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November 25, 2011

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Filming young people adrift

CHINA'S foremost video, installation and photography artist Yang Fudong generally depicts his own 1970s generation whose lives coincide with China's rapid modernization. He focuses on the struggle to find meaning and to balance new ideas with traditional Chinese values and culture.

His latest work "One Half of August" is now being shown at the Minsheng Art Museum as part of a retrospective of China's video art. In it he continues to explore his youth themes, but with a twist.

In this work, Yang uses film recorded during the shooting of his best-known work, the five-part "Seven Intellectuals in the Bamboo Forest" (first part 2003), as well as unscreened video. The new screen image is projected onto different materials, such as old tables, chairs and building debris that have been painted white to become "screens."

"I am now interested in the relationship between video and space," Yang explained. There are eight screens in the exhibition hall reflecting fragment scenes, including a misty countryside village and figures from the Republic of China period in the 1920s.

"Usually a scenario and coherence are the elements that attract an audience and we are accustomed to seeing a visual feast of stories. But mine is not that relaxed and pleasant," Yang explained. "The audience needs to organize the scenes and plots on their own."

The audience can enter and leave Yang's visual world at any time. The simultaneous projections on eight screens disrupts the habitual and logical thought processes of the audience who are influenced by images all around them.

But that's Yang's purpose - exceeding the visual scope of the viewers, or "letting them narrate."

"Some people ask me what my films are about, because there is no plot, and I tell them that it depends on what they can find," the 40-year-old artist said in an interview.

"I was shooting my latest video for 'One Half of August' late into the night - Being a video artist is a tough physical job."

Yang was born in 1971 in Beijing into a military family. He dreamed of becoming a football player, but a detached retina made that impossible. He attended the China Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou and majored in oil painting, graduating in 1995. Some of his paintings won national awards, but he was always interested in shooting movies.

"During my campus days, there were few chances to see video art. We only had access to art movies at International Film Festivals," he said. "At that time, I didn't know the difference between artistic films and video art."


He says video art is very personal and compares it to an artist speaking to himself.

Bit by bit, he started to play around with cameras and gradually moved on to film and video.

Yang's breakthrough came in 2007 with the completion of the five-part, cycle film "Seven Intellectuals in the Bamboo Forest" that was widely praised. It draws on the legend of seven famous intellectuals in the Wei Dynasty (AD 220-AD 265) and the Jin Dynasty (AD 265-AD 420). They were poets, scholars and painters who escaped from daily cares and gathered in the bamboo forest, where they drank wine, played traditional Chinese instruments and sang.

"What I shoot is the life of today's youth and their life removed from real life," Yang said. "It expresses an urge to go beyond reality to find complete freedom. People in the film want to rediscover their beliefs, to again find the utopia that once existed at the bottom of the heart of everyone."

That work has been described as gorgeous and breathtakingly beautiful: a group of seven young and stylish people wander in the misty mountain landscape of Huangshan (Yellow Mountain). The sound track contains a lamenting voice that at one point says, "I'm destined to lose him, our constellations do not match."

Each part of the film was originally shot in 35mm film, which was then transferred to DVD. Yang prefers to shoot in film, as opposed to digital video, since he believes that film retains a strong sense of the artist's touch, which digital videos often lack. The five parts range in length from 30 to 70 minutes; the entire work lasts for around four hours.

The work was shown at the Venice Biennale in 2007. Since then, his works have been exhibited worldwide and are collected by individuals and museums; he has won numerous awards.

A recently released "Confidence Index Rankings for Chinese Artists" by ArtTactic, a UK-based independent art marketing research company, showed declining rankings of the "Fabulous Four" painters (Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun, Wang Guangyi and Fang Lijun), but Yang Fudong, Zeng Fanzhi, Zhang Huan, Cai Guoqiang and Xu Bing, all employing non-traditional media, were in the top five.


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