recalls Giorgione's painting The Three Philosophers, with its impossible encounter in a mysterious landscape. And the event to which Yang Fudong's title directly refers exists suspended between history and legend. Because of its political implications, the history of the seven wise men was a frequent subject of commissions in ancient Chinese painting; it refers to a group of scholars, rebellious artists and poets, who, according to tradition, rejected the lessons of Confucianism, which taught that public commitment allowed the attainment of virtue. Choosing to not belong to the bureaucratic elite, the men prefer to lead a secluded life, cultivating their own individuality. Taking refuge in the bamboo forest, following the way of the Tao, they spent their days devoting themselves to the art of conversation and to poetry and music, appreciating the pleasures of food and wine.

After the excursion to Yellow Mountain, in the second part of Yang Fudong's film, completed in 2004 and again shot in black and white, the scene shifts to the interior of an urban apartment. The vastness of outdoor horizons is replaced by the intimacy of domestic walls. Once again the film begins with a metaphorical image, a new entry into the world by two of the protagonists, who are filmed while they awoken, breathless, from a long sleep. Inside the house, each follows his own introspective quest. Love and sex, symbolic rites of passage from one age to another, are important components of the journey. Alternating with moments of silence, pieces of dialogue punctuate the passage of the days. "In the third part," the artist explains, regarding to the film he is working on now, "the group leaves for the countryside. The trip is made in an ox-drawn cart. In the country, the young people live as peasants. As on farms, they cultivate the land and tend the animals, for which they develop some feeling. In their free time they read; their days alternate between reading and the typical concerns of rural life. Love stories also emerge and unfold within this context." "Country life," Yang Fudong continues, "offers the protagonists experiences that they do not know. The cruelty of the countryside is different from that of the city. For example, the ox they have used to till the fields grows old. According to the logic of rural life, when an animal no longer has the strength to work, it is killed. This scene is a crucial moment in the film. Against their will, the protagonists acquire a new awareness, a different view of the rural world." In the fourth part of the film, the artist plans for the young people to go to live on an island, before finally returning to the city. "In the common imagination," Yang Fudong explains, "the island corresponds to a model of utopian life, and this is why I want to set the fourth part there." The fifth film, concluding the series, will feature a return to civilization. The artist anticipates that "the context will be a city, a contemporary place. The atmosphere will be positive, in keeping with the free and open life that the protagonists will lead. Happy, the young people will have no memory of what happened before, over the course of the four other films. Theirs will be a life without memory, they will recall nothing of the experiences undergone in the four previous episodes."

Although it is still being worked on, the entire five-part film project conceived by Yang Fudong is being heralded as an important moment of reflection on contemporary China and on the impact that the radical changes underway have on individuals and on their search for a role and an identity. "What I do," he has stated, "I do it for China." Yang Fudong belongs to the generation of artists who have chosen to live in their country, benefiting from a renewed cultural opening and contributing with their work to the transformations that are taking place. An awareness of having a role to play is pan integral part of his artistic reflection. "What an artist seeks to do," he says, "is to work on himself, diligently, carefully, even laboriously, so that his work might have some effect. According to me, what is happening today with regard to society is the great change that one sees and perceives in various forms. This transformation relates to the mental attitude of people, the many changes in their way of thinking and their ideology. Numerous factors come into play, which first of all concern the loss of traditional values and also how much tradition simply represents. In this sense there is a loss. At the same time, the arrival and assertion of the new is sometimes a sort of an existence all to oneself, an existence that doesn't have much meaning. What is lost is also the idea of living together, a collective advancement in search of a better way of life." It ends up being clear that the strong contrast between the contemporary context of certain works and the atemporal suspension that characterizes others can be seen as an interpretation of contemporary China, a country that over the last ten years has undergone changes that western culture took fifty years to metabolize. Thus as portraits of the young generation that is getting ready to ferry their country into the new millennium, Yang Fudong's works also raise important issues about the complex relationship with the recent past. "Many young people, I am referring above all to the generation subsequent to mine," he says, "first of all do not take the past into consideration at all. Moreover they don't even need to forget it since they don't know it."

