Yang Fudong: Fifth Night
We have seen every show the Vancouver Art Gallery has mounted for the past seven years and Yang Fudong’s Fifth Night is amongst the most riveting and visually compelling works we’ve encountered during this time. One of the most prominent contemporary artists in China, he studied painting at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou then turned to film and video in the 1990s. Born in 1971, Yang Fudong was a sensation out of the gate – by 2002 he was already exhibiting at the prestigious Documenta XI and the following year at the 50th Venice Biennale. His captivating seven screen installation currently on view at the Vancouver Art Gallery is a stunning example of his haunting, complex and unabashedly beautiful work which harkens to the cinematic traditions of Hollywood and is interwoven with references to the rapidly changing cultural landscape of contemporary China.
Fifth Night is a carefully choreographed film which Yang Fudong shot from seven different vantage points, each of which is projected simultaneously on a screen, literally presenting multiple perspectives for the viewer to contemplate. In sumptuous, velvety black-and-white, he captures figures in a city square at night; each one seems lost in their own thoughts, stepping deliberately and moving guided by his or her individual and undisclosed purpose. The square is filled with characters of all sorts, a conglomeration of generations – older men sit, impassive on a settee, earnest young men dressed in suits and ties carry suitcases and young women in floaty floral dresses pace the square. Although the characters do not speak and fail to significantly connect or interact (a series of “near misses”), their faces are often full of expression, betraying an intense inner dialogue and a sense of desperate longing and searching. The narrative is deeply elusive as events and actions unfold without explanation: a science experiment with vials containing eels and fish is set out on a table, men hammer, weld and labour, and a woman walks down a spiral staircase – but from where? These are all circumstances without explanation that the viewer is left to interpret and decipher.
The world we are presented in Fifth Night is one in transition, an in-between space, where its inhabitants are physically on the move: they pace and circle, carry suitcases as they travel, a horse-drawn carriage drives by as do bicycles, rickshaws, trams and cars. The buildings evoke Shanghai of the 1930s and 40s, an important moment in the city’s history when it was a significant cultural centre and produced elegant and lauded film. The wardrobe of the characters, however, could be contemporary. These elements do not perfectly align and create a sense of disjuncture and quiet tension. The intermingling of generations and this feeling of change and discord may implicate the recent rapid socio-economic change in the artist’s country and the resultant displacement and restlessness of its youth.
The location for all of this mysterious activity is the Shanghai Film Studio, which feels both indoors and out, contributing to the work’s eerie, otherworldly quality. A central platform, a stage of sorts, calls attention to the theatrical nature of the production and setting, an apt reminder since the work was shot on a fictional, make-believe film lot. It is also, however, a functioning office space for the film studio staff, giving the space a daily, utilitarian purpose. The artist refers to the site itself as simultaneously “real and imagined”, much the way a dream feels to the dreamer. Yang Fudong’s work has often been described as “dream-like” and this certainly applies to Fifth Night with its mysterious and enigmatic imagery. The title of the work makes reference to the stages of dreaming – the fifth stage in a sleep cycle, during which REM sleep is experienced, offers the most vivid and memorable dreams.
Sitting in the darkened room of the installation, one quickly realizes the impossibility of watching all seven projections at once; it becomes natural to move through the space from one screen to the next, mimicking the movement of the figures presented. At his artist talk, Yang Fudong stated his intent was to create a “spatialized film”, one in which he could encourage the audience to walk through the space and construct their own highly personal experience from the fractured narrative he presents. As Yang Fudong has stated, “Fifth Night can be seen as a midnight theatre for an audience of one.” The midnight theatre he presents is a strikingly rich and evocative one.
Full Disclosure: the contributors to Here and Elsewhere are employed by the Vancouver Art Gallery