Based in Shanghai, Chinese artist Yang Fudong has gained worldwide recognition for his multimedia installations incorporating material shot on richly textured, black-and-white 35 mm film. His five-part film cycle "Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest" (2003-07) was one of the defining works in the 2007 Venice Biennale, where each film in the cycle had its own viewing booth in a line down the center of the Arsenale exhibition hall.
Yang's current exhibition at Tokyo's Hara Museum of Contemporary Art is his first solo presentation in Japan. The exhibition of carefully selected works comprises five pieces from across Yang's career, including Part 3 of the "Seven Intellectuals" cycle and a large multimedia installation, "The General's Smile" (2009), involving multiple projectors, video monitors, neon signage and a banquet table. An early work, "Backyard — Hey! Sun is Rising" (2001), will be shown in its original 35 mm print every Sunday during the exhibition period.
The Japan Times met with Yang before the opening of the exhibition to discuss his approach to making works driven by both beautiful formal composition and an unflinching investigation of China's contemporary reality.
One thing that strikes me about your work is that rather than setting up conflicts between characters, you often present situations where the characters are subtly — or perhaps subconsciously — in conflict with their environments. What kind of role does setting play in your films?
In traditional movies, the narrative evolves through dialogue, but in my movies all the different components of the film contribute to telling the story. I think that the landscape, the changing seasons or certain objects can take on roles just like people and can express or communicate feelings, ideas and situations.
In that sense do you ever create a scenario based on a particular setting? For example, the barren mountains that appear in your color film "The Half Hitching Post" (2005), on display here, seem to be integral to the work.
Usually I'll decide a general direction for the work and then go from there. For "Half Hitching Post" I wanted to explore using a split personality, with the same actors portraying both youths from the city and youths from the countryside. The city youths are trying to escape to the country and vice versa. When I thought about where these two figures could encounter each other, I felt it had to be some place deep in the mountains. And in China that means Shanbei, where the film was shot and the characteristic yellow earth really creates a sense of hardship.
How do you relate to your actors? For your five-part "Seven Intellectuals" cycle, did you use the same group for each film?
With "Seven Intellectuals" there were some set actors, but since it was such a long-term project it wasn't possible to use the same group each time. The actors started out as friends or friends of friends. From about Part 3 onward I also started using professionals.
It was difficult because I was asking the actors to work without an actual script or plot, so the acting was much closer to performance than in a conventional film. The actors had to improvise and then I retook sequences that didn't meet my expectations. We were all reacting to each other on the spot.
Did you plan on making such an epic work, or did it simply evolve that way?
I always planned on making a five-part cycle, doing one film each year for five years. I had a general outline in my head from the start but no idea about the specific content until I actually finished shooting each film. I knew that in pursuing the project my ideas and sensibilities would change over time and affect the development of the work, so I thought it would be a really interesting challenge.
The setting of "Seven Intellectuals" moves from lush mountaintop to urban commune, a rural farm, a fishing village and then to a city. It's tempting to see in that progression an allegory for modern Chinese history, with its drastic political and social shifts between hinterland and city. Was that your intent?
I wasn't really thinking in such broad strokes. I was focusing on these intellectuals who had been educated together as a group and were holding on to their ideals. Rather than reflecting past events, the work was trying to anticipate the future. I thought that youth is a symbol of power, the group is a symbol of power and the future is a symbol of power. So I was questioning how these people might hold on to or chase their dreams and convictions over time. In a way it's a road movie.
Now that the cycle is complete and you are able to review it as a whole, how do you assess the experience?
Since finishing the work I've become more open, more accepting. The way I think and the way I see the world has changed. At the start of the project I was making a kind of utopian movie, and the first parts of the cycle were all shot as if the camera was floating in air, whereas the style of the latter parts is more grounded. The early films were removed from reality; the latter tied closely to daily life.
And while I was working on the latter half of the cycle I also made other works that were in a more documentary vein, such as "East of Que Village" (2007), (which focuses on wild dogs running loose in a desolate countryside), and "Blue Kylin" Part 1 (2009), (about laborers in a quarry).
So do you think of your latter works as straightforward documentary?
I consider them "documentary performance." In the case of "Blue Kylin," I filmed it in a documentary mode: the laborers' lives are incredibly difficult, digging out rocks and hauling them around all day. But when you present that imagery in a gallery with pure, white walls, then the result is a [dissociation from reality].
In contrast, you also have a number of works that revolve around images of glamour, such as the film installation "No Snow on the Broken Bridge" (2006), which follows a group of revelers in a pleasure garden, and the photo series "Ms. Huang at M Last Night" (2006), which depicts a fashionable woman and two wealthy suitors spending time at a night spot. Do you make such works from a critical viewpoint or are they similarly meant to be "documentary?"
It's neither critique nor simple documentation. Whether you're filming the life of a rich or poor person, there is a beauty in both that comes through in the image. So with "Ms. Huang," I'm not concerned about who the woman is, what she does for work or how she got to where she is. It may be extravagant, but the fact is that there are people who live like that.
In that sense would you say your driving concerns are both beauty and reality?
Well, they are both elements in life. I am trying to depict life, whether it is "real" life or a "dream" life. Ultimately, whether your intent is to depict real life or dream life, beauty and reality are always there.
"Yang Fudong: The General's Smile" at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art is showing till March 28; open 11 a.m-5 p.m. (Wed. till 8 p.m., except on national holidays), closed Mon. (open Jan. 11 and March 22); admission ¥1,000. For more information visit www.haramuseum.or.jp/generalTop.html