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Yang Fudong, “Ms. Huang at M. Last Night” (2006) (all images courtesy Berkeley Art Museum)

BERKELEY, Calif. — Yang Fudong is known to chronicle contemporary China’s affluent and disaffected urban youth in atmospheric works that evoke Shanghai cinema of the 1930s golden age. Yang’s attractive, fashionable characters appeal to both Chinese and international audiences because they represent a new China free from the tropes of downtrodden peasant and loyal Communist. Yet the fuller picture of Yang’s artistry demonstrated by Yang Fudong: Estranged Paradise, Works 1993-2013 at the Berkeley Art Museum reveals that his interests are remarkably complex and international. Whether by design or intuition, Yang’s imagery suggests parallels in today’s China with pivotal moments in the history of European modern art and social movements. Like the French Impressionists, he describes an urban landscape reshaped by industrialization, the emergence of a wealthy leisure class, and the loss of traditions. Like the Situationists, he suggests that a future is only possible if social norms are overturned.

China’s rapid modernization since the 1990s is reflected in Yang’s early works. Aesthetically, he draws from two main influences: 1960s Communist propaganda films and 1990s print advertisements. Don’t Worry, It Will Be Better (2000) is the first to present Yang’s signature urban young adults. In these large-scale color prints, several young men and a young woman meander about a hotel room. Impossibly beautiful and well-dressed, they cluster listlessly. A confident smile, the cocky jut of a man’s chin, or a comforting arm around a girlfriend’s shoulder recall Renoir’s Parisian youth gathered in romantic leisure scenes. However, the awkwardness and the skewed gender ratio invoke China’s sex-selective population control, growing sex industry, and stagnant political oligarchy. As such, Yang appears to hover between Renoir’s optimism and Manet’s social critique.

Yang Fudong: Estranged Paradise, Works 1993–2013 INstalltion at the Berkeley Art Museum,2013

Yang Fudong, “Tonight Moon” (2000)

Another work from this period dovetails Chinese concerns with the radical politics of the 20th century. “The First Intellectual” (2000) presents a lone man dressed in a suit and glasses. He is bloodied and his clothes are torn. He stands in a wide Beijing avenue, a brick in one hand, a briefcase in the other. The city skyline appears to recede from the empty street. He looks in vain for someone to attack as revenge. Yang has said that the First Intellectual “doesn’t know if the problem stems from himself or society.” This is the crisis of any contemporary revolutionary. Yang’s image contrasts with René Viénet’s 1973 Situationist film, “Can Dialectics Break Bricks?” in which the French filmmaker appropriated a Chinese action film to critique the stagnation of a European socialist political class mired in bureaucracy, hierarchy, and protocol. Inversely, post-Mao China embraces a capitalist society of the spectacle, yet the same political stagnation persists. The brick in the First Intellectual’s hand is a Situationist weapon — the city repurposed. Still, his revolution stalls while he struggles with his own implication in the system he seeks to destroy.

In “Tonight Moon” (2000), a group of young intellectuals passively act out the pursuits of the emerging Chinese leisure class. Like the Impressionists’ bourgeoisie, today’s affluent Chinese enjoy unprecedented prosperity, working less and playing more. The park where Yang’s characters rigidly perform their class status is modeled on European examples of the picturesque, in which wild nature is presented under strictly controlled conditions, and human domination over landscape is total. Tourism of this sort has historically been a civilian manifestation of Imperialism, paralleling military and economic forays far afield. Chinese elites’ embrace of Western tourist modes such as boating on artificial lakes and walking through manicured wilderness is symptomatic of China’s neo-colonial role in the 21st century.

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Yang Fudong, “International Hotel” (2010)

Though families appear in the landscape of pleasure, the protagonists of “Tonight Moon” are all male. Meanwhile, women’s roles in Chinese society play out in the adjacent work “Shenjia Alley, Fairy” (2000). Here Yang considers the underside of China’s new desire for consumption. The partially undressed women who languish here are reminiscent of the Rococo Odalisques of François Boucher. Like their French counterparts, these idealized beauties seek pleasure from within the confines of a gilded cage. They may be prostitutes, plying a trade that is increasingly widespread in contemporary China. Yet the commodification of women is hardly limited to sex work, as even affluent women must negotiate a social milieu in which their prospects hinge on appearance and the cultivation of male fantasy. Yang articulates this eloquently in the photographic series International Hotel (2010) and Ms. Huang at M Last Night (2006), both of which present beauty as a prerequisite to privilege for young women. The shadow of China’s historic system of concubinage hangs over these fashionable scenes, as does social anxiety about the newly public role that women are taking in business and public life. Both Chinese and Western media perpetuate stereotypes of feminine failure such as the shengnü (leftover woman) and the “BMW Lady” that are attributable to women’s raised expectations of their own life choices due to increased education and economic power. Like Manet, whose fashionable working-class women were indicative of the changing social context of 1860s Paris, Yang reveals that the new China is an uncertain place far from the classless and genderless utopia promised by the Communists.

Positing an exit strategy, Yang’s contemplative five-part cinematic epic, Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest (2003-2006), references the third-century fable of a group of youthful sages who rejected and withdrew from immoral civil society. Yang cites the Taoist “pure conversation” movement, which “[advocated] freedom of individual expression and hedonistic escape from extremely corrupt politics.” This could also describe youth-driven movements in the developed world, such as Occupy, which foreground dialogue and utopian idealism over political or civil reform. Also universally resonant is the way Yang’s contemporary “intellectuals” wander from the city to the countryside seeking a rural ideal to offset the inauthenticity of their materialistic lives. The Impressionists documented Parisians’ investment of countryside with nostalgia for agrarian values displaced by the capitalist system. The Situationists advocated for a psycho-geographic approach in which an aimless wanderer could discover deeper truths through ambulation. Yang fuses these Romantic views of place with a yearning for Communism’s broken promise of simple agricultural life as antidote to the intellectual’s existentialism.

Yang Fudong: Estranged Paradise, Works 1993–2013 INstalltion at the Berkeley Art Museum,2013

Yang Fudong, “East of Qe Village” (2007)

Yang’s nostalgia is not for the rural, but for Chinese people’s belief that purpose and honor could be found in agrarian values. This abandoned ideal is on display in “East of Que Village” (2007), a six-channel video surveying a neglected factory village whose citizens are impoverished as labor outsources to central Asia and Africa. Stray dogs roam, feasting on decaying flesh or limping through debris. Unemployed laborers queue up for handouts. Today’s China offers wealth without freedom and exploits the working poor on whose backs it was built.

Yang Fudong’s oeuvre reflects his disillusionment at both Communist and capitalist ideals which have been soured by corruption. He explores both the positives and the negatives of the new affluence. As economies move from agrarian to industrial to neo-colonial production, abandonment of the poor and loss of social values threaten to overwhelm societies flush with cash but little else. In this context, Yang’s perspective is relevant on a global scale.

Yang Fudong: Estranged Paradise, Works 1993-2013 is on view at Berkeley Art Museum (2626 Bancroft Way, Berkeley) through December 8.

Anuradha Vikram is a critic, curator, and educator who has curated exhibitions for the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles, Mills College Art Museum in Oakland, and de Young Museum Artist Studio in...