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Chinese Intellectuals in Yang Fudong's Work–a Western View (Excerpts)

Author: Elisabeth Slavkoff 2005

Imagine a group of seven young and stylish people wandering in the misty mountain landscape of Huangshan. Hear a voice - over lamenting, 'I'm destined to lose him. Our constellations do not match.'

Consider a fashionable city youth and a country girl in a traditional fishing boat on a reed-fringed lake sadly in love. Listen to the popular tune of the Chinese folk song Liu Lan: '... tears in eyes flowing like pearls, in the light of sunset, the Liulan girl stands still on the boat.'

Watch two people in love on the beach, in a beach buggy, on a white horse. Turn around the screen and see them struggling for survival on a shipwrecked raft in the rolling sea. Listen to the sentimental music of Jing Wang played by solo musicians elegantly dressed in Western clothes on rocks against the rolling Yellow Sea.

These and other films and videos by the Chinese artist Yang Fudong: Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest, Part 1 (2003, black and white film in 35mm), Liu Lan (2003, 35mm transferred to DVD) and Close to the Sea (2004, 10-screen video installation) are presented in the circuit of international shows like Dokumenta XI, the 50thVenice Biennial, the Liverpool Biennial , or in exhibitions like Time Zones: Recent Film and Video at Tate Modern. Yang Fudong's works have also become known as part of group exhibitions of Chinese artists like Alors la Chine? (Paris Centre Pompidou, 2003) and China Now (2004, New York, MoMA, Gramercy Theatre) or, more specifically of Shanghai artists, like Camera/Yingshi (Paris 2003), Light as Fuck, Shanghai Assemblage 2000-2004 (Oslo 2004) and Shanghai Modern (Munich 2004/2005).

If today China's intellectuals have become marginalized, they nevertheless negotiate an autonomous space. In this point the western analysis of Evasdottir talking about "autonomy" and the Chinese analysis, much influenced by Western concepts like Gramscis 'civil society' or Habermas 'public space' concur. Sheldon Hsiao Peng sees the potential to enlarge 'the autonomous critical public space constituted by critical journals , avant garde literary works, art exhibits, academia and the classroom in some institutions of higher education which in the late nineties became enclaves of free thinking'. Stephen Wright also mentions the Internet as an opportunity to open up a new public space, 'promoting pluralism and strengthening civil society' an opportunity which, as Western observers are quick to point out, is limited. Nevertheless Yang Fudong's art is discussed vividly on his website in China.

In the West reception of Yang Fudong's art is enthusiastic since, similar to other non - Western artists, this young artist works at a level of intensity and engagement rarely found in the more comfortable and settled societies of the West. The Guardian's art critic, Adrian Searle, a painter himself, praised Close to the Sea as the only truly major work of the Liverpool Biennial. "Totally engaging, mysterious and full of memorable images and music, this moved me." In the US, David Bonetti judged the Seven Intellectuals as a "breathtakingly beautiful" and "gorgeous" work". Similarly Tony Godfrey in Burlington considers that Close to the Sea has what most works lacked at the Liverpool event: "a profound excitement over the sensuous possibilities of its chosen medium."

If at first sight Western viewers tend to emphasize the beauty and sensual appeal of Yang Fudong's work, a Chinese critic has a somewhat different perception focussing more on the troubling elements. For example, Yao Yuan draws the viewer's attention to the sense of tension inherent in Yang Fudong's work. A tension born of antagonism towards the modernized city and towards the everyday life. And indeed, there are signifiers, like the sad text of hopeless love, a folk song about departure, the plaintive instrumental music which all point to a sense of estrangement and uncertainty. Once the viewer has been made aware of this alternative view, he will identify more elements of disturbance: like the overacting of the amateur actors, which create a sphere of irreality... Or Western solo instruments played by musicians standing on rocks by the sea and alluding to a Greek chorus in the sense of Brechtian theatre and its distancing effect on the viewer. Or the grand installation of Close to the Sea on ten screens in a darkened room which made it –in my eyes- the strongest and most convincing work of the Liverpool Biennial but at the same time created a power relation of the artist dominating the viewer.

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