“Estranged Paradise” — the expansive mid-career survey of videos, video installations, photographs and films by contemporary Chinese artist Yang Fudong at the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive — is a compelling personal exploration of what it means to be young, or simply alive, in China today. Through still and moving images, Yang probes the condition of his fellow heirs to an ancient civilization that is transforming itself headlong from Maoist Communist collectivism into the capitalist, consumerist, rapidly urbanizing, still authoritarian country of his birth.
Co-organized by BAM adjunct curator Philippe Pirotte and curator Beatrix Ruf of the Kunsthalle Zurich in Switzerland, where it premiered earlier this year, “Estranged Paradise” brings to Berkeley one of the most influential figures in China’s contemporary art scene and independent cinema movement. Although not chronologically arranged, it offers a fascinating insight into the evolution of this brilliant artist, from his experimental early pieces to his more fully realized recent works.
Born in Beijing in 1971, now living and working in Shanghai, Yang is an international art star at the relatively young age of 42. Although he studied film-making, he was first trained as a painter; his work is deeply informed by classical Chinese painting and 20th-century European painters like Gerhard Richter, Francis Bacon, Anselm Kiefer and Lucien Freud. But Yang is above all a child of the movies. Whether in still photography, video or film, his work invariably plays with the legacies and languages of Eastern and Western cinema.
Yang’s staged photographs could be mistaken for film stills, momentary arrests of an enigmatic narrative, although they’re not. The best of them here — the black and white series titled “Ms. Huang at M Last Night” (2006) — reflect Yang’s immersion in film noir, both the Chinese Shanghai-centered noir movies of the 1930’s and ‘40’s and their Hollywood counterparts. They also resemble elegant faux paparazzi shots staged by a society photographer for an elite fashion magazine. (M is a trendy Shanghai nightclub.)
Here, the characters are a gorgeous young Chinese fashionista and her slightly too sharply dressed male companions — one apparently her boyfriend, the other perhaps her bodyguard, both conceivably gangsters — and a limo. The viewer can project various scenarios onto these images. What’s implied, though, is inauthenticity: the glossy trio seems to be acting out roles absorbed from popular media on how to behave as affluent consumers performing for an avid fan base.
Yang’s films and videos are dreamlike, nonlinear, a-temporal, poetic and visually ravishing. They can also be ambiguous, absurd, funny, and at times excruciatingly disturbing. Featuring long suspended sequences, fragmented narratives, and multiple story lines with inconclusive endings, they’re populated by beautiful young people who, like the characters in Alain Resnais’ 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad, wander abstractedly through carefully composed settings, in a surreal fever dream.
Yang may not have seen Marienbad, but he was deeply impressed by Jim Jarmusch’s deadpan, absurdist 1984 black and white indie comedy Stranger Than Paradise. In the Jarmusch film, a trio of Hungarian emigrés in New York drift aimlessly through drab interiors and environs in New York City, Cleveland, and an anonymous Florida suburb.
Yang’s luminous black and white film An Estranged Paradise (1997-2002), was partly inspired by Jarmusch’s opus and provided the title for this show. That film brought Yang international recognition when it was shown at Documenta IX in Germany in 2002. It focuses on the existential malaise of its male protagonist, the intellectual Zhuzi, whose disorientation mirrors the angst of contemporary Chinese society at large, uneasily juggling nostalgia for an ancient past, alienation in the present, and anxieties about the future. [An Estranged Paradise will be screened at BAM/PFA from November 13 - December 8.
In his 2001 short film (transferred to DVD) Backyard – Hey! Sun is Rising, Yang turns this unsettled, directionless condition into slapstick comedy. A subtle parody of post-Mao propaganda films extolling the freedoms of a new era, it follows four young men as they ramble unrestricted, with a deceptive air of purpose, through the public spaces of an unidentified city, brandishing swords and enacting vaguely remembered scenes from martial arts movies. Backyard – Hey! wryly skewers shiny Utopian visions like those in the 1979 movie Xiao Zi Bei (The Younger Generation) — a musical about young people bringing about workplace change — with echoes of Laurel and Hardy and The Three Stooges. (Watch a brief excerpt from Xiao Zi Bei.)
There’s no comedy, however, in East of Que Village (2007), one of the two large video installations that dominate the exhibition aesthetically, emotionally and conceptually. A radical departure from Yang’s usual poetic refinement, it’s grim and unsparing: an extreme example of what one writer terms the artist’s “bare, non-silken side”.
