Luminous moments

In Yang Fudong’s survey exhibition Auckland audiences are being seduced by immersive film and video installations, which reflect the filmmaking traditions of East and West—as well as the aesthetics of Chinese painting.

Describing the moving image installations of one of China’s leading contemporary artists, Shanghai-based Yang Fudong, it’s essential to use words like sensual, captivating and seductive. Yet none of them do his work justice because embedded in each breathtakingly beautiful sequence of the three moving-image installations, currently at Auckland Art Gallery, is an undercurrent of disappointment, decay and anxiety, which unsettles our initial reading—and deliberately so.

When Yang visited Auckland for the opening on 25 September of his survey exhibition Yang Fudong: Filmscapes, he told audiences that his art addresses the slippage between childhood dreams and adult reality, and he gave the analogy of a young girl in her room taking her collection of candy wrappers from between the pages of a book and holding them up to the sun to see the world transformed into rainbow colours. He was speaking about his latest work, The Coloured Sky: New Women II (2014), which came about through a collaborative partnership between the artist, Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne, and Auckland Art Gallery. This commission and funding partnership marks the first collaboration between the two organisations, and is Yang’s first survey exhibition in Australasia. It’s part of Auckland Art Gallery’s ongoing commitment to the moving image and its focus on Asian artists, which reflects the gallery’s expanding Asian audience. It’s no coincidence, said Director Rhana Devenport, that Yang Fudong: Filmscapes is featured concurrently with the historic exhibition The Story of Rama: Indian Miniatures from the National Museum, New Delhi.

Yang Fudong, The Coloured Sky: New Women II, 2014, images courtesy of Yang Fudong, ShanghART Gallery and Marian Goodman Gallery, commissioned by Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki and ACMI, Melbourne

The Coloured Sky: New Women II is an immersive, coming of age video installation that unfolds across seven screens. The gallery walls are painted warm and cool colours that play off the moving images to create a constantly changing emotional and physical ‘temperature’. Each screen sizzles and sparkles with gorgeous washes of colour, transforming the viewer into a voyeur as we watch three exquisitely beautiful young women, dressed in immaculately styled (and fitting) retro bathing suits and dresses, frolic and preen in a highly artificial beach setting constructed inside the studio. Poised on the edge of sexual knowledge, they’re utterly aware of their sexual cachet. This sense of knowingness makes them contemporary—the “new” women of the film’s title, even though the film’s styling stirs nostalgia for more innocent decades.

Yang is known for his filmic reflections on the psychology of a new generation struggling to find a place in modern China, and the actors in this work play the role of seductress and unobtainable sexual prize—one that is double-edged. Although they embody the new-found confidence of young women in China today, they simultaeously echo its traditional concubinage system, in which the fortunes of women and their economic and social status were determined by their physical beauty and attractiveness to men.

The action is unscripted, there’s no dialogue and the tenuous narrative comes from the gestures of the actors, which stand in for language. They scoop water from a silvery, shimmering lake, delight in a sudden shower of rain, interact with the different animals that appear on set—all of which creates a dreamlike atmosphere. Instead of dialogue we hear the soundtrack—the instrumental musical score, which Yang commissioned for the work, and sometimes the sound of insects. Tainting the work’s nascent sexuality are images of decay—slugs crawl over a bunch of grapes, insects swarm on spoiled food, a snake entwines itself around the woman’s neck—perhaps an analogy for the pesky serpent in the Garden of Eden. The music ebbs and flows, not necessarily in sync with the action, creating moments of tension that also complicate the cloying sensuality.

The relationship between the camera and the female characters seems intimate, echoing the visual language of advertising in which highly sexualised images of women are offered for public consumption. Yet there’s an inherent paradox: although the women seem to invite our devouring gaze, they’re unobtainable—separated from us by coloured glass screens that refract their images and emphasise the artificiality of the set, the constructed nature of female sexuality, and the complex politics of spectatorship.

