Text by btr
Translated by Wu Chenyun
Before stepping into the gallery, the exhibition poster on the outside wall, reminiscent of a negative film, already cast light on the core feature of Yang Fudong’s solo exhibition Endless Peaks: to wander between seemingly contradictory notions - light and dark, positive film and negative film, the ancient and the contemporary, the eastern and the western, motion and stillness, moving image and photography/painting, the secular and the utopian, mirror and window, man and the nature, seeing and being seen, the finite and the infinite – until they eventually became fully fused into a “painting as a film” (hui hua dian ying), a total installation that ingeniously harmonized with the gallery space.
Endless Peaks – Rely Upon at the entrance of the gallery on the ground floor formed a prelude to the exhibition. Within the mountain forests and babbling brook, there stood five monks in a scattered manner. With the light of aura pouring onto the forests, the mirror-like water imbued the scene with a kind of dreamy ambience, creating an imagery of the “land of peach blossoms”. It was shot at Guoqing Temple on Mount Tiantai, Zhejiang Province, the initial site for the creation of the Tiantai school of Mahayana Buddhism. Surrounded by auspicious clouds, fragrance of cinnamons, spiritual birds, Ganoderma lucidum and magnificent peaks, the location of the temple is known for its warmth in winter time, coolness in summer time and an overwhelmingly poetic scenery. The five monks, standing tall and straight, seemed like a metaphor of the peaks. Supposed to be something that could be relied on, the peaks “surrounded the place like a circle of screens” – they were shields and screens at the same time.
The main part of this “painting as a film” featured Yang Fudong copying The Sixteen Luohans (Endless Peaks I), a long scroll painting by Yan Hui, a Chinese painter who lived during the Southern Song and early Yuan dynasties. Yang captured and rendered the senses of time contained in traditional long scroll painting in the form of a “shooting script”. As a result, the space that had been left empty on purpose and traces of the leaps of mind seen in the painting were translated into a kind of film montage. While viewers were moving in the gallery space, their motion of the body and the picture they were seeing collectively merged into a “motion picture”. If we think further, the process of Yang Fudong’s copying of the painting was by no means a meticulous reproduction. It was more like a process of paraphrasing, or “freehand imitation”. To approach the “immaculate synthesis and departure in tradition”, the process of “freehand imitation” inevitably involved the intervention of the artist himself. In other words, the “me” must be present along the process. In addition to the difference in the images of the human figures caused by subjective/subconscious influences, Yang Fudong chose acrylic on canvas as the medium to take the place of the original ink on rice paper to integrate the east with the west. He also resorted to contemporary photography to replace several “frames” in the “painting as a film” to connect the past with the present, man with the landscape within a montage-like juxtaposition. Intriguingly, by “interfering” with the scenery through coated mirror glass with different transmittance levels (like in Beyond Good and Evil), he made it possible for viewers to see the superposition of themselves and the work.
As a matter of fact, what viewers could do was more than just teleporting themselves into the utopian world through the reflect light. They could genuinely and physically enter the frame which showed the pine tree (rather than “peeping inside” with their thumbs and index fingers swiping on the screen; and this time the pine tree was for real rather than a “reproduction”) and get into the picture-in-picture, or say film-in-film world. The second floor of the gallery was exactly such an inlaid space. Light turned into darkness, as if viewers were moving in a dream. Then they were dimly aware that they were at a museum: there seemed to be a piece of antique long scroll unfolding in the vitrine. Spots of light were projected onto it, making it like augmented reality. And when taking a closer look, they’d realize it was not an antique painting that was in the vitrine. Instead, it was a collage featuring photography and hand-painted strokes. The overall impression of Guoqing Temple hereby formed, at this point, became something like a rear lens filter or a curtain background (like the patterned screen in Dawn Breaking). A dozen of videos projected onto it (most of which were color motion pictures) could be perceived as the manifestation of the fragments of consciousness. Within the scene of rippling water and flickering candlelight, monks were walking, working and resting. They sometimes gazed into the distance, and sometimes seemed half frozen in the scenery, leaving the twigs and leaves swinging with the wind behind them. And in between the motion and stillness was where the spiritual land of peach blossoms lied.
On the walls around the vitrine there were photography works, single or in groups of two to three. The Sui Pagoda, a signature structure of Guoqing Temple built over 1,400 years ago, appeared in Endless Peaks – The Fragrant Mountain, forming a kind of echo to the monks standing in the vegetable garden in the foreground. In The Apiary and In Front of Guanyin Temple, the impression of “tourist photo” was further augmented: the presentation of “one place at one time” demonstrated the yearning for connecting man and scenic spot (landscape), and in the meantime alluded to the difficulty and even impossibility of such connection. And if we perceive “tourist” on a metaphorical level, meaning to see man as the tourist (passer-by) in the world/the nature, then the actors could also be seen as “tourists” of the roles they were playing. And that’s probably the beauty of these photography works. The “meta-referentiality” towards film ran through the works in the form of “Kuleshov experiment”. In these groups of photographs (especially in Beyond Tiantai IV, VI and X), the act of “viewing” itself turned to be the subject to be investigated. The act to look up in the forest and the eye-level gaze from the other side of the river indicated shifts of perspectives between insider and outsider. Did the focal point on bonsai and the blurring of the human figures behind it implied criticism of humanism? As to the monks looking back at the “us” who were far away from the bridge, it felt like a gaze that had transcended the passing of time.
Alice must feel dizzy when she left the rabbit hole and returned to reality. When going back to the gallery space on the ground floor, Endless Peaks II on the opposite exhibition wall aroused a sense of déjà vu. Compared with Endless Peaks I, it was about 60% smaller in size and its frame proportions changed from 8:5 to 9:5, which were longer and narrower. Also, the photography frames inserted also changed. Slight alterations were also made in the composition and the degree of “freehandedness”. It only took subtle adjustments of several parameters for people to see different sceneries. Perhaps it was partially the reason for the peaks to become endless.
We might as well deem the Endless Peaks – It’s the Wind series at the end of the gallery space on the ground floor as an open ending for the whole “painting as a film”. This time Yang Fudong “freehandedly” copied the Sixteen Luohans by Shi Tao, a Chinese painter in early Qing Dynasty. The triptychs consisting of photography, drawing and acrylic on wood panels featuring a highly abstract approach dissolved the difference among different media through a montage-like imagery, bringing the gust of wind “originating from” works by Shi Tao or Yan Hui into the present.
The six pieces of the Endless Peaks – Formless Hermits were reckoned as the post-credit scene of the “painting as a film”. On the one hand, they were like religious painting in the west (the artist even changed his signature from Chinese character to Y.F.D.); and on the other, they were reminiscent of Chinese wall painting that had undergone a long period of weathering. Free as the wind. The past and the present, the east and the west, imitation and creation, the traditional and the contemporary were no longer be considered binary oppositions. Wind knew no boundaries.
When my eyes finally fell upon the small oil painting at the corner of the gallery – with the pinkish purple light emitted from the lofty clouds, it’s hard to tell whether it was dawn or dusk; and from the foreground to the background, the endless peaks seemed remote, stable, solid, reliable and trustworthy – I felt a sense of motion in the painting. As to the reason, it was either the illusion of “motion” generated by the frame rate at 24 FPS, or it’s the wind.
Related Artists: YANG FUDONG 杨福东