National Museum of Contemporary Art Athens
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YANG FUDONG – SEVEN INTELLECTUALS IN A BAMBOO FOREST AND OTHER STORIES

11/05/2010 - 05/09/2010

ATHENS CONSERVATOIRE

Yang Fudong

Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest and Other Stories

Main Exhibition

11/05/2010 – 05/09/2010

Curated By: Anna Kafetsi

The first part of the monumental cinematic cycle Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest, which forms the core of the artist’s entire oeuvre, as well as of the present exhibition, was presented at the Venice Biennale in 2003. Although the other parts of the cycle have been exhibited at times individually, we had to wait until 2007 to see the complete epic pentalogy, with a total duration of about four hours, in his successful installation at the Arsenale, where one story succeeded the other in five different rooms.

By adopting an evident painterly approach in works that were filmed with a movie camera, and then transferred to DVD, so that they could be presented as audiovisual installations in museums and exhibition spaces, Yang Fudong, who has studied painting at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, expands further this translation process from one genre to the other. The narrative of the five stories rests on oral traditions, diverse variations and legends, about a group of seven Chinese scholars and poets of the 3rd century AD, who, reacting against political corruption, retired from the public and governmental life to seek, through poetry and music, pure meditation and discussion, an inner peace and hedonistic communion with nature. In the transposition of this open-ended narrative, the artist, apart from borrowing the title, preserves its primary structural elements, such as the number of characters, their spirituality and team spirit, but above all focuses on the condition of an intellectual self-exile that emerges in the margins of social life.

Anna Kafetsi

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INTRODUCTION

An intellectual is like a shipwrecked person who learns how to live in a certain sense with the land, not on it, not like Robinson Crusoe whose goal is to colonise his little island, but more like Marco Polo, whose sense of the marvellous never fails him, and who is always a traveller…

Edward Said

During the past two decades, we have been living under the constellation of decentred artistic quests and policies, through which doubtlessly emerged new artistic scenes –the Chinese being one of the most important here–, artists and works, multiple networks of collaborations, connections and discussions between diverse geographical and cultural regions, between the centres and peripheries, radically transforming the international artistic map. Regardless of the different each time artistic or ideological investments, the explosion of interest in the artistic production of countries which, for historical, political or financial reasons, were isolated or marginalised, not only dramatically changed the agenda of museums and large-scale international exhibitions, but also offered new contents to cultural globalisation.

Without ignoring the actually existing inequalities and disproportionalities between different countries, on the level both of production and distribution, the contemporary discourse in the international artistic realm showcases a diverse open and decentred international art, produced by diverse artists who come from different geographical places.

The migratory mobility of artists from the peripheries, which, during the 90s, had the metropolitan centres as its main destination, is more and more succeeded in our days by the determination of many young artists to remain in their native place, attracting at the same time the interest and recognition of a transnational audience. Artistic activity remains, to a great extent, local. It echoes, investigates, and critically examines particular cultural and socio-political realities, without excluding associations and correlations between other environments, in an effort to establish a convergence between the local and the global community.

The case of the international Chinese artist Yang Fudong, in contrast to the case of the diasporic artist of n“transexperiences” Chen Zhen, whose large-scale exhibition was organized by the National Museum of Contemporary Art in the Spring of 2002, is suggestive of the new atmosphere that prevails even beyond the contemporary Chinese scene. Many of us owe the discovery of this “talented visionary” and “unique” in his kind among the Chinese artists of the younger generation, as Karen Smith has phrased it, to the Documenta XI, held in 2002 in Kassel, in which he participated with his highly poetical film An Estranged Paradise. It should be noted that his participation in this important international exhibition helped him obtain not only the funds for completing his first cinematic work, which he had begun in 1997, but also a series of successive invitations to exhibitions in large museums and biennials of contemporary art, bringing along his early international establishment as an artist.

The first part of the monumental cinematic cycle Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest, which forms the core of the artist’s entire oeuvre, as well as of the present exhibition, was presented at the Venice Biennale in 2003. Although the other parts of the cycle have been exhibited at times individually, we had to wait until 2007 to see the complete epic pentalogy, with a total duration of about four hours, in his successful installation at the Arsenale, where one story succeeded the other in five different rooms.

By adopting an evident painterly approach in works that were filmed with a movie camera, and then transferred to DVD, so that they could be presented as audiovisual installations in museums and exhibition spaces, Yang Fudong, who has studied painting at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, expands further this translation process from one genre to the other. The narrative of the five stories rests on oral traditions, diverse variations and legends, about a group of seven Chinese scholars and poets of the 3rd century AD, who, reacting against political corruption, retired from the public and governmental life to seek, through poetry and music, pure meditation and discussion, an inner peace and hedonistic communion with nature. In the transposition of this open-ended narrative, the artist, apart from borrowing the title, preserves its primary structural elements, such as the number of characters, their spirituality and team spirit, but above all focuses on the condition of an intellectual self-exile that emerges in the margins of social life.

