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Yang Fudong, Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest, 2003. 35mm film transferred to DVD. Image courtesy the artist and ShanghART Gallery, Shanghai, China

If Documenta XI hadn't supported Yang Fudong in the completion of his film Estranged Paradise in 2002, we might have lost an important contemporary artist. More than five years into the film's production, Yang was considering leaving the world of contemporary art to take up a career in the commercial film industry - and then the Documenta festival stepped in.

As it is, we'll never know Yang's feature films (although we can be sure they would have been beautiful). Instead we have his delicate and poetic film and video pieces, and ongoing questions about where they should best be shown.

Chen Shuxia is a Sydney-based arts writer currently completing her Masters on Chinese contemporary art history at the University of Sydney. She spoke with Yang recently in Sydney, where he was attending the opening of his exhibition No Snow on the Broken Bridge showing at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF) from 18 March – 4 June 2011.

Many thanks to Chen for this interview.

Chen Shuxia: Aesthetically, your film Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest is romantically beautiful, full of imagination and fine scenery; while East of Que Village is brutal, cold and painfully realistic. Was there a reason for this change in your cinematographic language?

Yang Fudong: From my point of view, there weren’t that many changes in Que Village. Seven Intellectuals considers young people’s pursuit of a spiritual life, while Que Village captures my childhood memories of winter in northern China – the crispy wind, the howling of dogs and especially the cold. Que Village may seem visually brutal but, like Seven Intellectuals, it’s essentially questioning whether humans have a spiritual life.

CSX: This idea of ‘a spiritual life’ is important in your work.

YFD: Indeed. And the next thing I’m working on will continue to probe this idea. A lot of filmmakers make beautiful, touching stories; artists are not necessarily good at story telling but we penetrate further into life conceptually. In this regard, Seven Intellectuals and Que Village are on the same ground – you can find both a social element and spiritual sense in Que Village. When I was filming the last part of Seven Intellectuals, it was like filming in the air: the youths’ spiritual life mixed with our contemporary everyday life so that you couldn’t tell which is which.

CSX: When Que Village was shown in the 2010 Sydney Biennale local audiences were quite shocked by its brutality. It’s interesting to hear that the imagery was inspired by your childhood memories. I don’t feel any nostalgia in it.

YFD: It’s not about nostalgia. People might make that assumption because it’s shot on black and white film, but for me that has nothing to do with nostalgia. Black and white film is another kind of colour screen – one that is pure and consistent. The colour of black and white may evoke the emotion of brutality in Que Village but not nostalgia at all.

284_299_article_thumb.jpg Yang Fudong, No Snow on the Broken Bridge, 2006. 35mm film transferred to DVD, music by Jin Wang. Courtesy the artist, ShanghART Gallery, Shanghai.
CSX: However Seven Intellectuals and No Snow on the Broken Bridge do imply a mood of reminiscence. Seven Intellectuals refers to seven noted intellectuals who lived during the years 240 to 249 A.D., and the beautiful Hangzhou scenery in Broken Bridge is a common theme of classical Chinese poems. Also the costumes, props and the settings remind people of Shanghai in the 1920s.

YFD: It does appear this way. However, if you look closely you will find that the actors are contemporary; they have the spirit of contemporary people. I like the paradox in this. You could almost say that the black and white palette disguises the personal nature of the scene sets – it puts it at a remove. I do like the 1920s, though, the time of the New Culture Movement and the transition from classical to written vernacular Chinese, from cheongsams to suits, and when new thoughts were widely accepted.

As for the costumes in the films, they were actually inspired by images in books on European philosophy, like Sartre’s, that you see translated into Chinese. On the front page there’s often a black and white portrait of the author, wearing an overcoat and looking very cultivated. I love the cultivation these portraits imply so I started looking for similar styles of costume. So the idea wasn’t from the fashion in ‘20s Shanghai. I don’t like the idea that the costume implies one particular period of time.

*

CSX: Visually, Broken Bridge is strikingly similar to Seven Intellectuals. When you were filming the Broken Bridge, had you thought of Seven Intellectuals?

YFD: When I started filming Broken Bridge, I was considering how to best present a film in a space. I chose multiple screens to present the film’s plotless scenes, and I imagined the audience falling into a daze in front of the screens.

