Testing ground
Shanghai Star. 2003-01-30

THE ASEF (Asia-Europe Foundation) has presented grants to three artists who participated in the fourth Shanghai Biennale. One of the winners, 32-year-old Yang Fudong, later described his work for the Biennale - a 17-minute-long video - as a "lukewarm" effort.

The video tells the story of an urban love affair.

Yang said he felt that the work, entitled "Flutter, Flutter, Jasmine, Jasmine", was not an extremely powerful or striking work. "Actually, I feel the work was rather lukewarm he said after receiving the award from a representative of ASEF, Kim Sung-chul. "It fits with the city's sentiment."

The award presentation ceremony concluded the fourth Shanghai Biennale. The other two artists to be awarded grants were Angela Bulloch from Britain, with an installation work, and Jong Yeon-doo from South Korea, with photography.

The Shanghai Biennale

"The Shanghai Biennale has become one of the most important art events in Asia," said Fang Zengxian, director of the Shanghai Art Museum. "The form of the Biennale is Western, but we want the content to be unique."

Shanghai was the first Chinese city to host the biennale in 1996. The first two Biennales focused on domestic works. The third gave full recognition to modern art forms and displayed works of a global range.

"It was reasonable to raise the theme of 'Urban Creation' for the fourth Biennale," Fang said. "The whole of China, developing so rapidly, has become a giant construction site, with old buildings torn down and new ones built up." It does seem to be the right time to discuss the relationships between the environment, local cultures, and tradition.

Four cities are hosting a Biennale or Triennale in China: Guangzhou, Chengdu, Beijing, and Shanghai. Some have been less successful for three reasons, according to Fang. "Financing problems, or problems with the content, or not being received by the people."

And this is the first time ASEF has been involved in the Shanghai Biennale. The foundation, aiming to promote communication between cultures, gave a grant of 10,000 Euros to the three young artists selected by an international curatorial committee.

Yang was the only artist presented at the ceremony. Standing shyly in worn jeans with a canvas bag, Yang looked like a student.

Winning work

Yang's work was shown on the third floor of the museum. Three scenes were played simultaneously, in which two young actors, playing the lovers, told their story. The girl spoke from a screen on the left while the man spoke from the one on the right. The talked about the same topics: love, trust, betrayal, and sex.

When officials came to inspect the choice of works for the Biennale, the sex talk gave rise to a minor sensation but it was allowed to go on.

"Actually, the Shanghai Biennale has greatly improved since the last session," Yang said. "The organizing committee took a very open attitude, accepting all noval art forms, such as installation and video art."

"I guess they recognized me partly because of the Kassel Documentary Exhibition in June," Yang said. Yang participated in that exhibition with a work he started in 1997, "An Estranged Paradise".

After graduating from the China Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, Yang felt like a stranger back in his hometown of Beijing. "All I wanted to do was to make movies," he recalled, smoking in the small cafe in the Art Museum. After doing some odd jobs, he made a movie in Hangzhou with volunteer actors and old film. "They were cheap black-and-white films, four years beyond their shelf life, but they could still be used." It was not until the end of 2001 that he received the money from sponsors to finish the project.

"Flutter, Flutter, Jasmine, Jasmine" was specially made for the Biennale, with Yang wishing to maintain the style of the folk ballad. "When we look at a certain state, like people talking about ever-lasting love, often we feel it is affected and insincere," said Yang. "But when it turns into visual images, at a certain point, the state becomes true, and moving. That is what I want to achieve."

Bright prospects

At the end of the video, the girl danced in an old lane. Her youthfulness and brightness, in sharp contrast with the old street and walls, does make one think about eternity.

Yang's grant is 20,000-25,000 yuan and he has to present a programme on how he intends to use it for ASEF. "I will participate in an exhibition in Paris in February, but usually the organizer pays for the trip of their invited artists," Yang said. He would rather spend the money on a new project.

"Video works are not commercial like paintings or photographs," he said. "There is hardly any income from videos." Sometimes people ask him to send them a cassette of his work, not realizing the international postal fee can be a burden for him.

Yang used to work full-time for a French company and he misses the regular pay cheques. He is a soccer fan and he broke his leg playing the game in 1998. While recovering from the injury, he found a girlfriend as well as a new down-to-earth attitude.

His artistic work started to take off and he had to leave the French company. "At that time I felt it would be difficult to return to a regular job," Yang said.

With the development of digital technology, private movies become quite possible. "I wish to produce high-quality works, and achieve metamorphosis from my amateur status," Yang said.

Video and film as an art-form became widely accepted in Chinese art circles in 1996. Since then, artists and film makers have tried to realize their beliefs and ideas through visual images instead of just telling the story.

"It is a deconstruction of the art form," Yang said. "China is a giant country of narration. We have never lacked master film makers of the realistic style. But few people do surrealistic and abstract works."

He found some documentaries in Kassel that he liked. An American work about China was moving and the work of another Chinese artist, Yang Zhenzhong, was witty with an enchanting, weird style.