The Coloured Sky: New Women II is Yang’s first foray into colour. He’s best known for 35mm black and white films, such as the epic, five-part film Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest, which was first shown at the 2007 Venice Biennale. Made over a long period, from 2003 to 2007, with one part being completed each year, it looks at the dissonance between men and women, between individuals and society, between past and present and between an ideal world and imperfect reality—themes which recur in the three works in Auckland.

Yang Fudong, The Coloured Sky: New Women II, 2014, images courtesy of Yang Fudong, ShanghART Gallery and Marian Goodman Gallery, commissioned by Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki and ACMI, Melbourne

The other two works at Auckland Art Gallery are the single-channel film, Yejiang / The Nightman Cometh (2011) and the seven-channel installation The Fifth Night (2010). Both converse with the history of Chinese and Western film, which has been highly influential on Yang’s artmaking since he made the transition from painting to the moving image.

Yang was born in 1971 to a military family and received a traditional Chinese education. He studied painting at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, and critics have noted his films are stylistically rooted in Chinese painting. In interviews he has spoken of his love for the films of Jim Jarmusch, Frederico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman, as well as China’s early films from the 1920s and 30s. “When I was at university I didn’t see many films but there were a lot of film magazines with reviews of the films, which had stills and a basic summary of the plot. I almost ‘read’ a lot of these films instead of actually seeing them.”

Yang Fudong, The Fifth Night, 2010. Image courtesy of Yang Fudong, ShanghART Gallery and Marian Goodman Gallery

The Fifth Night is distinctly noirish. Shot on the famous Shanghai Shooting Base, a film-set replica of 1930s Shanghai, it follows the actions of seven mysterious youths who wander aimlessly through a Shanghai plaza at night. They are filmed simultaneously by separate cameras, which creates a labyrinthine live-feed effect—a cascade of high contrast, luscious black and white images which is mesmerising. Although there are hints of a dramatic story about to unfold, the plot falters, frustrating viewers’ desire for narrative closure and critiquing the machinations of conventional film-making.

Yang says, “A lot of people ask me whether I’m a director or an artist, and now I more and more realise that I’m an artist—because as an artist I can have more freedom to explore new ideas and to try new concepts. But being a director I would be more focused on the narration of the story, and there are too many restrictions and limitations regarding what other people want. I don’t want to be limited by that.”

Yejiang / The Nightman Cometh features a vanquished warlord in traditional Chinese battle dress. Making camp in an eerie, frozen landscape, he ponders whether to return to battle the next day. As he goes through the motions of making a fire to heat his food, he’s joined by a beautiful maiden wearing Chinese robes, an effeminate white-suited man and damsel in a white cheongsam. Wandering through a mock naturalistic landscape, not really interacting, these characters are joined by a horse, a hawk and a herd of deer.

Yang Fudong, Yejiang / The Nightman Cometh, 2011. Image courtesy of Yang Fudong, ShanghART Gallery and Marian Goodman Gallery.

Yang’s films are saturated with Chinese culture, philosophy, history and aesthetics—yet his preoccupation with ‘the dream’ as a catalyst for creativity and a rich field in which to explore unlimited imagination, makes his work universal. After all, the trope of ‘the dream’ with its potential to subvert conventional notions of time and space and to provoke our imagination, transcends cultural boundaries and is one that has fascinated artists and writers throughout history.

Yang’s approach to time, both inside the work, where time seems to slow down and loop back on itself, and in regard to the making of the work itself, is interesting. In the exhibition catalogue there’s an interview between the artist and Auckland Art Gallery Principal Curator Zara Stanhope. She asks him to describe the typical process of conceiving and producing his films and Yang replies: “It’s a very long process to conceive an artwork. Some works require one or two years’ thinking, others three-to-five years, or even longer. It is as if time is creating this thought and gradually developing and refining it. My films do not have a script, plot or very detailed outlines. Improvisation and adaptability are key to me. This situation is like a botanic garden where all the chi accumulates. Chi waters the plants and nourishes them. As time goes by, this botanic garden in my heart will then be exhibited.”

/ Virginia Were

Yang Fudong: Filmscapes is at Auckland Art Gallery until 25 January 2016.

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