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A compelling mid-career survey for the Shanghai-based artist and filmmaker, Yang Fudong: Estranged Paradise, Works 1993–2013 showcased several key works by the artist who is perhaps best known for his stylistically noir films that focus upon the ongoing social complexities facing a generation of Chinese born after the Cultural Revolution. The second iteration of a traveling retrospective that first opened at the Kunsthalle Zürich in April 2013, works exhibited at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive included several films by Yang as well as photographs, multi-channel video installations, and a selection of archival materials documenting the artist’s prodigious output over the past two decades. Although the Berkeley Art Museum exhibition was smaller than the one at the Kunsthalle Zürich, adjunct senior curator Philippe Pirotte selected several key works from Yang’s career, establishing a historical overview for an artist whose works subvert conventions of narrative through experimental approaches to linearity and synchronism.
Installed over four floors within the ringed atrium of the soon-to-be demolished Mario Ciampi-designed building, the exhibition curation followed a somewhat loose chronological order. Owing to the architecture of the building, and the two entrances on different levels, the exhibition commenced either with Yang’s black-and-white photograph series Ms. Huang at M Last Night (2006) or with several early works from Yang’s time studying at the Art Academy of Hangzhou. Commencing with the former, the large photographs evince an appropriation of commercial aesthetics and criticism of economic materialism that have come to define Yang’s more recent works. Starting at the latter, Otherwhere or Stranger’s Plan (Living in Another World) (1993), a black-and-white photocopied, fully extended accordion-fold zine featured in a vitrine, highlights Yang’s early interest in performative practices that foreground the body and test the limitations of communication. Indeed, for this work, Yang undertook a three-month vow of silence wherein he communicated solely via text, going so far as to write on his hands and body when nothing else was available. The zine’s fifteen pages comprise hand-drawn illustrations (among them, a traced outline of a hand), Chinese and English phrases (“Happy New Year” and “living in other where”), and several repeating images of hands with densely scribbled Chinese characters on them; two identical photographs of a man are placed at the beginning and end of the zine. Yang’s performance—and the resulting zine—occurred some four years after the historic Tiananmen Square protests, thereby underscoring the ongoing threat of state censorship at a time when the West’s influence was steadily growing in urban Chinese society. Produced while he was still in art school, Otherwhere is one of Yang’s earliest—and most confrontational—works dealing with politically charged subject matter, while also demonstrating what would be key themes with his artistic practice, notably a disruptive approach toward traditional forms of narrative and an emphasis upon the performative. Indeed, with Otherwhere, Yang implicitly foregrounds the tenuous relationship of communication, quite literally, to the embodied forms its dissemination takes. While Yang himself contended in an interview with the New York Times that the confluence of contemporary Chinese politics and society are absent from his works, in early works such as Otherwhere, the two would seem very much present (Blake Gopnik. “Cryptic Chronicler of the New China: A Yang Fudong Retrospective at the Berkeley Art Museum,” New York Times, August 29, 2013: AR15).
Registering a shift in Yang’s attention from the Chinese government’s political reaction to greater influence from the West, nearby screening rooms underscored Yang’s widening interest in the rise of “minor intellectuals”—his term for a nascent, young professional and academic class. In Tonight Moon (2000) Yang made a famous scholar’s garden (wenren yaun) in Suzhou the setting for a large multi-channel video installation depicting a rock garden (jiashan) and lotus pond with naked men swimming in it. Embedded in the projection wall, twenty-four smaller LCD screens displayed several looped scenes, including pornographic interludes, segments from classic Chinese movies, as well as seemingly candid shots of couples caught mid-embrace in verdant settings. Three monitors flanking both sides of the projection depicted men in suits hiding behind trees, chasing peacocks, and rowing boats in garden ponds. A locale traditionally favored for contemplation by the scholarly class, Yang’s inclusion of disjointed and simultaneous narratives of sexuality and absurdity disrupts the metaphysical harmony sought in such gardens, while also satirizing the affected, leisurely nature of the literati who visited them.
Indeed, as with many of the works included, Yang here focuses upon China’s burgeoning consumerism and the ensuing antinomies of excess and disaffection. As with Tonight Moon, Shenhjia Alley, Fairy (2000) was featured in Useful Life, a 2000 exhibition co-curated by Yang in collaboration with Xu Zhen and Yang Zhenzhong at a temporary gallery space in Shanghai. In a series of large-scale color photographs, women in various states of undress lounge around interior settings. In one, a fully nude woman arranges a trio of cacti, while in another a woman bends over, lingerie at her knees, with her bare buttocks displaying the impressions of rattan hash marks. Combining the staged posture of its subjects and their averted gazes, the overriding sense is one of apathy on the part of the women and a resulting distance for the beholder.