At odds with this sense of oblivion, but bearing in mind the urgency of working on the present, one can see in Yang Fudong's work allusions to figures from Chinese tradition, mingled with elements of popular wisdom. These sorts of elements characterize works such as Jiaer and Waiting, 2005, two of his more recent video installations. Shot in 2002, Jiaer's Livestock was re-edited by the artist for his exhibition at Castello di Rivoli, where it also was installed in a new form. The installation involves two connecting spaces, with a video projecting inside each of them. The context and characters in the two videos are identical; amid the lush tea fields in southern China, a man arrives from the city, perhaps a scholar on the run. Tired and disoriented, the man has only a heavy suitcase. A tea picker is at work, as is a peasant with a retarded comrade. In the first video, projected in the first space, the peasant assaults the city man, drowning him in the stream where he was washing. With the complicity of the other peasant, he buries the man's body, but an argument breaks out between the two, causing both their deaths. The tea picker gets possession of the suitcase and its contents. In the second video, the two peasants save the city man, warming him and feeding him. Ungrateful, the man kills them. The double story staged by Yang Fudong is rooted in two popular Chinese tales. "The story of two insects and a little sparrow is the source of the first video; a mantis stalks a locust, but doesn't notice a little bird, waiting in ambush, ready to eat it. The moral is that there is always someone bigger behind you. The source of the second video is a story of a peasant who saves a snake during the winter. To shelter it from the cold, he clasps it close to him, under his clothing. In exchange, once it awakens from its torpor, the snake thanks him with a fatal bite."

Western culture also has not dissimilar versions of both stories, in terms of plot and moral significance. "I have staged two different versions of similar stories," Yang Fudong says. "There could be numerous other possible versions. It is a bit like when one takes a road that opens up in many different directions; depending on the road chosen, different things will occur. Another way of interpreting the work is that the same reality can have two versions. At school they taught me that the same person cannot simultaneously enter two different rivers, with one foot in one river and one in the other. This means that in life too, one solution excludes another."

One might need to see each of the two versions several times before fully understanding the sequence of the narrated events, without dialogue and punctuated only by ambient noises and the sudden cry of one of the two peasants. The work is installed in a way that invites the public's expectations, creating a slight disorientation, due particularly to the duplication of the exhibition space, apparently repeated in two identical forms. Each of the two rooms, in addition to the projection, contains a display case with a suitcase, identical to the one that appears in the videos. In turn, each suitcase contains several monitors, which transmit, in a continuous loop, other fragments of the stories. In the two projections, many frames are similar, if not identical, but choosing to follow one of the two stories excludes the possibility of seeing the other. Finally, in the credits at the end of both versions, the four characters, laughing, alternate playing the roles of victim and the fortunate possessor of the suitcase. It is impossible not to question the sequence and logic of the observed facts. Jiaer is thus above all an investigation of the idea of narrative, of the fragmentation of multiple levels of interpretation, and an investigation imbued with the positive value of ambiguity of meaning.

The Revival of the Snake, 2005, also features simultaneous narrative levels. The installation takes the form of a double video projection surrounded by ten plasma screens. Conceived for the spaces of Castello di Rivoli, the work is the story of a young soldier, a deserter, and it describes certain moments in his struggle for survival. One plasma screen shows sequences of the man, blindfolded and on horseback, tied to the saddle, transported without being able to guide where he is going; meanwhile another screen shows his image while, in a desperate search for water, he attempts to break the frozen surface of a lake. Or the soldier walks on the steppe, or hopefully scrutinizes the horizon while clinging to a tree. In three other frames the young soldier furtively watches a funeral procession. The images at the center of the room contrast a nocturnal and a daytime scene. On the one hand the man is seen at night, warming himself at the fire and eating game he has caught; on the other hand the young man is shot while kneeling and then collapsing on the ice, his skin deathly pale.

Along with the soldier, the other main protagonist of the work is the landscape, shot by the artist with cinematographic expanse. The images embrace the desolation of the steppe, conveying the cold winter sun, while the score, written specifically for the piece by Wang Wei, underscores the emotional nature of certain moments. As is often the case in Yang Fudong's work, actions and inactivity have equal weight, for it is during moments of apparent stasis that the psychological analysis of the character is most intense.

Once again, the atemporal dimension is crucial, which the artist develops for the work through story details, editing, and installation. It is difficult to define the precise historical context within which the event unfolds. The impression is that it takes place in a sort of historical present, a time worthy of a tale already experienced but destined to be repeated in accordance with an inevitable cyclicity. Stranger in a hostile land, the soldier does not speak a word or make a sound; as in Yang Fudong's first performance, the only possible verbal dimension is silence. In his alternation between optimism and sense of tragedy, the soldier's odyssey is worthy of a grand epic novel, but it becomes clear that the artist is not focusing on a specific outcome, positive or negative. Instead, here, as in most of his works discussed here, Yang Fudong expresses his methodology for searching for a poetic truth where the negation of logic and emphasis on alienation and distance enable him to transmit the complexity of his relationship with the real world.

Marcella Beccaria
(Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.)

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