Yang Fudong is making the boundary between painting and film seem about as sturdy and secure as an old split rail fence in an open field with a tornado whipping on the horizon. Both of his two new short pieces on view at Goodman’s gallery are presented entirely in shades black as ink and silvery white, as a traditional Chinese painting would be. No character in either film speaks; communication is achieved in glances and gestures, while narrative arcs build out of suggested and implied relationships. The emotional content runs high. These are films you feel.
Black and white is a typical stylistic choice for Yang, who like David Lynch became a filmmaker after years of studying painting. Removing color automatically gives his work an antiquated look that is augmented through Yang’s blend of historical tropes with touches of contemporary imagery. It isn’t exactly the past that seems to be evoked so much as a sense of memory, even nostalgia. Familiarity is constructed from one scene to the next because so little actually changes. Sets and characters are filmed from numerous angles, but the actors don’t switch their outfits and the sets remain the same. Despite this the films do not lapse into rote predictability; their momentum develops through the characters’ interaction with one another and the environment in which Yang has situated them. Like the sensation of déjà vu, there is a creeping feeling of recognition in these films that is shrouded by a haze of strangeness that refuses to lift.
The Fifth Night (2010), spans an entire wall in Goodman’s long rectangular space. Seven ceiling-mounted digital projectors each have their own screen, a design meant to correspond with the format of a scroll painting. The set upon which the film plays out is a mock urban plaza reminiscent of Shanghai in the 30s. Seven central characters—three filthy laborers, two finely dressed women, and a pair of intellectuals—essentially wander around the plaza looking utterly bamboozled, as if trying to figure out where they are. Auxiliary activity goes on around them: a pair of men work bellows and an anvil, a vehicle is being welded, something burns in a barrel, a candle shrine flickers, bicyclists ride by, a horse pulls a buggy, old-timey cars pass through. The seven characters tread very slowly around the scene, almost nervously, regarding each other without ever really acknowledging anyone.
The second film is presented on a single screen, but is no less surreal. The Nightman Cometh (2011), takes place on a single scene of desolation that Samuel Beckett might have designed. There is a dead tree, a broken cart, a makeshift fire, and a rock pile. It is winter, snow falls, and in the deep space a jagged mountain range pokes into a darkened sky. Like Fifth Night, the set is clearly artificial and the past and present mingle as if in some liminal space. A warrior in ancient armor is both the first to arrive on the scene and last to leave it. Three figures—two women and a man—dressed in modern suits and gowns wander on and off the set. Animals figure prominently: a family of spotted deer nuzzles around for food, wild chickens perch on the rocks, an eagle spreads its wings and screeches silently, the warrior’s dark horse whinnies. One gets the impression the three figures (all dressed in white to contrast the warrior’s dark armor and black steed) may be figments of the warrior’s imagination, perhaps ghosts of his past, or future. They don’t suffer the harsh weather as the warrior seems too. In the end the warrior mounts his horse and heads towards the mountains, alone, as night falls. What he’s riding into, or off from, almost begs to be read symbolically, but the feeling the situation generates need not be: a melancholy mixture of hopefulness and desperation.
The operatic musical scores that accompany the films heighten their emotional charge so much that the absence of music in Yang’s photo series International Hotel (2010), is as noticeable as the lack of movement. These are well-executed black and white photographs of attractive women in bathing suits dipping into a pool at an Art Deco Hotel. Though conventionally beautiful, they lack the feeling of the films. Alongside the motion pictures, it’s hard to read these images as anything other than production stills, as fragments of something yet unrevealed. In the context of Yang’s films they also make evident a simple truth: that where narrative isn’t provided, we will fashion our own.
(All images: Yang Fudong, Fifth Night, 2010, 7 channel HD video installation, Black and white, sound, 10'37"; Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery)