BAM Showcases Works by Yang Fudong

by Sura Wood

China's "bright art star" explores the aspirations and anxieties of his generation.

Considered one of the brightest art stars in China, Yang Fudong is a leading independent filmmaker and visual artist in his native country, but he's largely unknown in the U.S. That may change with "Yang Fudong: Estranged Paradise, Works 1993-2013," a mid-career retrospective of innovative work that expresses the anxieties, ambivalence and alienation of a rapidly evolving, materialistic Chinese society. Now on view at the Berkeley Art Museum, the exhibition introduces Yang's photographic series, multi-channel film installations, experimental videos and dream-like, poetic films to Bay Area audiences.

"There are many reasons Yang Fudong is one of the most accomplished artists working in China today," says the museum's adjunct senior curator, Philippe Pirotte. "He addresses highly relevant subject matter--namely, the aspirations and anxieties of his own generation. Born during or just after the Cultural Revolution, unmoored from traditional culture and critical about the guiding principles of Communist orthodoxy, [Fudong's contemporaries] search for sense and values in a society that celebrates consumerism and rampant growth." In the context of a state-controlled, market-driven "society of the spectacle," says Pirotte, Yang uses the mediums of film, video and photography to invoke both China's current reality and its history in dream worlds he devises, realms where he merges different epochs and cultural traditions.

Yang, who's 42 and lives in Shanghai, trained as a painter at the Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou before turning to photography and film in the early 1990s. His films, which are characterized by extended takes, multiple storylines and unconventional non-linear narratives, draw upon traditional Chinese painting and Shanghai's Golden Age of cinema from the 1920s and 1930s, a period known for the blending of East and Western aesthetics. One of Yang's predilections, notes Pirotte, "is the way he returns to the decadent aura of Shanghai: its artistic vibrancy, sexual charge and political turmoil were a hotbed for a society tentatively emerging from the stagnation and humiliations of the imperial era."

The artist came to international prominence in 2002 with the premiere of his first feature-length film, "An Estranged Paradise," a psychological drama that he began in 1997 and took five years to complete. It was inspired by "Stranger than Paradise" (1984), a minimalist, ironic comedy directed by indie hipster Jim Jarmusch that glamorized the downtown bohemian cool of Manhattan. (Now regarded as a cult classic, it has been playfully described as "a Buster Keaton film written by Samuel Beckett and Jack Kerouac, and directed by Andy Warhol.") Yang's film opens with a brief meditation on harmony and spatial composition in Chinese landscape painting and then shifts its attention to the spiritual anomie afflicting Zhuzi, a young intellectual in the legendary city of Hangzhou. Yang offers viewers a rare glimpse of modernist China during the 1990s and insight into the psyche of a protagonist preoccupied with his sexuality and suffering from an unidentified malaise. "It becomes clear that the true origin of his discomfort may be found in a profound discontentment," notes Pirotte. "Like many young Chinese of his generation, he feels strangely un-housed in his own life."

"An Estranged Paradise" and "The Nightman Cometh," a short in which Yang pays homage to Chinese film history with stylized re-creations and a loose plot involving a quartet of characters adrift in a snowy wilderness, will be screened in the Museum Theater. They'll also be shown as part of a special PFA series that features works that shaped Yang's cinematic sensibility, such as Chen Kaige's "Yellow Earth" and Zhang Nuanxin's "Sacrificed Youth." Also included in the series are Lou Ye's noir thriller "Suzhou River," in which Shanghai's ghosts--disillusioned lovers and criminals--yearn for the city's glory days, and Yuan Muzhi's "Street Angel." The latter film, with its high- contrast cinematography and glamorous environs that beckon with illicit temptations, contributed to Yang's obsession with film noir. Stylistically and conceptually, the noir universe, where conflicted individuals are ruled by their appetites and apprehensive about the future in an uncertain world, plays a significant role in Yang's work. Take, for example, his single channel videos: "City Light" (2000), a noir detective story that moves from black and white to color as it follows the antics of a young man and his double; and, "Honey" (2003), which deconstructs and riffs on the conceits of espionage thrillers.

Yang's imagery has been compared to 17th-century Chinese literati paintings, which were created by a coterie of artists and intellectuals who responded to political repression by retreating into spiritual seclusion. In his languorous, five-part epic, "Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest" (2003-2007), a film whose title refers to the literati of ancient legend (c.475 B.C.), Yang connects the sages, who once sought refuge in the woods, to the political oppression of the present. "Yang's brilliant negotiation of social memory and cinematic history, which he articulates against the background of contemporary political change in China, places his work on the cutting edge of the moving image," writes John G. Hanhardt on "He's creating one of the most compelling and important bodies of media installation art today."

Most of Yang's protagonists are his contemporaries, young people between the ages of 20 and 40 who have spent the majority of their lives adjusting to a society in the throes of transformation. Some exhibit a disaffected demeanor, seemingly detached from worldly concerns while focused on the superficial. That attitude is illustrated in several photographic series where impassive, well-heeled people waft through high-end hotels, restaurants and other elegant settings, a promise of sex in the air. "Mrs. Huang at M Last Night" (2006), for example, is a narrative of conspicuous consumption that unfolds in black & white photographs. Rich with evocative film noir atmosphere, it depicts an affluent woman dressed in a strapless evening gown, out on the town with her expensively attired male suitors, apparently enjoying the fruits of success. An earlier set of color images, "Don't worry, it will be better" (2000), suggests complex entanglements among a group of upwardly mobile nouveau riche urbanites who cast furtive glances at one another in a hotel suite, presumably anticipating even greater wealth to come.

Berkeley Art Museum through Dec. 8; "Yang Fudong's Cinematic Influences" screens at the Pacific Film Archive through Oct. 6.