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December 18, 2016

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Tale of perseverance inspires video artist

SHANGHAI-BASED visual artist Yang Fudong hates to set boundaries on his art. “The circulation of images is not limited to cinematic films. Media like photos and words, those that can lead you to deep thoughts, are all good forms,” Yang told Shanghai Daily during the opening of his latest solo exhibition.

Titled “Moving Mountains,” the exhibition at the Shanghai Center of Photography centers on a video installation of the same name, which was also commissioned by the Rolls-Royce Art Program. Along with the 46-minute video, the exhibit includes behind-the-scenes footage and snapshots, a large scale painting and scene sketches.

Yang said his video was inspired by a painting of the same name by the late Chinese master Xu Beihong (1895-1953). Based on a Chinese fable, Xu’s painting depicts seven nearly naked men excavating a mountain. According to the legend, an old man named Yu Gong lived in Jizhou, north China, back in olden time. Two high mountains sat in front of Yu’s house, blocking the way to the nearest town and a major river. To save time and energy making detours or climbing over the mountains, the old man and his family decided to move the two mountains.

Their efforts and perseverance were later rewarded by the gods. The story has long been passed down from generation to generation. It was also depicted in Xu’s painting, which left a deep impression on Yang.

“When I was young, my teachers told us to focus on a goal, and never do anything by half; we were to embrace the spirit of ‘moving a mountain.’ How many years have passed...,” Yang wrote in the prologue to the exhibition.

“Back in the old days, ‘moving a mountain’ was an extremely fine and pure pursuit. But now you can hear many voices,” Yang said. “People’s mentality has changed. Some say why move mountains instead of moving home?”

The artist says he still, however, applauds the old man in the story for his perseverance and diligence. Yu Gong’s influence lives on. “There are still dreams to chase, things you keep doing and still believe in,” he said.

With “Moving Mountains,” Yang returns to the naturalistic monochromatic palette that defines his style, as was also seen in his 2007 video “East of Que Village” and the 2008 piece “Blue Kylin.”

In the new film, Chinese actress Wan Qian plays a young mother living a hard life in the mountains with a young child and weak old relatives. The family is later joined by a group of young urban men trekking through the area. At a certain point, all the characters in the film shed their modern clothes and reproduce the image in Xu’s painting.

Yet Yang’s storyline focuses on the mother figure. “Mother is the support for a single family. In all ages, the figure of the mother is always a phantom of beauty and strength. She connects the whole family,” he explained.

There’s also a scene in the film when seven young men climb up a mountain and gaze out at the village. The sequence is a joyful tribute to Yang’s five-part film cycle “Seven Intellectuals in the Bamboo Forest.” Drawing on the legend of the seven renowned poets, painters and scholars in the Wei (AD 220-265) and Jin (AD 265-420) dynasties, the film was shown at the Venice Biennale in 2007. It was then exhibited worldwide, bringing him fame and accolades.

Today, Yang is one of the foremost video, installation and photography artist in China. He’s now interested in exploring the relationship between video and space. “The images you see, and the sound you hear, all comprise space,” he said.

The contrast between the real mountain views and artificial settings in the video is meant to provoke a reflection about what is real, the artist added.

“Every audience is the second director; they get to decide how long the video lasts,” Yang said. Some may drop by and quickly leave — for them the film may only last a few seconds. Others may stay and watch it through several times.

With multimedia, contemporary artists tend to show their true thoughts deep inside their works. But what Yang does is just show life, rather than trying to find the answers.

Yang used to find his works always being “misread” by audiences and critics. But now, instead of feeling offended by this, he’s developed a fondness for the idea of these “misreading,” which are sometimes the result of “peculiar preconceived notions.”

The exhibition runs through January 5 at Shanghai Center of Photography on the West Bund.


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