Yang Fudong: Estranged Paradise, Works 1993-2013
Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive
August 21 – December 8, 2013
As the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive is the first U.S. institution to present an encompassing, mid-career survey of Chinese artist Yang Fudong, some may be unfamiliar with his work. The most common interpretations of Yang is that his video installations and various photo series, often featuring young, snazzy looking Chinese men and women, (presumably contemporaries of the artist), ultimately depict the unstable nature of youth culture in China today. This, it is often said by critics and curators alike, directly reflects the country’s transitions from its roots in Communism to a flourishing, consumerist-driven, urban center. Though it is clear that Yang is often pushing the antagonistic relationship between old and new ways of life where Chinese traditions are concerned, having the opportunity to view so much of his work all at once for the first time imparts far less of a dichotomy. Approaching Yang’s work with such a specific transformation from Communism to Capitalism, (albeit a form of “authoritarian capitalism” as it is often referred to), in mind, would thus reveal a distinct break from China’s past. However Yang renders contemporary China as a pastiche, excerpting imagery and techniques as diverse as film noir on the one hand and the contemplative tradition of Chinese gardens on the other.
Clearly Yang videos and photos afford Western audiences a perspective on China that comes directly from the source, but perhaps at times we as outsiders over-extend the political implications behind some of the works of artists, and particularly Chinese artists such as Yang. It is possible that in our search for revelations about the country and its complex trajectory, despite the artists consistent statements that his work is explicitly not political, we may overlook some of the nuances of Yang’s captivating aesthetic and the unique ways in which he ties together his personal influences. In his visual juxtapositions, Yang, regardless of his ethnicity, is not unlike many other artists, bloggers, Tumblr’s and Pinterest participants all over the world, picking and choosing what speaks to them from throughout history and re-contextualizing it into their own reality. This is not to deemphasize the importance of this incredible body of work that BAM presents. On the contrary, this exhibition celebrates precisely the delicate specificity with which Yang crafts his elaborate video installations and photographs. One such alluring installation, Tonight Moon (2000), includes twenty-four small LCD screens embedded into one large, projected image with three additional monitors on either side. Tonight Moon is set in the famous scholars’ gardens in Suzhou. Yang splices together footage of performers carrying out mundane, jovial behavior in the gardens, such as young men chasing peacocks and couples canoodling, with more questionable acts that include older men in makeshift bathing suits mimicking the motions of swimming while laying on woven mats. Through its frenzy of screens and motion wherein activities, both endearing and peculiar, take place, we see that at its core Yang’s work relates to the confusion produced by changes in life, society and traditions that are inherent to all places in the world, and therefore do not necessarily need to be contextualized by the drastic shifts taking place today in China in order to impact viewers in meaningful ways.
Drastically different from works like Tonight Moon, but nonetheless relatable, is Yang’s harrowing black and white, six-channel video installation, East of Que Village (2007). Training his lens primarily on skeletal, starving dogs in the desolate and dusty village with intermittent scenes of country folk wrapped in scarves and puffy coats, East of Que Village meditates on the most trying of environments that continue to exist beyond the fringes of the bustling metropolitan cities where most of Yang’s work is set. This disparity between the poverty of the country and the booming economy of the city is here distinctly Chinese, though it blatantly exists everywhere. Again, we as viewers are familiar with such difficult imagery from other documentary films shot in countries around the world as well as within the U.S. and the strain of those portrayed is no more or less heart wrenching despite their location.
Yang carves out some of the most challenging to capture aspects of fleeting human life, skewed to reflect ways in which Chinese urbanites’ lives are at once similar and at the same time unfamiliar to foreigners peering into the windows he creates. To read his work as strictly pertaining to China could possibly lead one to miss some of the expressions or gestures of his characters that make his images at once humanizing and fantastical. While we can use the imminent changes in Chinese culture and politics as an underlying reference point for his work, Yang Fudong: An Estranged Paradise teaches us more about this particular artists’ sensitivity to color, framing, composition and human behavior. While he branches out into various subject matter over the twenty-year practice that this exhibition spans, his aesthetic and commitment to depicting the fragility and awkwardness of life through a signature, cinematic style is apparent. In this way, again Yang shows us something that is strangely familiar and yet at the same time remains excitingly brand new.
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-Contributed by Courtney Malick