An Interview on The Nightman Cometh
On March 11-12, 2012, Yang Fudong and Li Zhenhua continued their ongoing discussion
of the artist’s recent work. Translated from Chinese by Ying Liu.
LZ : In order to discuss The Nightman Cometh with depth, we might want to start by
talking about The Fifth Night. The Fifth Night is a multi-channel installation – a more
concrete theatrical attempt built upon your previous Dawn Mist, Separation Faith, which
created a fête-like viewing experience and also played with the idea of synchronization.
However, The Nightman Cometh is different – we can almost see the shadow of your
much earlier work, Backyard – Hey! Sun is Rising. Of course it is more theatrical, and
the different time periods are intermixed. The snow scene, in particular, is almost
horrifying due to its extreme quietness. Those spotted deer and the gliding eagle take the
audience out of reality and into a space where historical references converge. So I would
really like to know where you took your inspiration from, and how you account for
returning to the short film format, as well as utilizing a fantasy-rooted style.
YF : When a film focuses on space, it tends to emphasize the art of how to “be seen” in an
exhibit. From Dawn Mist, Separation Faith (2009), to The Fifth Night (2010), to One half
of August (2011), these are creations that were presented with such an intention
embedded within the work, while The Nightman Cometh is apt to highlight the
“disappearing” part of things by utilizing drawn sketches and random video
documentation. As for the reason for returning to the short film format, it is because I
hope to make “film paintings”, or so-called film “sketches” to metaphorically represent
the imaginary space which results from the perception of an artwork. The footage
recorded from a monitor that was attached to a shooting camera took place during the
production, which supplements discussion and the viewing experience. In a similar case,
The Fifth Night, Part II also contains lots of “preview” segments. The viewer might find
it interesting to see traces of “previews,” and this is something I would like to keep
working with in the future. Now come back to The Nightman Cometh, this 20-minute
film – its narrative has something to do with what I refer to as “hint film” that we have
discussed before. A kind of narrative that would hint at things in order to express what
words cannot communicate. And how to represent it in an independent movie, with
elements such as narrative-contained imageries, actors, sets, and even something literary?
It became the focus of my experiments during the production. Even though The Nightman
Cometh looks like a period piece, I would consider it as a “neorealistic” approach. A
meditative one. And it is only the feeling in the film that has to do with “neorealism”
because in fact it questions contemporary reality as well as societal ideology.
LZ: You mentioned historical references, neorealism, as well as literary elements. So,
what part of your experience drove you to shoot a baron in an ancient battlefield or an
intellectual in post 1900s Shanghai, instead of setting it up with a contemporary cityscape
as the backdrop, like what you did in Backyard – Hey! Sun is Rising?
YF: The Nightman Cometh gives such an impression of an old classical narration, not so
much by recounting historical events, but in how it depicts contemporary reality through
the lens of history. It brings up modern and current concerns through the subconscious by
asking certain questions. There is a baron. There are characters and plotlines. There
seems to be reenactment of stories or situations that took place hundreds of years ago,
however, it makes no effort to recover history. Rather, its goal is to transport a sense of
history and to create room for introspection into one’s subconscious reality.
LZ As for you, does such reality truly exist?
YF It seems rather pointless to focus on whether such reality is the truth or whether the
truth truly exists. In The Nightman Cometh, it is more crucial to pay attention when the
soldier or warrior reaches a moment where he has to decide whether he should disappear
or keep fighting when the night falls. Along with trying to retain his last hope, those
things mean more to me than depicting “truth” or “reality.”
LZ The Nightman Cometh is more than just a video art piece. Besides the cinematic space
you created, you also incorporated paintings and footage recorded off the monitor. I
wonder if you can elaborate on the relationship between image created on set and the set
uncovered by the monitor. Remember how we briefly talked about using paintings and
playback video during your production, and how it resembles the process of
archeological discoveries? Such additions seem to inform what is captured in your
images by adding elements of the present tense, which is also marked by the past tense.
There are connections not only in terms of aesthetics and relativity, but also in terms of
the time continuum.
YF By utilizing documentary footage, I hope to confuse the line between the set and
reality and thus to create a sense of mistake (or departure from the principal
part/element). Can it be counted as part of the film, for example, what appears on the
monitor or rises from my subconsciousness during the shoot? How about the realistic
documentary section? Does this constitute a “time film” segment in The Nightman
LZ Can you talk about how your paintings function in relation to the whole setup of the
YF Besides a short film, The Nightman Cometh also comprises eight oil paintings. The
individuality of each of them is emphasized. Some stories in the whole piece are told
through those images. That is also why I call them “sketch films,” because they give a
sense of incompletion, and the rest of the “editing” is to be done in the viewer’s
consciousness. It is not unusual that film narrative is achieved through editing a series of
shots into a sequence. So to some extent, the “montage” going from one painting to
another can be more interesting, although they must be produced with the fundamental
idea of film in mind, or say, under the direction of the “director.” When I paint, I don't
want to make something that is academic or absolutely painterly. What I care about more
is to create a particular atmosphere and texture that has a handmade feel, as well as a
narrative generated from painting-to-painting montage. The medium of oil on canvas or
the quality of painterliness does not interest me much. The connections among those
paintings could help render what I call “imagination film.” The images that ended up in
the gallery were painted when the short was close to being completed. They make an alternative version of the film part of The Nightman Cometh.
