BY Chris Berry in Features | 12 JUN 05
Featured in
Issue 92

Conditional Tense

Yang Fudong's photographs, films and videos evoke a dream world of unresolved conflicts and extreme sensations

BY Chris Berry in Features | 12 JUN 05

Observed from above, surveillance camera-style, a woman in a Russian army uniform and a fake fur jacket looks over her shoulder as she exits a building to the accompaniment of an urgent, jazzy score. A short colour video, City Light, (Cheng shi zhi guang, 2000), shows two young businessmen who turn and aim water pistols in poses straight out of the latest policier by Johnny To. A young couple croon a corny pop ballad to each other from either side of a video triptych. Each of these scenes suggests a narrative, but the logic is elusive and these straight-faced people exude an absurd, surrealist charm.

This is the world of Shanghai artist Yang Fudong, whose wryly enigmatic videos, photographs, films and installations were exhibited at the Vienna Kunsthalle earlier this year in a show that took its title from one of the artist’s photographic series from 2000, ‘Don’t Worry, It Will Be Better’. Yang’s work tends to be distant and cool in mood, but occasionally a careless cruelty cuts through the calm. In Part Two of a five-part black and white film work titled Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest (Zhu lin qi xian, 2004) a man and a woman take a bath together. The man begins to tell the woman what promises to be a charming childhood anecdote about a frog; however, it transpires he made the frog ‘overcome its inertia’ by inserting a twig into its anus, forcing it to jump with pain every time it landed. He promises to perform a similar service for her. Unfortunately, we don’t hear what she might do for him.

Yang’s work is a world away from the on-the-spot realism that dominates contemporary Chinese independent film and video and uses none of the gunshots-and-nudity shock tactics that many of China’s installation artists have recently been delighting in. Explanations of Chinese culture for Western readers tend to follow one of two paths, but neither of these works well for Yang. One is a search for Chinese difference: somewhere traces of Confucianism, Buddhism and/or Taoism can always be uncovered. (Similarly, you could probably find traces of Christianity in many Western art works.) Of course, there are references to early Chinese culture in Yang’s work – the original story of the seven intellectuals is indeed supposed to have taken place in the third century. But Shanghai looks very Western to Chinese eyes now, and it is the Shanghai experience of global modernity, as socialism gives way to international capitalist investment, that dominates most of Yang’s work.

The other approach is to look for subversive messages about Chinese social and political issues. As Edward Said pointed out long ago in his discussion of Orientalism, such messages have the convenient side-effect of allowing us to feel smug about our Western superiority as an allegedly more civilized place where these problems do not occur. But, as I realized while wandering through Yang’s exhibition in Sigmund Freud’s home town, his art is more dream than commentary. Dreams supposedly access the repertoire of the subconscious, far removed from the judgemental super-ego. You can work on the dream material to make sense of it, as analysands do on the couch, but the materials themselves do not deliver messages, and nor does Yang’s art.

What it does do is spin out the Shanghai image world as a collection of figures, movies, props, settings and costumes, elements that are not just generically Chinese but quite specifically connected to the city. If Beijing is China’s political capital and cultural centre, Shanghai is the valve through which the country links up with the rest of the world’s business culture. Although Yang’s art produces a specifically Shanghai-ese repertoire, it also talks to the rest of us caught up in globalization.

So, what haunts Yang’s Shanghai dreams? First, there are the men and women in suits: business suits, Mao suits, tweed suits and more. On entering the Vienna Kunsthalle, visitors are greeted by a photographic triptych of a blood-spattered and bewildered young businessman holding a brick in The First Intellectual, (Di yi ge zhi shi fen zi, 2000). His briefcase lies by his side, the contents spilt, just as his brains might have been spilt had the brick hit him on the head. A short video called Honey (Mi, 2003) features the woman in a Russian army uniform and fake fur and also men in Mao suits, formerly the garb of administrators and executives throughout China.

As we never learn the names of the people in these scenarios, they come across more as types than as characters, posing and repeating movements as variations on a theme like performers in a work by Pina Bausch. The two young businessmen with water pistols in City Light are in fact doppelgängers. Early on in the piece we see one of them apparently holding an umbrella, but when his double steps out from behind him, it turns out he is the one holding it – and then it turns into a mock gun; they also waltz with a businesswoman and with each other. In this way the piece rehearses and plays with the more dynamic tropes of two major romantic genres: the police film and the love story. In Backyard – Hey, Sun Is Rising! (Hou fang – hei, tian liang le, 2001) four men in Mao suits carry tasselled Peking Opera prop swords upright through the city, rehearse moves in the bedroom they share and occasionally break out into what appear to be unrehearsed fights, all to the accompaniment of Peking Opera clappers and Chinese flute music.

International and local Pop culture is a major feature of Yang’s dreamscape. The lovers’ video triptych Flutter, Flutter, Jasmine, Jasmine (Tianshang, tianshang, moli, moli, 2002) rehearses the tropes of young love in modern Shanghai from first kiss to dreams of marriage and children. As they sing and talk, the lovers’ aspirations are symbolized by them climbing up onto the roof of their apartment building, from which they look out over Shanghai and into the metaphorical future. The traditional Chinese conceit of a ballad sung to each other by two lovers appears in another work, Liu Lan (2003), in which a young man in a 1930s suit is punted across a lake by a woman. The scene is like something from a Chinese revolutionary film set in that pre-revolutionary era, as is the class-based theme of the lament they sing about their social incompatibility.

Romance, coupledom, Pop culture old and new, the patterns of everyday life, consumerism and business permeate Yang’s art – a world of private emotions, private memories and private ownership. But this is also a world without public issues, public culture or public debate. Perhaps the key to Yang’s output is his most ambitious work to date, Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest, of which two parts are complete (2003 and 2004). The work is based on a Chinese fable about seven third-century poets who react to tyranny, corruption and commerce by retreating into the mountains to attempt to build a new life. In Yang’s modern version of the tale the seven are two women and five men. Part One opens with the protagonists naked, but they quickly put their clothes on to trek through the Huangshan Mountains in Anhui, whose precipitous crags, pines and views down to clouds below have appeared in so many Chinese landscape paintings. In Part Two they hole up in a house in the city, take their clothes off for much of the film and talk about life, love, experience, pain and pleasure – physical and emotional.

As elsewhere in Yang’s art, however, engagement with public culture, and with a world of social and political issues, seems closed off – which, of course, is very much the situation in China today. On the surface, at least, it seems everyone has agreed to forget about the Tiananmen Square killings of 1989, as long as private enterprise and politicians deliver the goods. Boomtown Shanghai, where a new skyscraper appears every month and a multinational store opens a new branch every day, is the visible symbol of this supposed economic paradise. Of course, electoral democracy is taken for granted in the UK, but globalization produces parallels. In the recent general election millions of Britons did not vote. They also feel excluded by the coalition between corporate and political culture, which has short-circuited meaningful public culture with the palliative of a reasonably stable economy, to distract us from larger worries.

Yang obviously works on a metaphorical level, but what remains unclear is his perspective on the condition he traces. Does he think solipsism and a focus on sensations and pleasures are the way to make the best of the present condition, or a problem? For all the talk of erotic pleasure and extreme sensations, the artist’s approach is remarkably cool and distant. His actors may wander around naked and embrace, but there’s little sense of purpose. Is this a failure on Yang’s part, or is it intentional? Does Yang mean it when he says ‘Don’t Worry, It Will Be Better’ or is he being ironic? If his work is more dream than commentary, how we answer that question may say more about what we bring to the interpretation than about the art itself.