Q: When is a film not a film? A: When it’s a work of contemporary art. Of all the current crop of Chinese artists who have become stars of the Biennale circuit, Yang Fudong (b.1971) is one of the most difficult to categorise. Having studied painting at the Academy of Art in Hangzhou, he has become famous for a series of oblique, stylish films that are usually presented as art installations.
For the next six weeks the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation is showing Yang’s eight-screen projection, No Snow on the Broken Bridge (2006). At intervals they will also be screening his five-part magnum opus, Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest, a project that occupied the artist from 2003-2007.
Although he uses the same tools as any film director, Yang’s works could not comfortably be described as cinema. They have characters and a loose form of narrative, but it is not possible to follow a story from beginning to end.
Because No Snow is projected on eight screens simultaneously the viewer is constantly having to choose where to focus his or her attention. Having watched the eleven-minute piece several times in succession, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is nothing to be gained from concentrating too long on any one area. On the contrary, it is only by switching between screens that connections and narrative threads emerge.
This is the story, as summarised by Yang himself: “Four robed guests, four ladies in quipao, four young people in suits, and four girls dressed as boys gather at West Lake in early spring. As winter fades from them, they yearn to catch one last vestige of Broken Bridge: the memory of translucent, languid snow.”
That’s it. There is no dialogue, no beginning or end. The action occurs at a famous beauty spot near Hangzhou, which has a view known as ‘Lingering Snow on the Broken Bridge’. One might imagine that the substitution of “no” for “lingering” provides a key to this work, but that suggests a degree of calculation that Yang disavows. In all his statements the artist stresses the intuitive nature of his approach, which he calls “abstract filmmaking”.
However, Yang’s films are only abstract in the sense that Picasso and Braque’s early Cubist works were seen as abstract. Even though forms were broken down to the point where they were almost unrecognisable, Analytical Cubism was an extreme form of realism aimed at depicting a reality that transcended appearances. So too with Yang’s films, which present a series of striking images that constantly make us pause for reflection, even while we are trying to puzzle out the rudiments of a story.
By substituting “no snow” for “lingering snow”, Yang is stressing the claims of realism over romanticism. His characters may be hoping for a last glimpse of winter’s beauty, but that yearning is at odds with the world they inhabit on a day-to-day basis, symbolised by their formal dresses, suits and ties. This is also a comment on the decay of age-old Chinese traditions, fast disappearing in a globalised, market-driven society.
The paradox and the power of Yang’s work lies in the fact that he presents the viewer with a series of extraordinarily beautiful images, even while he implies that such experiences are increasingly marginalized and irrelevant. He is torn between realism and romanticism, between pragmatism and nostalgia. This conflicted view of the world finds expression in his intuitive methods of filmmaking.
Even though Yang’s films are virtually incomprehensible as stories, they are ravishing to the eye. They are shot in a grainy black-and-white that radiates an effortless glamour. His youthful actors are equally glamorous, dressed in fashions that conjure up visions of the Shanghai of the 1930s; although Yang’s initial inspiration came a photo of the philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, dressed in a natty pin-striped suit.
Sartre’s existentialist doctrines – the idea that we are alone in a godless universe, obliged to cope with the dilemma of our own freedom – are strongly present in Yang’s films. But it’s not clear if he has drawn these ideas from Sartre, or from filmmakers such as Antonioni or the early Wim Wenders, who made spellbinding movies in which virtually nothing happens.
One influence Yang freely admits is Federico Fellini, but where everyone else discovers a famous director through his movies, Yang had studied Fellini’s work intensively before he ever saw a film. As a consequence, he says that his early pieces were based on imaginary ideas of what a Fellini film looks like. This might be seen as a uniquely cinematic variation on Harold Bloom’s idea that all great poets find their voice by creatively misreading their predecessors.
In Yang’s case it was a stricture imposed on him by the difficulty of obtaining prints of European movies in China. When he began to travel he was able to fill in his filmic knowledge, and many of his works contain tiny acts of homage to the great directors. In the third part of Seven Intellectuals an actor raises his head from the sand to reveal a broken lens in his spectacles. One need not be a cinephile to think of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. In No Snow, an actor’s eye is menaced by the sharp leaf of a plant, in a scene that recalls the sliced eyeball in Bunuel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou.
The importance of these western references should not be underestimated, although it is just as easy to stress the uniquely Chinese elements in Yang’s work. His movies may look more like European films of the 1960s than Shanghai films of the 1930s, but his use of landscape alludes to a thousand year-old tradition of brush and ink painting. It has even been said that his films unfold like scroll paintings, each image requiring a moment’s contemplation before it disappears and is replaced by another. Individual scenes, such as shots of grasses, reeds and shadows in No Snow, have a distinctly calligraphic quality. Yang has compared the process of editing his films to moving paintings around while hanging an exhibition.
Most significantly, the artist continues to draw his themes and titles from Chinese sources. Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest takes its inspiration from the story of the seven Taoist sages of the Wei dynasty (220-265 BCE) who withdrew from public life to live together in the forest, where they drank and sang.
Yang’s intellectuals are seven, smartly dressed young people, shown in five oblique scenarios. In Part I they climb Huangshan (Yellow Mountain), as tourists; in Part II they are clustered in a house in the city, mainly discussing sex. In Parts III and IV, which have no dialogue whatsoever, they are living a peasant life in the mountains, then a fisherman’s life on an island. Finally, in the lengthy Part V, they are back in Shanghai, switching roles, watching the city be torn down and rebuilt around them.
Last week I watched all four hours and 48 minutes of Seven Intellectuals, and came away impressed by Yang’s grasp of a cinematic language that he seems to deliberately flaunt. There are moments when the films begin to meander, only to be brought back in line with a powerful, poetic image. His young intellectuals are as alienated as all intellectuals, feeling at odds with the rhythms of nature so brilliantly captured in these films. But there is no attempt to put forward any grand, overarching framework of ideas.
Yang says that he makes “minor intellectual movies”. They are about “your emotions and moods; about the dreams that you cannot make true but cannot let go. They are about each detail of your life; they are what you think your life should be; they are the books you have read; they might also be a cliché.”
Perhaps the most problematic aspect of this work is its presence in so many large-scale international exhibitions, where each part runs simultaneously in one of five separate rooms. Yang approves of this, saying that one need not view the project as a whole, merely sample the atmosphere, taking as much as one desires. Here I think he is wrong. No less than Matthew Barney’s seven-hour Cremaster cycle, Yang’s Seven Intellectuals needs to be viewed as cinema, not as a fragmented art installation. It makes little sense to see such a piece at say, the Venice Biennale, where viewers are trying to absorb thousands of different things within two or three days. In such a setting who could afford to spend four hours with a single work?
Yang is an exceptional artist who has benefited immensely from the slack, omnivorous morass of the contemporary art world, which automatically says “yes” to whatever is put on its plate. In this world everything is accepted, everything is permitted, and everything is good. Yang himself has described it as “a false utopia”, implicitly recognising that his work has been widely acclaimed by people who have barely seen any of it. It’s ironic that an epic film about alienated intellectuals should provide such a vivid demonstration of the intellectual bankruptcy of contemporary art.
Published for The Sydney Morning Herald, April 23, 2011
Yang Fudong: No Snow on the Broken Bridge, Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, until 4 June, 2011
Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest screened on 5 May, 2011