Casting a Fresh Eye on China With Computer, Not Ink Brush

NY Times December 3, 2003
December 3, 2003

SHANGHAI, Nov. 27 - Yang Fudong, a 32-year-old Chinese video artist, is in high demand on the international art circuit. The Venice Biennale and the Georges Pompidou Center showed his work this year. He travels to Florida to exhibit at the Art Basel Miami Beach show, which opens on Dec. 4. In January he plans to visit Manhattan when the Museum of Modern Art shows his work at the Gramercy Theater. He will also be included in an exhibition organized by the International Center of Photography that opens in June.

Part of the fascination surrounding Mr. Yang is founded on his place at the center of a digital whirlwind in China, where a new generation of artists have spurned the canvases of Mao-like heads that the West considered so avant-garde in the 1990's. Instead, he and his friends are creating videos about personal feelings and anomie amid the warp-speed change in China.

Mr. Yang's videos dwell on the dignity of the individual amid the urban chaos of modernizing China. His latest major piece, the 30-minute "Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest" (2003), starring svelte, handsomely dressed actors who escape the city by decamping to the pristine beauty of the mountains, has been received as a welcome departure from the monotonous fare that has dominated the medium.

For all the attention that he and other young Chinese artists have received abroad, few of them any longer want to leave their homeland, Mr. Yang said.

"My friends and I don't have a strong desire to live abroad," Mr. Yang said as he served tea in the living room of his sixth floor walk-up that has so far survived this city's hyperactive bulldozers. "I'm not interested in politics. Our thinking is very simple: It's good to go abroad for several weeks for an exhibition, then after a while you have to come back. You get homesick."

"What's great is to make a movie with your friends, chat, eat Chinese food," he said. "It's a great life, and that's life now."

Unlike those who left in the 90's after the Tiananmen Square crackdown, current Chinese painters and installation and video artists said they could work pretty much unfettered. Certainly, direct hits at the political system are forbidden, and homosexuality as a subject is off-limits. But after officialdom allowed a sharp-edged show, designed to counter the 2000 Shanghai Biennale, to proceed unscathed, the closing of art shows has been virtually unheard of, they said.

Another inducement to stay is the availability of the latest computer and video equipment, especially in prestigious Chinese art schools. China's strength in commercial electronic technology is an important aspect of the art world here. "The Chinese government is investing an enormous amount of money in the new technology for artists," said Christopher Phillips, a curator at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan. That gallery is organizing an exhibition of new photography from China that includes Mr. Yang's work.

On a recent visit to the China Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, one of the top two art schools in the country, Mr. Phillips said he was "knocked out" by the "dozens and dozens" of Power Mac G4 computers, a powerful, versatile system favored by video artists.

"The Chinese artists are in the front lines of adapting and exploiting the new possibilities in technology," Mr. Phillips said.

Mr. Yang, a 1995 graduate of the academy in Hangzhou, made a two-hour train trip to his alma mater recently to judge a student video competition that was organized to celebrate the academy's 75th anniversary.

The academy recently moved onto a new campus, with it's a cluster of gray brick-and-glass buildings beside the willow-draped West Lake, and the new media department takes up more than four floors in the best building. "You could say the school is quite respectful of the new media," Mr. Yang said.

While he insists he is not interested in politics, Mr. Yang seems to mean that in only the narrowest sense. A recurrent thread in his work is the individual versus the corruption that permeates urban life in China.

"Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest" alludes to a group of third-century Chinese scholars and poets who retreated to a bamboo grove to gain freedom of expression from corrupt emperors.

In his telling of this story, Mr. Yang films actors and actresses (all his friends) as they ascend Huangshan Mountain, talk with one another and meditate on life. An original musical score accompanies their musings. Some of the dialogue seems a bit hokey: "I believe in nothing except fate and constellation," and, "If you leave next week, be my lover this week." But the overall effect of the well-dressed wanderers on a misty mountaintop is dreamlike, eerie and compelling. The video is to be shown at the Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photography.

"It's important to stick to what you believe is important in your life no matter what the circumstances," Mr. Yang said. Thus "Seven Intellectuals" shows a group of people who "live in their own world, not conforming to the material world."

Mr. Yang dressed his actors in striking but unfashionable early-20th-century clothes borrowed from a movie studio's costume department. The men wear waistcoats and fob watches and carry walking sticks; the women wear cloche hats and pencil skirts.

Mr. Yang chose the academy in Hangzhou because it was in the south and more liberal than its equally eminent counterpart in Beijing. He majored in oil painting. "I hated computers because I was an oil painter," he said of the period after graduation. He dabbled in some photography classes at the Beijing academy in 1996.

By 1997 he needed to make a living and came to Shanghai, where he learned how to use a computer. He kept a day job making video games, but his heart was in shooting digital video for art, and he has not painted in two years, he said

He eventually was fired from his job. "My boss liked my work, but I took too much leave. He gave me three months' compensation pay and said, `Now you can work on your art full time.' "

Often, Mr. Yang said, Western art collectors failed to comprehend the deep confidence Chinese artists now have in their culture. "They think we are doing our work for them. We're not. We're doing it for China," he said. "The purpose of going abroad is very simple. You take a look at what the world is doing and then you come back and you do it yourself."