It’s interesting to produce a film which puts people in that kind of state – that clouds their focus, makes them dreamy. We often have this kind of experience where we are looking at something but our mind is somewhere else. I like this experience. It makes the audience a second director. The imagination or scene triggered by this film in the audience’s mind is the new film that they 'produce'. For example, someone might see the lake on the first screen, the parrot on the third screen, then start wondering what he should have for dinner, or where to go after seeing the exhibition, and this makes a totally new 'film' within this moment. It forms an individual ‘film of the senses’, and fades at the very same moment at which it is growing. The whole process is too spontaneous to remember but the hazy comfort of the trance remains.

The ‘real’ director is not so important in this experience. I was thinking a lot about the role of peripheral vision or peripheral thoughts in filmmaking – what happens when your eyes lay on one thing but your mind is elsewhere.

CSX: So Broken Bridge was filmed with this idea?

284_307_article_thumb.jpg Yang Fudong, No Snow on the Broken Bridge, 2006. 35mm film transferred to DVD. Courtesy the artist and ShanghART Gallery, Shanghai.
YFD: The idea came from broader discussions around presentation contexts for films. People always ask whether I should show my films in a cinema or a gallery. And it’s a valid question – we already have the cinema, so why use the gallery space? But it would be torturous to show films like mine in a cinema! They have no plot, and are disordered in a traditional film sense.

CSX: That reminds me of the screening of your Estranged Paradise at Gallery 4A’s Cinema Alley last year. The whole set-up was an alfresco cinema, a bit like the alfresco cinema we had ages ago in the countryside of China.

YFD: Did anyone turn up?

CSX: Of course! There was a great turnout – but it’s true, there were people leaving in the middle of the film.

YFD: People either love Estranged Paradise or hate it. It is quite a complicated film and it was filmed without fear. It has the beauty of coarseness. I love the lonesomeness of the protagonist, smoking on a bridge for about five minutes. The last scene of him exercising overwrites the negative tone of his compromised life: he finds that life is not too bad after all. There is always hope—but he is still compromised.

CSX: So are you using the language of film to produce contemporary art?

YFD: Not exactly. When I was filming Estranged Paradise, I saw it as producing a film.

C: You have admitted that you originally wanted to be a film director in some of your earlier interviews.

Y: That’s true. However the support of Documenta XI in 2002 was probably a turning point in that. Documenta supported me in the post-production of Paradise, and then showed the film, and that put me back on the path of contemporary art. And it’s turned out to be a great journey so far. The film industry is probably too restrictive for me anyway. Its main goal is mass entertainment and consumption.

*

CSX: Do you approach your film works differently then, given that the space they are presented in and the expectation of their audiences are different from those of mainstream, or non-art films?

YFD: In terms of the medium, I am producing a film. Conceptually, however, it is very different. In the past I considered making a feature film with a view to screening at film festivals, but I would never have these kinds of thoughts now. Contemporary artists choose to say they are making yingxiang (影像, image, screenage) instead of dianying (电影,film). The idea of yingxiang has a lot more freedom and allows for more possibilities. It is a journey to experience, an exploration, but not a finished piece like film. I agree with the suggestion that film is five to ten years behind contemporary art, probably because it first has to fulfill the expectations and meet the standards of the film industry. And it takes longer to make that kind of film. Contemporary art inspires a lot of films.

CSX: Do you have any comments on the current state of contemporary art?

284_306_article_thumb.jpg Yang Fudong, Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest, 2003. 35mm film transferred to DVD. Image courtesy the artist and ShanghART Gallery, Shanghai, China

YFD: Contemporary art should not be omnipotent. I think the role assumed by contemporary art is stretching too far. It’s important to continue to extend conceptually, but without moving a whole building intact into the gallery hall! I used to joke about this kind of approach, and I called it 'The Art of Absolute Inclusion' (全因素创作法). Whatever falls into the scope of an idea, the artist moves desperately into the exhibition space. I wonder about the legitimacy of this kind of act.

There is another popular trend in Chinese contemporary art which considers a piece of art as a revolution – and I can’t agree with it. Contemporary art should not have the burden of such functionality. It can’t resolve political issues. Sometimes I kind of agree with those who hate contemporary art, who think contemporary art is useless: it can’t cure diseases; it is not food. Contemporary art can guide public thinking but won’t be able to incite a revolution.

That’s why my work has nothing to do with politics or ideology. I am not able to produce this kind of work. I might subtly blend some social issues but never in a way that is confronting or meant to shock people. I am fascinated with the traditional aesthetics of yihui (意会, sensation) which never directly articulates a particular object but, instead, lyrically expresses its subjectivity.

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Artspace China profiles Chinese visual arts, music and literature, presenting an overview of Chinese contemporary culture while also being a resource for specialised research. It is jointly sponsored by the University of Sydney China Studies Centre and Confucius Institute.
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