This summer, Yang Fudong occupies the gallery space at the TIFF Bell Lightbox with New Women, the latest in his series of dreamy paeans to the Golden Age of Shanghai. Trained as a painter at the Chinese Academy of Fine Art and now working primarily in film and video, Yang has recently been acclaimed as one of the foremost new voices in contemporary Chinese video art.
Interesting, then, that his work has none of the rapidly shifting edginess or accelerated urgency of video by emerging Western artists like Ryan Trecartin. Yang’s films proceed at a formal, stately crawl, with every detail presented in exquisitely rendered black-and-white.
New Women places us inside an elegantly appointed deco salon, spa or brothel filled with ottomans and diaphanous curtains and urns. Naked women, almost vapidly pretty, lounge about, walk from place to place or stay put and allow themselves to be viewed. There are hints of sexual tension between the women, but nothing ever fully connects.
Though no dominant narrative emerges, we are slowly transported into a world of slow-moving and elegant indolence completely separate from the mad rush we associate with the world’s largest metropolis. Yang’s unreal dream of Shanghai’s Jazz Age is buffed to a velvety cinematic sheen.
Though he fills the screens with yards of exposed flesh, the effect is strangely chilling. There is the sense that Yang, in his fanatical attention to detail, has pierced through nostalgia to some new area of hyper-reality.
This is the point at which Yang becomes utterly contemporary.
Not so much a historical recreation of Shanghai as a simulation, it appears more virtual and real. The Shanghai on these screens is a perfectly rendered fantasy version of itself, and as such evokes the many gaps, erasures and collectively held illusions that have marked China’s bumpy transition from monolithic communist state to hypercapitalist superpower.
Both systems, Yang seems to be hinting, require their own styles of fantasy.