According to art historian Charles Merewether, Yang and his artistic contemporaries produce not an “aesthetics of emancipation,” but are rather “witness to a radical disenchantment with the real” (Charles Merewether, “The Long Striptease: Desiring Emancipation,” Parachute 114 [May Day–July 2004]: 40–57). In the photographic series Don’t Worry, It Will Be Better (2000) and Ms. Huang at M Last Night, Yang appropriates the formal qualities of media advertisements, drawing attention to consumerism’s ability to both shape and destabilize the reality of its beholder. In both, a small gathering of similarly well-heeled young men surrounds the central figure of a woman. In the former series of large-scale color photographs, the group gathers in a hotel room, in one scene collectively looking out the window, while in another they dance in pairs. Recalling Barbara Kruger’s text-based satire of capitalist enterprise, in each of the five images the same white text—“Don’t worry, It will be better . . .”—is set against a red rectangular strip. Meanwhile, the large black-and-white photographs composing Ms. Huang at M Last Night evince Yang’s ongoing interest in film noir aesthetics. Over the course of the evening a young woman is accompanied by her male companions in a white stretch limo, ultimately ending the night with cocktails and cigarettes. If, as Pirotte notes in the exhibition catalogue essay, the former series points to the promises of the free market, the latter documents its arrival, an era in which it subjects are able to embrace the rewards of material gains earned through personal, not collective, success (123–27).
Further developing a curatorial narrative that identifies in Yang’s works a preoccupation with a new class of urban elite, the exhibition features several works by the artist that prominently feature his current home, Shanghai, and finds in the period of social upheaval that occurred in post-Cultural Revolution China a correlation with the Shanghai of the 1920s and 1930s—a colony dégagé known for artistic experimentation, political unrest, and burgeoning sexuality. The stylistic innovations that emerged from Shanghai at the time, a unique blend of East and West that Davide Quadrio and Noah Cowan identify as haipai, or “Shanghai spirit,” echo the ongoing dialectical crosscurrents and mentalitié of alienation that Yang associates with his own generation (Davide Quadrio and Noah Cowan, “Yang Fudong: New Women,” Toronto International Film Festival, 2013, press release). His aesthetic affinity for noir is evident in several of the black-and-white video installations for the exhibition, including East of Que Village (2007) and The Fifth Night (Rehearsal) (2010). In the latter, Yang presents raw footage from the finished version of The Fifth Night (2010). A seven-channel video installation capturing the unedited output from seven cameras, the multi-perspective film resists the apprehension of a singular narrative. With the inclusion of in-camera time leads, clapperboards, and calls to “action,” it concurrently foregrounds the underlying artifice and constructed reality of the cinematic work. Involving a cast of characters set in an ambiguous, dynamic city setting, The Fifth Night (Rehearsal) can be seen as a continuation of Yang’s constellation of interests with regard to the complexities facing urban Chinese.
If the other works in the survey reflect Yang’s interest in Chinese urban social settings, his six-channel, black-and-white video installation, East of Que Village, shifts attention to the impoverished provinces of contemporary rural China, areas perhaps least effected by the wealth pouring into China’s commercial and cultural centers. Returning to his ancestral land, Yang trades the highly stylized representations of urban elites for the stark depiction of the agrarian class and its harsh everyday existence, heightened by the desolate landscape and frigid conditions. Eschewing actors and elaborate sets, East of Que Village depicts the comings and goings of a small village and its inhabitants (cooking, tending to fields), interspersed with footage of a wild pack of dogs, gaunt and skeletal, as they forage for food amid ruins and decaying canine carcasses. By ending the retrospective with East of Que Village, Pirotte offers a note of vérité and despair to a body of work otherwise consumed with affect and luxuriance.
Providing further historiographic narrative, a dual English-German catalogue offers brief, complementary texts on the works included in the show, as well as several short essays discussing Yang’s artistic career. Importantly, the texts offer further insight into Yang’s place within the 1990s Chinese underground art scene while also underscoring his cinematic affinity with film noir. While the essays lack in-depth critical analysis—Pirotte tantalizingly touches upon the cultural distinctions between image (yingxian) and film (dianying)—they do provide a general introduction to Yang and his important role in recent Chinese art.
PhD candidate, Department of Rhetoric, University of California, Berkeley
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