LZ : There are those animals and birds in the images you created. Besides references to
relationships between human beings and animals in contemporary culture, I was
wondering if it also implies certain intellectual spirits that exist in Chinese tradition. Take
the scene with the woman and deer for example. It can be done in painting. But I
imagine it being problematic to show the eagle gliding off in the same way immediately
after its gaze meets a man. Such contrast does not only reveal technical advantages in
video art, but also in a way reveals what painting is capable of. One of the most important
parameters of action is time, yet it seems almost impossible to convey that in painting. I
hope to hear you elaborate on the different states of time appearing in the human-animal
relationships you depicted, and how those shifts and transitions were made from
“painting time” (2D paintings) to “film time” (action captured on moving image), and
vice versa. To me, both scenes above, the one with goddess and deer and the other with
man and bird, share painterly qualities. But it seems that the moment of the latter could
only be captured with a camera.
YF: A lot of mediums and forms are applied in art making for the sake of expression. They
seem drastically different but some may actually serve the same purpose. A film made
by an artist is not a reason for being superior to other alternative means of expression.
On the same token, something created by an artist doesn’t necessarily make it
experimental. In The Nightman Cometh, eagle, deer and related scenes are symbolic and
emotional. It was shot conventionally, as far as utilizing common film language and
method of representation go, but it succeeds in bring life to objects. Even as an artist, I
don't shy away from standards or tradition. I don’t think they would make my work
conservative. On the contrary, it is my way of conveying my ideas by taking advantage of
them, and turning them into a foundation upon which my work could thrive.
For example, the gliding eagle in The Nightman Cometh, is not merely a metaphor for
impact, power and braveness, but it also signifies desolation. The deer family is loving,
but where they are is cold and snowy, which foreshadows their miserable future with no
food prospect. Such imagery also implies sadness. Communicating emotions through
objects is not unusual in Chinese paintings history. Sometimes, applying familiar
technique can be most effective in some cases.
Occasionally you would see films that have only one take that is also static. So why can’t
the take be a physical painting that we call “painting film”? To explore the backstory in a
painting is kind of like making out what’s inside or outside a film frame. In my
experience with film, characters and animals are usually set up to serve some narrative
functions. Man, woman or even ghosts inevitably carry some symbolic meanings; seeing
deer may make you think about warmth and happiness, while struggle and fight might
come to your mind as witnessing an eagle. Wild chicken or little birds on rocks are likely
to bring back memory of some ancient paintings because they are common subjects for
traditional Chinese painters.
LZ: Animals in your work do make me think of traditional Chinese painting. But what is
interesting is that you live in the modern time and received mostly western oil painting
education. So spiritually, when it comes to treating animals in your work, do you stand
closer with the Chinese painting tradition or the western?
YF When I made a decision to include animals in The Nightman Cometh, what you were
asking wasn’t really my concern. It would have more to do with my background,
experience, education and knowledge. For instance, I wouldn’t raise the subject of the
eagle to an academic level. I prefer it to remain on a universal level so that everyone can
respond to some its qualities in some way: violence, sharpness, encouragement,
generosity, solitude, tragedy, etc. Further, by placing it in various weather conditions, it
might trigger other associations and emotions. Meanings are given to an eagle by itself
already, but depending on the context that’s given, it can mean something very different.
It can even alter the atmosphere. In this particular piece, the viewer experiences such
changes in different part of the film throughout. This is what I referred to as “hint film”.
What’s more interesting is not how it looks but what it can stir up inside the audience’s
mind as they feel the picture. Each as an individual. The work leaves room for
imagination and also encourages it.
LZ What are you implying with the baron (someone hurt) and the male in a white suit
(someone lost in his search) in The Nightman Cometh? Especially when it is set against a
gloomy, sleeting day, on a snow-covered ancient battlefield filled with artificial hills and
rocks. Does it have to anything to do with your ongoing attempt in search for a spiritual
YF “Neorealism” is a kind of history theater where current and contemporary societal
conditions come to play. Who exists in reality, the baron in his period costume or the
ghost in a modern outfit? When the ancient battlefield scene and other historical events
appear and reappear, where do they belong, in the past, the present or the night-falling
future? How impossible it seems to make up your mind, when there is no easy answer to
get from the narration! It is getting dark. The soldier or the warrior has to decide whether
to disappear/escape (die) or to continue fighting, which of course might lead to the same
fate – death. There is hope nonetheless. The body is essential, yet the soul is more
precious still. It is the spirit which backs him up in life. How should we live our lives
now? How do we identify ourselves with neorealistic historical events and continue to
search for spiritual meanings? What do we really want?
