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Yang Fudong just finding his stride in BAM show

Author: Kenneth Baker 2013-08-23

"Yang Fudong: Estranged Paradise, Works, 1993-2013," the Shanghai artist's first "mid-career" retrospective, has come to the Berkeley Art Museum too soon - not for us, but for him.

Organized by BAM adjunct curator Philippe Pirotte, in conjunction with the Kunsthalle Zürich, "Yang Fudong" presents an artist, potentially a remarkable one, who has only begun to mature.

Yang has benefited - or suffered, depending on your point of view - from the world's fascination with the rise of post-Mao China, and from an impatient global art economy's pursuit of novel brands.

The retrospective includes staged photographs intended to express, sometimes with a comic or derisive edge, the uncertainty of young adults in China about how they ought to think and behave in an authoritarian mass culture reinventing itself on casino capitalist lines.

The most successful among these works are four black-and-white prints titled "Ms. Huang at M Last Night" (2006). They mimic paparazzo shots and evoke a rhyming of Shanghai's churning contemporary nightlife with that of the city's prerevolutionary modern past.

The early short film, presented as video, "Backyard - Hey! Sun Is Rising" (2001), foreshadows Yang's blooming as a cineaste. It mingles - and mangles - conventions of propaganda, martial arts epic and documentary expose, translating them into the lingua franca of slapstick.

Here the vision of people adrift from tradition and desperately unable to imagine a future receives zany expression.

But "Backyard - Hey!" impresses mainly by foreshadowing the brilliant sensitivity to moving image syntax evident in Yang's recent projected video works "East of Que Village" (2007) and "The Fifth Night (Rehearsal)" (2010).

Recent events on the American scene have given Yang's 2007 work new currency. Online news sites have taken note of a worsening symptom of Detroit's socioeconomic downward spiral: a dangerously exploding population of wild - mostly abandoned - dogs. "East of Que Village" makes it look as if Yang saw this devolution coming. A room-filling six-channel projection shot in HD video, it envelops the viewer in a grim vision of rural life gradually depopulated - and abandoned to feral, starveling dogs - by state-coerced urbanization.

Villagers make appearances here and there in "East of Que Village." What at first looks like an outdoor musical performance turns out to precede a funeral procession.

The glimpses we get of dusty fields being tended make a livelihood in this setting as hard to imagine as the deserted factory that reappears at points, haunted by roaming, fighting dogs.

A relentless alternation ensues between close-ups of dogs fighting or gnawing at carrion and long views of them skulking over lifeless terrain. The dogs' snarls and yelps sparsely take up much of the ensemble's soundtrack.

For all its bleakness, "East of Que Village" makes a powerful impression, even setting aside its connections with troubled social reality.

Yang studied filmmaking but seems to have learned most from watching Chinese prewar films and bootleg Western classics - without subtitles - including Jim Jarmusch's "Stranger Than Paradise" (1984), its title echoed in that of the retrospective and the feature-length film that Yang completed in 2002.

The exhibition, whose design does not respect chronology, culminates in the seven-channel video installation "The Fifth Night (Rehearsal)" (2010).

Here also, the viewer stands surrounded by large black-and-white projections of footage shot at night by seven cameras running simultaneously.

Void of dialogue, but vivid with incidental sounds, the action consists of men and women moving tentatively through outdoor sets.

The synchronized cameras seem to pass the makings of a narrative among themselves, behind the viewer's back. Cinematic space gets stitched together and unraveled repeatedly in different ways - including through simulated breakdown - during the 10 1/2-minute running time.

Cinema syntax gradually shows itself as the true protagonist and substance of this dazzling exercise, and Yang is on his way to mastery of it.

Yang Fudong: Estranged Paradise: Works, 1993-2013: Photographs, video and ephemera. Through Dec. 8. Berkeley Art Museum, 2626 Bancroft Way, Berkeley. (510) 642-0808.

Kenneth Baker is The San Francisco Chronicle's art critic. E-mail: Twitter: @kennethbakersf

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