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"Yang Fudong: Estranged Paradise, Works 1993-2013" opens at Berkeley Art Museum
Yang Fudong, The Evergreen Nature of Romantic Stories, 1999; chromogenic print; 34.65 x 47.24 in.; courtesy of the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris/New York, and ShanghART Gallery, Shanghai.

BERKELEY, CA.- The University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive presents Yang Fudong: Estranged Paradise, Works 1993–2013, the first midcareer retrospective of one of most important artists and filmmakers working in China today. The exhibition, curated by BAM/PFA Adjunct Senior Curator Philippe Pirotte, and co-organized by BAM/PFA and Kunsthalle Zürich, features twenty years of films, multichannel video installations, and photographs by the artist. In conjunction with the gallery exhibition, we present Yang Fudong’s Cinematic Influences, a special film series that includes single-channel films by Yang as well as a selection of historical and contemporary films chosen by the artist.

Born in 1971 and raised in Beijing and initially trained as a painter in Hangzhou, Yang eventually switched his course of study to film and photography. Many of Yang’s films, rooted in traditional Chinese painting and in Chinese cinema from the 1930s and 1940s, have an atemporal and dreamlike quality, marked by long and suspended sequences, dividing narratives, and multiple relationships and storylines. They reflect the ideals and anxieties of his generation, a generation born during and after the Cultural Revolution that is struggling to find its place in the rapidly changing society of the new China.

Yang came to the attention of the international art world in 2002, when he premiered his first film, An Estranged Paradise, loosely based on Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984) at Documenta XI. Beginning with a meditation on the composition of space in Chinese painting, the psychodrama follows Zhuzi, a young man in Hangzhou who suffers from a general feeling of illness. His condition, it becomes clear, can be attributed to a larger discontentment felt in Chinese society. Several themes associated with film noir play a significant role in the film as well as in several of his others works: an invocation of the past and anxiety about the future, and the tensions between indifference and engagement, remembrance and forgetting; the lustrous black-and-white cinematography reinforces the connection to film noir.

Like Zhuzi, the subjects featured in Yang’s works are mostly contemporaries of the artist. As Rey Chow writes in the exhibition’s catalog, “They tend to be young people in an old country, young people who, in other words, embody a long cultural history while their own experience of life is still relatively fresh.” Yang casts them against the consumerist backdrop of contemporary urban China, exploring their ideals and anxieties, and the dignity of the individual in a constantly changing society. This is most obvious in photographic series like Don’t worry, It will be better (2000) or Ms. Huang at M last night (2006). Both depict a well-dressed woman and her coterie of admirers, in a hotel room or during a night out, seemingly enjoying the spoils of their material success. The sly glances of the protagonists leave the audience in a state of uncertainty regarding the actual events and storylines.

Other works refer to the Chinese literati painting tradition, associated with artist-intellectuals who pursued spiritual freedom by retreating to the mountains to live in seclusion immersed in the beauty of the natural world. The Evergreen Nature of Romantic Stories (2000), a series of photographs in which young men and women stare at miniature landscapes, relocates the importance of reflection in traditional Chinese gardens to the domesticity of modern apartments. In the early video installation Tonight Moon (2000), men in swimsuits and costumes intermingle in an Eastern botanical garden. Multiple story lines develop and diverge on small monitors and a large screen, conveying a sense of ambiguity. International Hotel (2010), the recent series of black-and-white photographs of attractive women in bathing suits dipping into a pool at an Art Deco hotel, touches upon questions of feminine interiority.

Yang’s most recent film installations reflect more and more on the process of filmmaking, and take the form of spatially open-ended multichannel films that he calls contemporary versions of the Chinese handscroll.

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