He’s taken part in documenta and the Venice Biennale, he’s shot clips for Prada: Yang Fudong is considered to be one of the most internationally prominent Chinese artists working today. Even while they address contemporary social issues, his elegiac images seem to spring from dreams. Kito Nedo met with Yang Fudong in his studio in Shanghai.
||Passersby float gracefully in the air; holding umbrellas for balance, they teeter on streetcar cables: when you do an Internet search for Yang Fudong, one of the first things you find is the ten-minute film he shot for Prada. In First Spring, created for the spring/summer collection of 2010, Yang uses perfectly arranged, cool images reminiscent of the black and white aesthetic of thrillers from the 1930s or 1940s or the films of the Nouvelle Vague. At the same time, Yang’s protagonists, dressed from head to toe in Prada, assume delicate dancers’ poses as they move around the cityscape of Shanghai. Yesterday and today become superimposed: two young western dandies, alienated and arrogant, stumble like somnambulists through streets, restaurants, and stores populated by eunuchs, court ladies, and post-communists. Contrasting with their uncertainty is a pair of Chinese lovers seemingly imbued with tragedy beneath their obviously elegant exterior. In the midst of expensive fabric, looks are exchanged between East and West in surreal slow motion. In evocatively lit spaces, old and new China seem interwoven, united in a palimpsest. A place so thoroughly different from the soulless luxury malls of the fast-paced Chinese metropolises, where one can always count on finding a Prada boutique.
For the production of First Spring, the artist, who was born in 1971 in Beijing, entered the realm of fashion and advertising and took the various motifs in his work to the extreme: the youth and beauty of his actors, a black and white aesthetic borrowed from film noir, the references to the various ancient Chinese traditions of calligraphy and ink painting, Zen philosophy and the grace of bodies engaged in martial arts. First Spring, however, also envisages another phenomenon: the symbiotic relationship between the luxury goods industry and the art establishment so blatant these days in China’s museums and magazines.
Something of the playful, enigmatic aura of his film works also surrounds the artist himself, who, after some hesitation, invited me on a May afternoon to his huge, grandly empty studio in Shanghai. "Art and fashion make up a big family, but their backgrounds are different", explains Yang. He’s wearing a simple black T-shirt and a silver tank chain bracelet; he speaks quietly and concentratedly, with his long hair falling into his face. Now and again he lights a cigarette or pours some more green tea into two small bowls. To some critics, Yang is the Chinese video artist familiar even to those who know nothing about Chinese video art. But what does this actually say about his work? In any case, no one is as good at the retro-futurist game with a sublime pop idiom as he. That’s the secret of his success. Yet Yang does not seem in the least bit arrogant; he’s all understatement, a cross between confidence and introversion.
Although Yang works primarily with video and photography, his works often have that undefined quality and emptiness of the landscape paintings of old Chinese masters. Yang, however, admits that "tradition is not one of the things I think about from day to day. Sometimes it influences my work—sometimes, certain decisions depend on completely different things. Right now, for instance, I’d like to film a boat on the Suzhou River in Shanghai. Why? It’s simple—because the flowers are in bloom on the river banks." That might sound pretty mystical at first, but this work stands far above the mere satisfaction of a western public’s exotic cliché. In fact, the success of Yang’s films and photographs is based on their roots on both sides of the divide: in a Western and an Eastern aesthetic, in the present as well as in the past.
Yang had his international breakthrough in 2000 with his three-part photo series The First Intellectual: the work portrays a young disheveled office employee in a suit standing on the median of a busy street. In all three images, he’s holding a brick in his hand—the gesture, however, remains ambiguous. Is he about to throw the brick? Did someone just throw it at him? Is he threatening someone, or is he himself being threatened? The man’s face is smeared with blood, the direction of the aggression and its motivation remain unclear. Who is this intellectual represented here as the first of his kind? The idea seems vague. Making art in China means "to hold onto one’s ideals", says Yang. The ones who do can be called "intellectuals or artists."
Critics soon regarded Yang to be an artist who investigates the lifestyles and problems of China’s new young middle class: "His characters are slaves to feelings of uncertainty and vagueness that they don’t know how to react to because they don’t know whether the problems stem from society or from themselves," wrote the Italian sinologist Claudia Albertini. Yet Yang’s films and photographs are neither sociologically nor politically offensive. His characters are sketched in a way that remains far too undefined to be pinned down in that way. Yang’s work does not embody the harsh criticism of the Chinese political system to be found in the work of his colleague Ai Weiwei, who aggressively investigates the results of corruption in the construction industry or the manipulation of Internet forums on the part of the state security.
