Yang Fudong has an exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum, which examines his films, including “Seven Intellectuals in
BERKELEY, Calif. — Imagine the central casting version of an avantgarde filmmaker from China. The clothing’s easy: the black jeans and Camper shoes worn on movie sets everywhere, topped by a baggy black T-shirt that commemorates some art-film production — why not “Permanent Vacation,” the scrappy feature that sent Jim Jarmusch on his way?
For the man inside those clothes, you could go full cliché: Give him the rounded body and face of a poet from an ancient Chinese scroll, with the requisite ponytail and straggly wisps of mustache and beard.
One recent morning, in a sunny office at the Berkeley Art Museum, the artist Yang Fudong came across as this Hollywood vision of himself, all brush-painted poet meets editing suite. Mr. Yang, a 41-year-old from Shanghai, makes arcane movies and video installations, mostly black and white and always plotless, that have won him the full retrospective — his first — at the museum here through Dec. 8.
He is known for using the illogic of European art film (think of Antonioni, Resnais or the later Fellini) to talk about how China’s traditions clash with its modern realities. His films feel like mash-ups of “Last Year at Marienbad,” a Shanghai film noir and a Ming dynasty brush painting, as assembled by a master of esoteric Buddhist verse.
“I was very taken with their beauty, and their complexity, and their ability to move one and engage one,” said Marian Goodman, Mr. Yang’s New York dealer, whose roster includes artists like Gerhard Richter and Jeff Wall.
In the late ‘90s, she got a look at the “hot” new painting out of China and said, “My God, this is not for me.” She had no intention of “putting a push on to get a Chinese artist,” she said, as other dealers were known to be doing. (“I wasn’t trying to be the United Nations.”) But when she discovered Mr. Yang’s film work, she said, she couldn’t resist.
The first piece she or anyone else would have seen was “An Estranged Paradise,” Mr. Yang’s earliest shot at filmmaking, which had its premiere at the 2002 Documenta, Germany’s great roundup of contemporary art. “Paradise” uses classic montage technique to track the romantic adventures and urban wanderings of its hypochondriac hero. Mr. Yang started shooting it in 1997, thanks to cash from a patron willing to take a chance on him — he was barely two years out of art school, he said, with hardly any knowledge of moviemaking — and completed the film with financing from Documenta.
That was followed by “Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest,” whose five installments were completed from 2003 to 2007 and received raves at two Venice Biennales. Riffing on an ancient legend about seven young culturati who retreat to a sylvan life of drinking and talk, Mr. Yang’s version follows the peregrinations of two lithe women and five welldressed men as they linger among classic Chinese landscapes, farmers’ fields and modern construction sites.
Other projects have taken in the drones of China’s office world, the bourgeois in their parks and the poor humans and poorer dogs of the Yangs’ ancestral village. (“The people who live there are documentary,” Mr. Yang said. “They’re just people who live there. But the dogs are more scripted, and we paid for them.”)
While Mr. Yang’s individual subjects are relatively clear, his larger meanings are hard to pin down. He refuses to help, offering at best a few cryptic insights. (Inscrutable, you’d call him, if the word weren’t off limits.)
He said he stands out from his sources in the Nouvelle Vague, because his version conveys an Eastern tradition in which meaning “cannot be spoken but is understood by the heart.” Or here he is on how his films borrow the look of 1940s Shanghai: “It’s a feeling of yesterday, but it’s actually tomorrow.” And then there’s his rejection of standard plot: “I think about how to tell a narrative by using not people speaking so much, but how the wind tells a narrative, or how trees tell a narrative.”
And Mr. Yang won’t play final authority on his films’ meaning. He thinks of each viewer as “a second director,” he said. “They engage with a film however they want to engage, and they can kind of edit it in their minds themselves.”
One notable second director might be Philippe Pirotte, the 41-year-old Belgian who organized the Berkeley show. Sitting in the museum’s outdoor cafe, he spoke about how Mr. Yang’s films resist the overwhelming consumerism of his country — maybe using the old tale of the Seven Sages to stand for a withdrawal from consumer culture as well as for the “radical disenchantment with the real” of his generation, as one scholar has put it. Mr. Pirotte writes in his catalog essay that Mr. Yang and his peers “have spent most of their formative years in a society in transformation, which has created lasting feelings of alienation.”
Mr. Yang grew up in a Beijing suburb in the relative isolation of military life — his father had something like a lieutenant’s rank — and said that he never felt the impact of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. There was no art of any kind around his home, he said, let alone anything risky. He only ended up at the China Academy of Art, in Hangzhou, because of a natural talent for drawing. Once there, he studied conventional oil painting, with forays into photography.
A taste for the avant-garde only came clear in his third year, when he began a threemonth “performance” that simply involved staying perfectly mute. Mr. Yang’s artful silence makes clear that, from the beginning, his version of rebellious creation would involve withdrawal.
Take, for instance, the listless meanderings and musings of Mr. Yang’s seven intellectuals, whom Mr. Pirotte says reflect the predicament of a real cultured class in contemporary China — possibly including figures like Mr. Yang himself — whose members have been sidelined. “They are supposed to use their brains to make money for the country,” Mr. Pirotte said, and those who don’t are left powerless.
Mr. Yang denies any such themes: “I’ve never thought of the connections between my films and the state of Chinese society or politics.” But it’s hard not to find parallels between the striking disjunctions in Mr. Yang’s storytelling and the disjointed state of being in China today.
Daisy Yiyou Wang, a 36-year-old specialist on Chinese art at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery in Washington, said she sees Mr. Yang’s fragmented art as deeply evocative of the fractures that she’s seen in her native China. “A lot of things he depicted in ‘Seven Intellectuals’ have a big impact on me,” she said, to the point that when she goes home, she feels as if she were stepping into a Yang film.
Ms. Wang also said she believed that Mr. Yang’s divagations and dislocations come from the strong ties he has to traditional Chinese art and language, which don’t demand the logical connections favored in the West.
If she’s right about Mr. Yang’s work, he is courting risks. Any notion of an essential and poetic Chinese-ness can easily come across as Orientalist cliché, playing into the hands of a Western art world on the lookout for the latest exotic, impenetrable product from the Mysterious East. Mr. Yang’s appeal to tradition can also justify a nostalgia that verges on sentiment, and a refusal to come to terms with the present.
In a scathing review in Art in America, the critic Ryan Holmberg described “Seven Intellectuals” as “deeply narcissistic, with the romantic Yang treating everything — from agricultural or industrial landscape and migrant labor to narrative structure and temporal duration — as reflections of him and his lot.”
In addition Mr. Yang’s reliance on the well-trodden poetics of spirituality and dreams can easily be seen as simple escapism.
But it could also be that Mr. Yang’s elliptical, spiritual vision doesn’t so much buy into an escape from reality as question the usefulness of notions of spirit. The incoherence of his narratives and the impotence of his heroes may flag weaknesses inherent in the otherworldly traditions they seem rooted in. Or, more directly, the disruptions in Mr.
Yang’s vision may signal that there’s simply no way to pull tidy art out of China’s current reality — that anything tidy would be complicit with the nation’s focus on the bottom line. “The ideal, utopia and paradise are like the moon in the sky,” Mr. Yang has said. “Some people let it hang up there in the sky. Some pull it down and hold it in their hands.” And some find they’ve lost all sight of it.