Yang Fudong's Australia exhibition marks a move into digital filmmaking

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 February, 2015, 6:50am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 February, 2015, 10:51am

It gives new meaning to the term underground cinema. Deep in a dark Melbourne basement, far beneath downtown Federation Square, the video installations of renowned Chinese contemporary artist Yang Fudong play in a loop.

It's an exhibition that Yang hopes will help stimulate new opportunities for China's up-and-coming artists to show their works to the world.

"Their audience should not be limited to China. I want audiences from around the world to be able to experience Chinese art," says Yang, 43, adding that this year, finance permitting, he hopes to start making feature films.

The underground space in which "Yang Fudong: Filmscapes" is screening is no ordinary basement. Four of his works are being presented underground at Melbourne's purpose-built Australian Centre for the Moving Image.

The specially commissioned The Coloured Sky: New Women II - which continues from New Woman I, a Toronto Film Festival commission - is his first digital work, marking a departure from his use of black-and-white celluloid film. The five-channel hyperrealist piece has startling colours.

It was commissioned by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image and the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki in New Zealand, where the exhibition opens in September.

On an artificial beach, with background sounds of splashing, young women frolic and pose behind tinted glass. There are moments of childish joy - such as a silent pillow fight - and moments of stillness.

The demure swimsuits the women wear contrast with the provocative poses.

"The politics of spectatorship, the construction of female sexual identity, and the illusion of intimacy become obvious," says the Australian Centre for the Moving Image's notes. This is about "the secret desires and anxieties of young women as they come of age".

So how does a middle-aged man tackle such subject matter? The world consists of women and men, says Yang, and the two are inseparable. "So I guess it is easy for men to understand someone who is inseparable from them," he says.

The issues relate to youth - boys as well as girls, he adds. "The colour reflects a kind of beauty. It is about a new way of life, the pursuit of new life," he says.

Yang began filming the 14-minute installation in a Shanghai studio last September, after working on a remote beach in Norway. He delivered it to the centre just a week before the December opening.

His greying hair may be long, and his clothes casual, but the man described by The New York Times as a "Hollywood vision of himself, all brush-painted poet meets editing suite" blends into the multicultural array of viewers in the gallery.

Commentaries on Yang's work constantly allude to contemporary Chinese politics. But Yang, the son of a Beijing-based army officer, who studied oil painting at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, says: "Not all artists are interested in politics."

As an artist, it is more about creative practice, process and simply working on your art. But there is definitely a sensitivity involved. It is important to notice society, and the changes that happen around you
Yang Fudong

"As an artist, it is more about creative practice, process and simply working on your art. But there is definitely a sensitivity involved. It is important to notice society, and the changes that happen around you," he says.

This may subconsciously influence the artist's work, and the way they "use this in the creative process. It is about the attitude to the work," he says.

Yang and his artist friends like to discuss how others interpret their works. "We talk about tolerance. The [political] opinions you mention do exist, and that is something you cannot change. It is a way for people to interpret, to pay respect to my artworks. It comes down to the experience you have growing up in a society, and your opinions and attitudes," the artist says. "To me, they don't really matter, if you are sincere."

While his work is influenced by traditional Chinese stories and painting, there are also influences from international films. Yang discovered filmmaking at university and says it felt very natural to him.

"The first time I came across it, I felt like I was seeing sunrises," he says.

The main gallery is large enough for Yang's seven-channel 2010 work The Fifth Night to play side-by-side on seven screens which are ranged horizontally.

Yang used a different lens for each camera, but filmed everything in the 10-minute, 37-second reel of film at the same time.

The video Yejiang/The Night Man Cometh, the six-channel East of Que Village and the new work, are all shown in separate rooms. The experience is immersive, dark and atmospheric.

"There are no seats because you are encouraged to wander around. In East of Que Village, you should feel circled by the dogs," says curator Ulanda Blair.

It is a grotesque experience, and merits a sign warning of "distressing images".

The work is in the final gallery, out of chronological order, so the audience can avoid the "confronting" installation in which the dogs eat each other to survive, Blair says.

Yang says the dogs were hired, like the actors in his works. Just what they were eating is an open question.

"Yang Fudong: Filmscapes" is part of "Close Up China", a broad programme of events which aims to "provide audiences with unique insight into Chinese screen-based practice and its symbiotic relationship with the powerful changes in China today".

It also aims to provide "a unique opportunity to engage critically, curiously and creatively with key movements, makers and themes shaping Chinese culture and society."

"I read recently that 10 per cent of people living in the Melbourne central business district speak Putonghua, and that's an audience we have not really engaged before. So this is an opportunity to push that, and hopefully grow our local audience," says Blair.

Yang hopes a broad audience will be attracted to "Close Up China". "Audiences should not be limited to Chinese viewers," he says.


"Yang Fudong: Filmscapes" runs at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, until Mar 15