(TEXT by Numero 32, Sep. Issue 2013, all rights reserved to author.)
Yang Fudong On "New Women"
by Lu Jing
Yang Fudong's new installation work "New Women" feature five women with their hair tied in buns and made-up resembling early Chinese film stars, but they are no longer fragile women from the 1930s "old east- meets-new-west" films. The performers are dressed in different styles that suggest different times; they look mature and charming, collected yet innocent, and stare at different directions with emotions looming in the eyes. This is a tribute to nascent Chinese films; it's also a depiction of the perfect woman image in every person's heart.
In June this year, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Committee organized "A Century of Chinese Cinema", a major film retrospective of over 80 titles and onstage sessions of Chinese cinemas from the Mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan. A contemporary art exhibition, led by TIFF's Noah Cowan and Shanghai-based curator Davide Quadrio was an important part of the whole event, in which well-known artist Yang Fudong introduced his latest work "New Women" (five-screen video installation 2013).
Yang Fudong is one of the leading Chinese contemporary visual artists, and master program instructor ar the School of Intermedia Art of the China Academy of Art, and frequently travels between Hangzhou and Shanghai. On a midsummer's day, he and I sit down in the lobby of Shanghai New World hotel to have a conversation about his latest exhibition "New Women", which was screened in Toronto, as well as insights gained from teaching at the China Academy of Art.
Numero: What kind of opportunity prompted you leave the video game development company you previously worked for?
Yang Fudong: I started to make my first film "Estranged Paradise" after graduation; it was finished in 1997. Due to lack of funding, it had to cease. I was working for a Shanghai-based French video game company at the beginning of 1998. My real idea was that I can get paid while learning computer skills; it allowed me the opportunity to polish myself. I had only been thinking about art and filming prior to that, and hadn't got a chance to exercise other abilities; I was too idealistic. Through working I realized it's not easy to make a living, and at the same time I learned a lot. Those three years of attitude adjustment was a good experience. The only thing was that my mind was still on art.
Can you talk about the general process from conceiving an idea till you start shooting? Do you have a fixed cast crew?
Assuming this month I am going to shoot a project, so it certainly is not an idea that just came out today or last week. It should be a decision made after a period of reflection, fermenting and refining. After a period of consideration, if you st.ill have nagging thoughts about it, then it's about time to get to work. I don't have a fixed cast crew for each film, but there is a general direction. For example, there is a frameset for using filmstrips, and another set of rules for digital filming, as for the choice of collaborators and camera crew. The choice is not always the same. The photographer of "New Women" is Zhou Shuhao. We had worked together on "Fifth Night", and also on Prada's "First Spring" in 2010. He also collaborated with me in movies like "The Piano in a Factory".
"Out of context" is an attribute of the media you use, through a fragmented approach to present ideas of coincidence, moments that are "relative" and "incidental" in real life, all of which are reminiscent of "infinite loop in a moment" or countless possibilities of the future. What is your opinion?
Moments of uncertainty and incidents are also regarded as destiny. It involves God's decision; it's a bit idealistic, but it's also deeply ingrained in the change of each person's life. People often ask me why I shoot in black and white. Black and white stands for time, and a distance that's impossible to be determined. This allows you to inspect the film; there is another hypocritical argument, black and white is actually very rich in color.
Can you briefly talk about your new installation work "New Women" commissioned by the Toronto event?
"A Century of Chinese Cinema" is a comprehensive film festival; it feels like a tribute to China. I saw some of the nascent classic movies at the show, such as "Spring in a Small Town" as well as works of Jia Zhangke, and some of the Taiwan and Hong Kong movies. I attended the exhibition as a part that connects film and contemporary art. Each September, the Toronto International Film Festival hosted by the sponsor is a thriving event in North America. Many Hollywood films have premiered there.
Many your works contain female images, so what has inspired you to choose "New Women" as your latest theme? Does it have something to do with cinema culture of the 1920s and 1930s?
1930s movies are mostly storytelling, focused on the dark side of the society and the fate of small potatoes. The same goes for contemporary movies, but the latter produces different types of industrial image products, and all for the purpose to consume our feelings. Artists are not exactly the same; they are more of text authors and philosophers, and they don't deliberately create entertainment products. "New Women" subject-wise, is a tribute to nascent Chinese cinema. In addition, the "New Women" is the depiction of the perfect woman image in each person's heart. I also regard it as an ideal lifestyle, which is different to reality. Therefore, "New Women" also implies an idealistic state.
How did you find these five performers for "New Women"?
I relied mostly on first impressions. The role selection for "New Women" faced an awkward situation; it involves nudity. No commercial actress or local young actress would want to participate; it's regarded as a "stain" and will affect their future career development. This is quite normal, and I understand their concerns. So I hoped to find more like-minded people who are interested in art projects. Out of the five performers, two are great Shanghai independent dancers: Ling Xi and NuNu. We hit it right off. I hold greatest respect for them; I had a female assistant director, and clear the set before each shooting. Independent dancers have a strong sense of posture, so the implementation went really well.
What's the difference between your films and commercial films?
