02 July–13 August 201102 Jul–13 Aug 2011
Yang Fudong’s poetic videos are grounded in an appreciation of the way that rapid modernisation has supplanted China’s traditional values and culture. This show brings together two of his most important works, the five-part video Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest (2003–7) and the eight-channel video installation No Snow on the Broken Bridge (2006). In both, Yang contrasts period elements with contemporary ones, asking the relevance of traditional values to our time. As much as Yang is indebted to centuries-old traditions of scroll painting (he was trained as a painter), this is mediated through the modern language of cinema. Shot in black-and-white, his videos recall 1930s Shanghai films and 1960s European new-wave films.
Seven Intellectuals borrows its theme from a Chinese legend, ‘Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove’. During the third century, a group of rebellious Taoist Qingtan scholars, writers, and musicians rejected Confucianism and public service, instead devoting themselves to the arts of conversation, poetry, and music, and the pleasures of food and wine. Yang’s video is epic—over five hours long; he produced one installment each year for five years. Some parts take place in the country, others in the city. Instead of a clear narrative, it offers beautifully filmed vignettes at a languid pace. Seven Intellectuals plays on familiar binaries: male and female, the individual and society, past and present, lived reality and the possibility of utopia, and style and substance. Robert Storr described it as ‘a meditation on longing—for a place, an intimate circle, a link to tradition, a transcendent purpose’.
No Snow on the Broken Bridge (2006) expands on this enquiry. The title refers to a scenic vista, ‘Lingering Snow on the Broken Bridge’, a famous view of the West Lake, where the video was shot. Eight screens are arranged in an arc so that viewers feel surrounded by the imagery. The video features four men in traditional Chinese attire and four in Western suits; there are four women, sometimes dressed as men in suits, but mostly in exquisite cheongsams and luxurious fur stoles. Characters move from screen to screen as they traverse the banks of the lake and the lake itself. Yang writes: ‘As winter fades from them, they yearn to catch one last vestige of the Broken Bridge: the memory of translucent, languid snow.’ One one screen, we might see rippling water or a swaying tree budding with the season’s first flowers; on another, the four girls running down the cobblestone bridge, tickling each other and laughing; on another, the four men stalking through the woods. The viewer scans the images, trying to link them as a narrative.
As John McDonald explains: ‘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 economy. 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 marginalised and irrelevant. He is torn between realism and romanticism, between pragmatism and nostalgia.’