At the same time, this cycle of five black-and-white films is also a work of displacement, a road movie, in the well-known cinematic term, presupposing a wide range of intertextual connections with respective literary, visual and cinematic works. Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road (1957), which left its mark on the artist during his student years, definitely opens up a wide hermeneutic and imaginary horizon. The long travel of the fringe group of American beatniks who traverse borders, places and experiences, without any actual goal beyond a geographical, intellectual and emotive wandering that leads to self-determination and freedom, crosses the itinerant –aesthetic, emotional and existential– pursuits of a group of seven young men and women who wander the Chinese hinterland and metropolises and are labelled as intellectuals.

Their appearance and the vestural conventions, as well as their attitudes and discussions, outline the type of a thinking person in his first youth, whose pursuits are not confined to intellectual and artistic activities but extend to other manual labours that promise an offering to the human community. It is characteristic the observation in connection with the identity of his contemporary intellectuals that the artist makes in his exhaustive and penetrating interview, which is published here in two parts, having as its main topic this epic artistic cycle. Referring to the polysemy of the term in the Chinese language, he focuses on the spiritual temperament, the education and the ideas characterizing an otherwise “normal”, as he puts it, independent thinking person, who nevertheless gains learning through rich and diverse human experiences and situations.

Fudong’s young intellectuals pass through all kinds of work. As farmers in the rice-fields, fishermen, industrial workers, chefs and cleaners in the urban centres, they toil, strive and struggle, until they find themselves, being recognizable again, in city attire and their luggage at hand, on the road. The heavy physical toil, the exhausting hike between the ruins, interrupted by their reveries and reading, love and solitary walks, eating and entertaining themselves, do not obey needs for survival and rules of dominion. In contrast, they define a new intellectual and emotive state, a fluid state of continuous transformation, temporariness and transition, where everything ends to begin anew. The young intellectuals get out of their single identity defined by difference in order to integrate in it, through their continuous displacements, the other and elsewhere. For them, the intellectual’s identity is not a closed, entrenched reality but a constant movement from the same to the different, a continuous creative crossing of limits and alterities which has a curiosity, a surprise, an enjoyment and a richness of life within it.

The seven intellectuals, as marginal figures of nomads, strangers in their own country, in divergence with the –ideological, social and moral– norms, with the “ordinary” reality that they have left behind, seek in isolation, through wandering and passing places, the unknown or forgotten regions of their own subjective world, as well as the terms for a new socialization. Their foreigness determines the imaginary place that the artist visits, in a nostalgic and melancholic vein, in order to install their true habitat. From their hedonistic and purifying tour in the Yellow Mountain (Huangshan), their secret amorous paths, their ritual passage to the earth and their utopian hovering in the isolated island, to their return to city life and reality, he observes from a distance and without any script, the physical tribulations, the inner turbulences and the evolution of the people of this thinking new generation, of his own. Through his superbly poetical and pictorial frames he reveals the condition of exile, in both its literal and metaphorical meaning, as its actual model.

The love which could break the circle of individual identity is conveyed with the same ambiguity that also penetrates the five-part cinematic cycle in his enigmatic multi-screen video installation Close to the Sea. On the edge between two different possibilities, it finds its metaphorical equivalent in chromatic and audio counterpoints and dissonances, alternations of lyricism and harsh realism, and above all in the impromptu boat of the two young lovers, this floating island that reflects separation, isolation, the folding into the self, and, at the same time, movement, the opening to the archipelago, the approach of the self to the Other. The discontinuities and temporal vacillations through which the love story unfolds, blur the boundaries between present, past and future, between reality and recollection, in the same way that can be seen in the oneiric work of high pictorial delicacy Liu Lan (2003), a cinematic haiku on memory and love’s impossibility. In the epilogue of the exhibition, there is the travel to desolation, the dark and harsh reality of the other China, on the antipodes of the emergent and rapidly developing capitalist society of the urban centres, through a deeply profound work, his multi-screen cinematic installation East of Que Village.

Anna Kafetsi

CATALOG

Editor: Anna Kafetsi
Texts by: Yang Fudong, Αnna Kafetsi, Stamatis Schizakis, Karen Smith, Zhang Yaxuan
128 pages, 22 x 16.5 cm, Athens 2010
Bilingual (Greek / English)
With texts and reproductions of works
ΙSBN: 978-960-8349-51-3
Available for sale: price 15 euro

 

Photo: Yang Fudong, Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest Part 2, 2004 (film still)

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