Walking into the large, darkened space of Yang Fudong’s The Fifth Night (Rehearsal) (2010) at the Berkeley Art Museum’s Yang Fudong: Estranged Paradise, Works 1993–2013, the viewer is greeted by seven large black-and-white projections on three walls. In each projection, characters perform simple actions: two men carry suitcases down the street; a woman in a floral dress wanders pensively, her silk scarf fluttering. Superimposed on some shots are the wireframe and readout from the camera’s monitor, so the viewer is presented with not only the action in each shot but also the meta-image of a more technical aspect of the filming process. Though the characters are clearly transfixed by their environment, their inner motivations are never revealed and their actions never resolve into anything akin to a plot. What’s important is that the physical structure of the projections around the room forces the viewer into the role of co-director, where she makes edits simply by turning her head to focus on a different view, or even by blinking.
One can guess from this arrangement that Yang’s work interrogates the structural nature of film and the process of building a narrative while simultaneously commenting on modern Chinese society and post–Cultural Revolution anxieties. However, the joy of Yang’s work is visceral as well as intellectual; I felt a rush of pure pleasure at being greeted by this cinematic immersion, with its rich, nostalgic black and white, and its lovely atmospheric drifting. The film, video, photography, and print works in this mid-career retrospective are based in concept and layered with political and cultural significance, and yet rarely do they fail to also be utterly captivating.
It’s important to note that Yang was born at the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1971, so in his formative years, when foreign cinema began to make its way into China, he would often see a movie poster but not the actual movie, or he would watch a film that was not subtitled in Chinese, so he would have to invent the dialogue and motivations for the on-screen actions. There’s a literary term—poetic misprision—that describes the process by which works that predate the artist’s own have a direct bearing on production but are not a clear, direct influence; these works are fundamentally misinterpreted by the artist, processed by an intense human subjectivity that never allows for a “pure” reading of any work of art. Poetic misprision operates on two levels in this exhibition: first, in Yang’s own process of apprehending the films that he could never completely penetrate, leading to his artistic oeuvre and, second, for the viewer naïve to the nuances of Chinese history and culture, who essentially—productively—mistranslates Yang’s work by seeing it from an unyielding Western perspective.
Take, for example, the thirteen-minute absurdist Backyard—Hey! Sun Is Rising (2001), a film characterized in the exhibition catalogue as “an anti-heroic parody of Chinese propaganda imagery mixed with references to traditional Chinese wisdom, in a visual stylization that vaguely recalls Chinese cinema of the 1930s and 1940s.” Four men perform tasks that don’t resolve into a coherent story: they crawl along the sidewalk, inexpertly practice swordsmanship, rest indolently on furniture, etc. The men, sets, and costumes are clearly Chinese (and the purposeful ambiguity of the actions has been related to discontent in Chinese society). Nevertheless, when the men walk across a street in single file, I am immediately reminded of the Beatles’ Abbey Road album cover. My Western perspective seems inescapable, though it seems less problematic knowing that my misapprehension of the work mimics Yang’s own poetic misprision.
The photographs in the exhibition also delve into ideas of cinema and narrative, as stirring to the viewer’s imagination as the movie posters were to Yang. The series Ms. Huang at M Last Night (2006) appear to be film stills, though they are not. They allude to shadowy film noir intrigues, with no overarching scenario driving the series toward a final determination. Nearby, the series Don’t Worry, It Will Be Better (2000) depicts well-groomed young professionals in enigmatic scenes. But these are not the purposeful enigmas of a crime drama. Rather, the protagonists occupy themselves with trivial activities, or else they simply gaze wistfully into the distance toward a future that may never arrive. Upstairs, the three saturated chromogenic prints from The Evergreen Nature of Romantic Stories (1999) find young urban couples staring introspectively at penzai (Chinese bonsai). Though these works seem less cinematic than the others, they are hung in a column, so that they make three “frames” of images, as in a strip of film.
Yang Fudong: Estranged Paradise is a sprawling exhibition, and I returned for a second viewing. As I attended to the lovely, atmospheric single-channel video City Light (2000)—in which a man and his doppelganger travel around the city performing a set of actions loosely related to detective-fiction tropes—I relished the proposition that Yang had set up: as the actions of the characters never add up to a coherent, plot-driven account, the video reads less like a “movie” and more like watching strangers go about their lives; the viewer is free to invent a story while acknowledging that it is not the story. The fundamental ambiguity of Yang’s work means that there is space for the viewer regardless of her cultural perspective, a place for cinema that opens possibilities instead of projecting exhaustive narratives.
Yang Fudong: Estranged Paradise is on view at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive through December 8, 2013.