Commercial film follows an agenda; it has detailed plans and arrangements, where and how to shoot, who will present, and everything is clear.
When we shoot there's more uncertainty, which takes some improvising and making decisions on-the-spot, so it requires five performers to present at once. Some expensive props may have been rented for three days and remain unused. We hired total of five performers, in addition to cast, and there's a crew of probably around 40 people, with some changes. When shooting "Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest I", we had only 10 people and seven were actors, we carried the camera to shoot along Huangshan, and walked all the way from Xihai Great Canyon to the Greeting Pine. I can still remember vividly that stir-fried potatoes and vegetables on the mountain cost 70 RMB a plate. It used to feel like utopia. I carried the camera, and the rest crew helped with the tripod, and the props.
So most of us really miss the time filming "Bamboo Forest I", and by the time we got to "Bamboo Forest V"，we had more people and five dining tables, so I naturally sat at the director's table. Filming can be tough labor sometimes, when shoot "New Women", I get off at 6pm each day and head straight to bed, with an alarm set for 6am the next day to catch a taxi, because people go to work at 7am.
Last year, you attended the promotional event of Sharjah Biennial at Minsheng Art Museum, and they screened some of your clips. Can you tell us about the shooting of "Push the Door Softly and Walk In, or Just Stay Standing Where You Are"? Will you exhibit the work in China in the future?
I am not sure yet. The courtyard conveys the feeling as the heart of a home, or a home of the heart. I used black and white to shoot Sharjah, and color to shoot Alhambra. The Sharjah section contains a lot of religious life; they have a short history, and have only been around for 70 years since the establishment of the United Arab Emirates.
They also don't have many ancient structures; most houses are piled up with soil and stones, for absorbing heat. The work consists of a total of 16 screens; the title is an illustration of my attitude at the time. Our comprehension of Middle East and Arab are mostly based on impression through texts. In fact, it's still strange.
The title reflects such an attitude, a bit like when you go to a strange place, and if you see a temple, it would always leave you the impression of mystery and uncertainty. So are you going in or not? It's a door between two worlds, and a decision of a second. I don't consider it as a documentary; I want everyone to set up their own visual text. So I invited Jin Wang to make two soundtracks, one with the computer, but it sounds like Arabic musical instruments, which also mixed in the sound of Jinghu for a little strangeness.
How is the poetry printed on your work's wall label associated with the work?
"It seems so real
A distant and intimate world
Heat in the air
Someone is singing tenderly
Stood there quietly
Despite the wind
Took its past
Everything is so much alike
Like a dream
Push the door softly and walk in
Or just stay standing where you are"
This poem feels like a second person's narrative. The act of pushing the door softly; walking in or out is a free state with an open view of the surroundings. The poem serves as a subtitle of the work. It's like seeing an exhibition in different methods, such as this poem printed on the work's label. The wall displaying space of "New Women" was relatively empty, so I posted a paragraph, and it became a literal scene: "She gently stood up, and the wind disheveled her hair; she bent over and picked up the handkerchief dropped on the floor, dabbed off sweat from her forehead, when a beam of sunshine cast on the opposite wall, and light flicking." In fact, the texts imitate Eileen Chang's work a little, of an ambiguous picture.
Can you tell us about your collaboration with Prada?
It was my first international production experience, and it taught me lot. We met as five teams: my creative team, the creative team from the United Kingdom; they brought a post-production team, the Milan design team, as well as a specialist Beijing team to coordinate. That air scene was shot in a rush, and we gathered at 5am to get all the hanging wires in place, and started to film at 3pm, right after we finished testing all of the safety features as there was no way we could shoot after dark. In the leading role was Geng Le, a graduate from China Academy of Art. I also learned the meaning of "world premiere". Their promotions were omnipresent; it was really well done.
Can you talk about the teaching at China Academy and at the "experimental image studio"?
Since the formation of Intermedia Art department at China Academy of Art, it became divided into several studios, and "experimental image studio" is one of them. A while ago, we worked on a project "one grain theater" regarding understanding of poetry; the first week lecture was over self-performance and poetry understanding, to select favorite poems and perform the poems on stage. The first step of filming is participation, followed by group discussion. The second week, they teamed up to shoot a three to five minute indoor video, to give explanation of the poems. They made great progress each week and by the fourth week, we held an outdoor theater. In May, we held an exhibition at imagination space (JNBY) sponsored by Geng Jianyi. Starting from the poetry theater, our studio set up a "Puliou Award", I am the one to come up with the idea.
"Puliou" is the espresso cafe across street from the school. 10 students get to openly elect out the best creation with a short speech, which their feel is the best and second best, and of course the winners get two cups of coffee. I usually pre-order three cups, since it is often a juxtaposed situation. This year's third grade has just finished an award ceremony a few days ago, with regard to their "multiple perspectives training", on making MTV, public service ads, and news.
What advice do you have for the young generation?
At school you have to withstand solitude, learn to protect your work, and don't upload them online. Just two days ago, I was invited to the graduation goodbye party, and I was surprised they want to drink tea instead of singing karaoke, but I felt happy, because the tea table topic was called "imagine the future".