On six big screens encircling the gallery space, Yang projects images shot in HD video in and around his native village, a tiny isolated hamlet in rural Hebei Province in the northeast of China. Yang chose this desolate, hostile landscape, forbiddingly cold in winter, to stand in for what has happened to rural China as a result of enforced urbanization, with farming communities scattered and villages depopulated. Black and white lends Que Village the quality of gritty documentary; the absence of conventional narrative — no dramatic arc — suggests a social structure that’s disintegrating, going nowhere slowly, succumbing to inertia.
Humans are scarce in Que Village. Desperately poor, they scratch out a hardscrabble existence with no time or energy for much else. The land has been taken over by the central characters of this piece: a pack of starving wild dogs that wander the territory, fighting a desperate struggle for survival, often viciously and with each other. Viewers are surrounded by a series of moments in the bleak miserable lives of these once-domesticated creatures. Even though Yang claims that the dogs were “actors” hired expressly for his staged scenarios, it’s difficult to watch for long. By making dogs his protagonists, innocent witnesses and victims of a vast social upheaval, Yang creates indelible images of loss and suffering that translate all too easily into human terms.
Yang Fudong: The Fifth Night (rehearsal) 2010 (Digital still): digital video, sound; courtesy of the artist, courtesy ShanghART Gallery, Shanghai/Beijing/Singapore; and Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris/New York.
Yang has likened his video installations to Chinese narrative scroll paintings. In the seven-channel black-and-white video installation “The Fifth Night (Rehearsal),” (2010) Yang again envelops the viewer in a horizontal “scroll” of moving images, each shot simultaneously by stationary individual cameras on an outdoor set at night, and projected onto seven screens. Here, black and white is used to distance the scenario from ordinary time and space, while slow pacing and temporal ambiguity blur distinctions between what’s actual and what’s imaginary.
The title implies that we’re watching just one in an ongoing series of rehearsals that might be endless. Rehearsal for what? The action, such as it is, is low key and unfolds over 10 1/2 minutes. Unidentified male and female “characters” wander into each others’ spaces, apparently lost, yet remain oblivious to each other. There’s no dialogue, just ambient sounds and music, and no discernible story line. The sole dramatic incident is a simulated camera breakdown. You’re never sure where one scenario begins and another ends; they all bleed into each other. It’s an anti-drama drama, a non-film film. Yang as “auteur” is tightly in control of all this complicated choreography yet seemingly absent, directing the actors to enact directionlessness. Nothing much happens, yet it’s mesmerizing to watch, like a wordless “Waiting For Godot”.
With its focus on meditation rather than action, image and design over character and story, and mood and atmosphere over definable meanings, “The Fifth Night (Rehearsal)” recalls the cinematic vocabulary of the late film director Michelangelo Antonioni. Yang may also have been thinking of “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” the 1921 absurdist, meta-theatrical play by Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello in which six “unfinished” characters interrupt a play rehearsal to beg the director to complete their story on stage. In this meta-cinematic work as in the play, Yang‘s unmoored actors seem to be searching for roles to inhabit, stage directions to obey, and not finding them.
Unlike the overtly political work of his older compatriot, the artist Ai Wei Wei, who has served time in prison for his art’s confrontational criticism of the current Chinese regime, Yang’s questioning of the prevailing order is more oblique. His approach is about as far from political agit-prop as you can get. It is also, to my mind, more radical and profound: a deep probing of existential values with ramifications for Western democracies as well.
Yang insists that his art comes from his heart. Having spent time with his art, I believe it. Yang’s capacious heart is full of love for China, Chinese history and culture, Chinese youth. It is also full of moral anguish. His work is infused with a profound sense that essential Chinese values are devalued now: that China’s towering intellectual and artistic achievements (which he celebrates), previously suppressed under Mao, are threatened even more by the heedless drive to beat Western capitalism at its own game. In his heart, he is concerned that all those past treasures of intellect and imagination may be lost and that new ones may never reach the light of day.
Yang sees the dark side of China’s economic miracle and makes art out of that vision. His art is beautiful, contemporary, multi-layered, thought-provoking, sometimes funny, deeply sad, and very much his own. It embodies the highest form of resistance: the power of one person’s imagination and intellect to create new forms that are so emotionally compelling they unsettle the status quo and may even knock it sideways.