OAKLAND, Calif. — That China is changing rapidly is a cliché wrapped in truth. It’s a cliché because it is uttered so frequently, but it is true because the details and nuances are often more staggering that the perception. Short of visiting the country, one of the most effective way to understand this change is through engagement with Chinese art and film. Lixin Fan’s Last Train Home comes to mind, as does Zhang Yimou’s Not One Less. These films attempt not to cover the vast expanse of the country but offer tiny windows of insight into a microcosm, and it’s through that microcosm that we get a glimpse of the bigger picture.
Now on view at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive is Estranged Paradise, Works 1993–2013, the first midcareer survey for Yang Fudong. Fudong is a filmmaker and new media artist from Beijing who currently lives in Shanghai, the country’s economic center and arguably its hub for new media art. Its collection of galleries includes some of his early works, including photos of his contribution to the seminal Fuck Off exhibition organized in 2000 by Ai Weiwei and and Feng Boyi; his multi-screen video installations, which occupy the entire space with a rich sound environment and meditative quality; his film noir-influence short video pieces; and a special series of screenings of his film influences in the theatre.
These shifts in scale offer an effective overview of Yang’s work, which speak to a generation after the Cultural Revolution, a tumultuous world less because of political upheavals and more because of economic ones. Shenjia Alley, Fairy, a triptych of young women lounging naked in an apartment in Shanghai could have been illegal in 2000, according to the wall texts, but it somehow captures the city’s historic mix as a realm of opium dens and its movement to becoming a town that hosts, among many things, a naked body painting party. His Forest Diary, on the other hand, represents an odd collage of young people amidst foliage, a riff perhaps on Chinese shanshui paintings that obscure the individual amidst the forest; in this case, however, the individuals are not tiny figures but actual portraits peeping through to the audience.
Yang completed his artistic studies in the 90’s, as the country pivoted to rapid economic development under Zhao Ziyand and Jiang Zemin. Film formed an apt medium for the times, both because of its newness and because film traditions served as a fitting output for the themes he explores. As curator Philippe Pirotte noted in his essay on the show, ” A Chinese society that is in the process of adjusting its consciousness to the material conditions of changing times with the exhilaration and the sense of promise in the new urban spatiality, form a predilection for Yang’s output and find an echo in the film noir obsession with the loss of communal bounds between individuals.”
In Honey (2003), Yang takes the film noir tropes of the femme fatale and men smoking cigarettes but deliberately never brings the film to a resolution. His Siemens “S10” (2003) consists of an odd array of actual Siemens employees zipping and unzipping custom-made uniforms to each other and dancing (er, hobbling) through the space. These short, intimate videos are set up as single screen viewing stations, with headphones available only for a single viewer. They read more like diaries than movies and though they were made before the rise of YouTube, they perfectly reflect the way we view so much film today.
By contrast, East of Que Village, a six-channel video installation that more overtly looks at the aftermath of the country’s changes. Because of the sheer size of the space and the fact that the videos surround the viewer, we can never quite see everything all at once. That this format is used to depict the end of traditional village life, with lone dogs and abandoned buildings, indicates an awareness on the artist’s part that this painful story can never be fully understood, even as it is told so well.
But it’s Yang’s absurdist works that most stand out to me. His Tonight Moon (2000) is a large projection onto a wall with 24 tiny LCD screens embedded in it, plus 3 television-sized monitors on fanning out on either end. The centerpiece is the scholars’ gardens of Suzhou, a second tier city an hour from Shanghai and a popular tourist destination today. Old men swim through the water while men in suits play in on the monitors through trees and boats. As you walk up to the projection, the full view blurs and you can see the tiny LCD screens, each of them clips from old Chinese movies. You want to make sense of it all, but you can’t, really, and something tells me that that’s the whole point.
Yang Fudong: Estranged Paradise, Works 1993–2013 continues at Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive (2626 Bancroft Way, Berkeley) through December 8th.
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