Multimedia exhibit is a channel into Chinese life

‘The Evergreen Nature of Romantic Stories’ is one of Yang Fudong’s works featured in the exhibit ‘Estranged Paradise.’
Yang Fudong/Courtesy
‘The Evergreen Nature of Romantic Stories’ is one of Yang Fudong’s works featured in the exhibit ‘Estranged Paradise.’

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“Estranged Paradise” features the work of Yang Fudong, one of the pioneers of contemporary art and the independent cinema movement in China. The acclaimed artist co-curated the exhibition, which incorporates his still photography, short films and multichannel video installations created from 1993 to the present.

The cavernous back rooms and stark concrete walls of the Berkeley Art Museum are utilized perfectly for the exhibition — large dark rooms allow for an immersive and powerful experience with the multichannel video pieces, and the photographs are graciously and artfully presented in the outer spaces. Small viewing stations set up on the gallery floor present Yang’s short films in a distinctive manner, blurring the line between how the museum visitor is presented film and still photography. This display style allows the short films, each around five to 10 minutes, to be regarded as one would appreciate a fine painting: by patiently standing in front of it as its message slowly unfolds.

Although each of the pieces has a different focus, the exhibition is arranged and tied together by theme rather than by chronology. The artist’s investigation of the young Chinese experience is what makes the exhibition cohesive — the motifs of opulence, confusion, aimlessness and ambition all exemplify Yang’s main focus on the tension in post-Cultural Revolution Chinese society as it tries to define itself in an “opening” world.

The museum introduction identifies this tension as a confrontation of “an emerging culture that celebrates consumerism, rampant growth, and individual enterprise, in contrast to the traditional values of productivity, restraint, and the collective.” Yang Fudong’s artwork, however, does not tackle this theme from a macro perspective. The pieces are all personally engaged.

Many pieces specifically identify the subjects they depict, either through titles that identify particular people (such as “Ms. Huang and M Last Night”) or images that focus on individuals’ faces as they interact with the larger world. In some of the moving art pieces, it is the individual viewer’s experience that Fudong integrates into the otherwise impersonal subject matter, such as an empty street or a pack of wild dogs.

Yang Fudong manages to qualify the major questions and uncertainties Chinese society faces today through his more personal approach. It is the human experiences he depicts in his art that exemplify a people unsure of their relationship with the government, youth conflicted about which culture applies to them most and the awkwardness of China’s adoption of a new kind of life that has taken on some Western characteristics.

The museum’s assistant curator Dena Beard, however, mentioned that the focus of the exhibition is not on the Eastern-Western divide but rather is on China’s “embracing the new capitalism” and questioning what cultural production is in that context.

Context also defines her answer to the uniqueness of Yang Fudong in the Chinese avant-garde and contemporary art world, as she asked, “Did our historical context produce Andy Warhol?

“The context of (the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, where Yang studied art,) being completely unlike the Beijing academy, was based upon a cultural shift that was happening when (Chinese artists) were innately reacting to the scenarios they were given. These artists, who include such figures as Ai Weiwei, were all part of a zeitgeist” that originated from their social and historical context.

It is exactly this that makes Yang Fudong such an outstanding artist and this exhibition so exemplary: He is able to express the overarching questions of a whole society, a whole historical moment — his context — in a personal and understandable way.