It soon emerged that Yang resists any direct interpretation of his work, for instance in the case of An Estranged Paradise, which premiered in 2002 at documenta 11 in Kassel, curated by Okwui Enwezor. With its spare dialogues and atmospheric images, the 76-minute video tells the story of a young couple in Hangzhou, a city of six million inhabitants that lies south of Shanghai; the couple is driven by a perplexing agitation. It is the story of a society that, since it was opened to the world by Deng Xiaoping in the late seventies, has undergone "three revolutions at the same time" (Konrad Seitz): industrialization, urbanization, and the transformation of a socialist planned economy into a free market economy. One of the film’s central questions seems to address the price individual human beings have to pay for these gigantic social upheavals. Their perception of the paradise dawning as the country enters a Chinese century is that of the disenfranchised.
Yang had already begun this work in 1997, when after finishing his art education in Hangzhou he returned to the capital Beijing for three years, where he had grown up as the son of an army officer. A lack of funds finally forced him to put the film project aside until the documenta invitation gave him the opportunity to finish An Estranged Paradise at last. "As a young artist, I didn’t place very much importance on the market at the time. The public’s expectations weren’t very important. The idea I had at the time was that when I want something, I’ll make it." It came close to being the early end of an artistic career. After three years of unemployment, in search of money, Yang went to Shanghai in 1999 to work as a programmer for a French software firm.
What made him start working in film right after graduating from the academy in Hangzhou, where he was trained as a painter? "All paths lead to Rome," Yang says. To him, images are the expression of passion. "Originally, the drive to express something led me to study oil painting. But I quickly realized that video and photography were better media for me." The fact that Yang had an experimental relationship to the curriculum already while studying can be gleaned from the notorious action Living in Another Space from 1992: in his sophomore year, Yang remained silent for three months, communicating only through messages written on all sorts of surfaces. The experiment is said to have inspired very little enthusiasm among his professors at the time.
Since last September, Yang has himself been teaching at the art academy in Hangzhou. He doesn’t care to pass judgment on the younger generation he teaches at the academy. Today’s students have completely different options and are confronted with entirely different questions than his generation was. As the head of the “Experimental Image Studio,” he mainly tries to train the students’ aesthetic consciousness. “Two methods are important to educate an aesthetic consciousness: you have to develop independent thinking and you have to have a positive attitude towards the work. That not only means hard work, but stamina, too.”
Yang himself is the best example for developing stamina. His most important work to date, the five-part film opus he has been completing since 2003, Seven Intellectuals in the Bamboo Forest, comes across like a Chinese interpretation of a Beckett piece. Yet the films and photo series of the same name from the Deutsche Bank Collection are based on an old legend: seven wise men retreat to lead an ideal life far from all worldly temptations. This time, however, the artist has transposed the story into today’s China. For the "Intellectuals", Yang sent a group of young urbanites to climb the Huangshan, the holy "Yellow Mountain" in the Anhui Province, to the sea, and to work with farmers in agriculture. Thus, his elegiac images function as metaphors for inner and outer emigration, like the dreams of a society that no longer has any time to dream.
Yang himself calls his films “abstract cinema.” He’d like to conjure up thoughts and emotions lying dormant in his viewers’ minds and souls. Hollywood was also once called a dream factory—so what sets his work apart from commercial film? “In Hollywood, films are produced to keep the factory running. The director is just another worker in this factory. On the other hand, as an artist, he has to do what he believes in. There’s a huge difference in that.” Does this mean he would never show his films in a cinema? Yang laughs at this question. Is it because it implies an old-fashioned separation between art and film and the artist’s impotence in the face of commerce? Or, perhaps, because it insists on the (typically western) dissolution of contradictions, for instance between clever critique and opportunism? Who knows? Where else but in process-oriented China can the old dichotomies become mixed up again—and by whom, if not someone like Yang? The options are there, and the artist keeps them open.
YANG FUDONG: One half of August
13 September - 6 November 2011
Parasol unit, London