The beauty of ambiguity – Yang Fudong

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There is nothing black and white about Yang Fudong’s film and video art. It is intricate and philosophical, playful and compelling, striking and underpinned by a beautiful ambiguity. His works bear the hallmarks of a classical training and are routinely noted for their anachronistic evocations as well as a connection to the humanist traditions of ancient China.

Inspired by Chinese films from the 1930s and ’40s, shot mostly in black and white and imbued with traditional scenes and imagery, Yang’s works feel refreshingly modern. Yang Fudong was born in 1971 in Beijing and graduated from the Oil Painting Department of China’s Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1995, where he specialised in photography and traditional Chinese painting. It was during his time at the Academy that Yang began to develop an interest in film and video art, which has since defined his career.

Recent years have seen many of China’s younger generation of artists turning towards film and video. As one of the most famous and influential artists of this generation, Yang is a leading member of a pioneering group that counts Chi Peng, Xu Zhen, Hong Lei, Wang Gongxin, Wang Jianwei and Zhang Peili among its members. Today he lives and works in Shanghai and has gained worldwide recognition for his works, which have been exhibited around the world and are widely collected by public institutions and private collectors alike.

Yang’s art grapples with the confusions and contradictions of modern life in China and draws on and encourages philosophical questions and thoughts about living today. Themes of existence and reality blend into heady, lingering sequences, with a focus on individual experience and feeling. Yang is keen to remind us not to neglect the emotional and sensual experience of art in favour of overly technical analysis. On the subject of whether dualities in his works like East and West, past and present, masculine and feminine are ‘actively’ addressed, Yang is typically cautious of gratuitous analysis.

“Actually, I think my work is more about how I feel and how I think at the moment when I was creating it, without that much reason. Just as with poetry … sing it gently and feel its rhythm, its dance, in your heart.
As with many other arts films, there is no need to overemphasise form or techniques.”

Yang grew up during the final years of the Cultural Revolution, which were fast fading into a China we recognise today. His works are not explicitly or primarily concerned with ideas of political dissent and this has been attributed to being part of the generation that came immediately after the ‘insurgent’ avant-garde artists, who struggled with the Cultural Revolution’s oppression. Yang is characteristically wary of such causal relationships, careful to point to wider and more commonly held influences.

“Although growing up during the years of Cultural Revolution is not something that one can freely choose or avoid; you still have a memorable childhood, just as many people do. You also have those unforgettable experiences, care and love from relatives, friends and beloved ones. My work is mostly inspired by my life, my feeling and deeply felt emotions … I don’t feel there has been a deliberate attempt to be especially political or different.”

At the same time, Yang touches on the political role of art in society, reflecting that, “Perhaps art cannot solve a revolution, but it can help us to think more deeply and it can help us to search for an outlet, something between dream and reality.”

As one of the world’s leading video artists, Yang remembers beginning to look beyond painting during his time as a student.

“During my first year in university (1991), I was very fond of painting. I still am today, but back then I wanted to be a great painter but I wasn’t sure how to do it. At the same time, I was becoming aware of new wave contemporary arts, means of expression that were totally different from conventional painting, such as video art and installation art. They provided me with an impulsiveness and shock that I had never felt before. In video art in particular, I felt that I had finally found the expression I wanted. It gave me this sense of freshness, of being able to breathe.”

Indeed, Yang’s work is full of freshness and yet it also feels (and not oxymoronically so) classical and nostalgic. He strikes a fine balance between something very modern and something that evokes a sense of warmth for early 20th century, pre-industrialised China, making use of iconic, traditional imagery. This and its modernity contribute to a distinct feeling of originality in Yang’s work. His work is also not confined to the class of plot, narrative or action formulae typical of the film industry and popular cinema.

Indeed, Yang describes working in film and video as being “affected by an abstract aesthetic that doesn’t have words … for many artists, including me, film is the material we use to carry on thinking and creating, so it might not result in a product that satisfies public enjoyment and entertainment. As one of my friends once said, it’s like painting, but with a video camera.”

But neither does Yang rule out the idea of working on more conventional projects. “I would like to make a more ‘typical’ film-industry film. Except that in my imagination, it wouldn’t be a typical film in its conventional meaning. It would be a different kind of film with its own set of conditions and feelings.”

Yang explains that ultimately the purpose of his work is to “understand life and love.” It is sincerity, “sincere feeling and thought” he hopes that inspire his work.

“I try to respect my feelings. Usually, when I want to create a work, the idea will have been lingering in my mind for a long time. I will have been pondering it. Perhaps after one year, two years or more, it’s still in my mind and when I can’t forget it, then I know this is an idea that I can work with.”

by Tara Wheeler

From the Glass Archive – Issue Six

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