LZ What will you do? Fight back or disappear?
YF To resist or to give up. At this moment, the truth is not important in the context of
neorealism. I will keep searching for hope.
Two or Three Things about The Nightman Cometh
When making Dawn Mist, Separation Faith (2009), Yang Fudong sought a film
form that would allow the viewer to construct and make associations freely. The work
features a total of nine scenes entirely inspired by classical film plots. From romance to
Kung Fu, they are connected in terms of aesthetics and the attribute of time. As the artist
has described in the past, repetition occurs constantly throughout the piece while
adjustments are made to certain variables, creating limitations with respect to aesthetic
choices. This helps to expose the logic in time in all chosen sequences, in order to
naturally reveal beauty in imperfection, surprises from abrupt bloopers, and a kind of
penetration into the truth. Such an aesthetic paradox fosters added dimensionality to the
piece. The presence of the camera, the film, and the projectionist creates multiple spatial
relationships. Together with the exhibition space, they create a range of spaces for the
work to occupy. They resemble stage, back stage, projection booth, etc. Hence, the
viewer does not simply remain in their seat, but also acts on the stage and observes from
the position of an outsider or even a projectionist. When the audience is able to roam
freely in this manner, wearing multiple hats, it calls attention to the production process
and ways of seeing, and the film is refreshed.
The Fifth Night, Part 1 (2011) was first exhibited at the ShanghART Gallery in
Shanghai. Compared to Dawn Mist, Separation Faith, The Fifth Night, Part 1 has a more
apparent agenda which deals with the aspect of time. In this piece, time in a theatrical
sense is brought to the foreground, which, on the other hand, rules out the possibility of
indeterminate interaction with the viewer. It returns to the method of auteur film: the
experience of time is multi-layered, but it is derived from only one person’s perspective.
Seven cameras are put in motion simultaneously to record a story in which characters,
scenes and plots interact in a common space and time. Yang dealt with seven
complicated, outreaching perspectives and merged them into a parallel, yet expansive,
visual experience. Meanwhile, the imagery of these seven screens forms a unified
narrative that flows naturally in time. Distinct from Dawn Mist, Separation Faith or even
the earlier No Snow on the Broken Bridge (2006), The Fifth Night, Part 1, though
captured in a seemingly simplistic fashion, has a sophisticated shooting plan in which the
experiences of theater and 360-degree painting converge. Similar to the process of
revealing scrolls in Chinese painting, the film makes the viewer anxious about what is
going to happen next. The difference, however, is that the film does not dictate a
particular order in which it must be viewed. It can work going from left to right or from
right to left. In this sense, it evokes the Western tradition of 360-degree panorama
paintings; any point of focus can be the starting point for seeing, and the point of
departure does not affect the overall narrative of the image.
One half of August (2011) is Yang’s experiment inspired by architecture and
visual space, in which he attempts to challenge the limitations of visual experience. He
does so by projecting videos from his Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest series onto
buildings and architectural models and reshooting the projected images. A sense of
theater is achieved through such a gesture. Meanwhile, scenes from the original films and
the re-production of them together bring attention to the core architectural qualities of
those buildings and models.
On some level, we can distinguish Yang’s creative shifts and changes from the
experiments in his work since 2009 which are discussed above. He is best known for his
An Estranged Paradise (1997-2002), Backyard – Hey! Sun is Rising (2001), and Seven
Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest series (2003-2007). However, in more recent years, he
has applied his experience working in shorts to making feature-length pictures. He now
works in a range of formats from regular film, to video art, to art film, all of which clash
with convention; it is in this context that we should consider his more recent endeavors.
Since 2009, Yang’s work has been increasingly theatrical. His artistic evolution
over the past couple of years almost makes us forget the characteristics and themes of his
earlier work. There are some scenes in The Nightman Cometh (2011) that are shot
entirely in a studio, and they make strange and unexpected departures from reality. Such
a renewed style appears to be alienating to some people who are more familiar with
Yang’s early work. They have an idea of his old approaches, and so they may overlook
some external interventions outside of the image frame. Take the monitor playback
footage and hand-made painting for example. In a continuous exhibition space, they serve
the purpose of keeping the work in touch with an external passing of time – a “present
tense” that is added to the overall piece. As Yang puts it, the paintings “make an
alternative version of the film part of The Nightman Cometh.”
The Nightman Cometh is not a gesture to return to the short film format, nor does
it resemble any of his other practices after 2009. His goal remains the same, however – to
overcome the limitations and confinement that normally surround a video artist. The
effort is made evident through the theme of the intellectual’s spiritual life, along with the
artist’s use of narration, metaphor, and complexity in imagery and time.
One might argue that there are allegories in The Nightman Cometh, but Yang may
disagree. He probably didn’t expect to make a fable film; however, the title gives it away.
It’s getting dark soon. Both you and I are ghosts in a fantastical reality.