Antagonism and Transcendence

- on the work of Yang Fudong and Song Tao

Yao Yuan

Yang Fudong was born in 1971; Song Tao in 1979. The difference between their works, however, has nothing to do with their different age.

We find a sense of tension in the work of Yang Fudong, a tension born of antagonism. There are at least two levels: to be antagonistic towards the modernized city, and towards the everyday life. The origins of these oppositions could be found in Liu Lan.

Liu Lan, with a simple narrative and a purity of screen, has no longer the rough look of an independent film . With its lake, fishing boat, and swaying reeds, the story reminds one of “The Border Town” The male leading character lies asleep in the bow – this is the time when he is most peaceful. This fictional site, perhaps, is also Yang Fudong’s own spiritual sanctuary.

If one shifts the narrative focus to the city, it is in Robber South that antagonism towards the metropolitan is most directly evoked. The male character in Robber South is portrayed as a labourer, a peasant working in the city; in Liu Lan, his appearance is that of a city youth. Here Yang Fudong interprets another level of his spiritual world – one that is dislocated from his sanctuary, in other words, his identity in the real world. He can not feel he belongs to the city, he feels estranged, incompatible; yet on the fishing boat of Liu Lan, he can not get rid of the attributes of one who is from the city. Even at his most peaceful state, the city man still has his costume on; thus the extremes. In Robber South his attempt to find a solution is to transform the appearance, and complete with sunglasses and a briefcase, point at people and shout - a vain and superficial attempt.

What is the key to the solution then? It is Lust.

This is when a new element appears in the scene. In Honey.and Citylight, the appearance of the woman presents two kinds of possibilities. In both cases, there is one woman, but more than one man. In “Honey” the three men are in rumpled Chinese suits; the woman appears to be loose, fast, and all about the outward show. The three men do not seem be connected to this other seedy world, but their desires could be satiated by this woman. In a way there is still a balance, except that this balance is sealed off from the future, it could only, cringing and confined in a space, sink into self-gratification and debauchery. Citylight depicts better circumstances. The two men are dignified, clean, well - mannered; the woman is also of some standing. The relationship between the men and the woman is not of satiation, but instead, it is like a game, a tasteful melody. Yet lust will always be lust; at the start of Citylight, from the small opening in the crack, the eternal metaphor for the vagina, the woman is masturbating and emitting intermittent groans of pleasure. This is the basis for Robber South, the basis for the modernized city – one will only be at ease if desires are satiated.

When the female element is absent, the situation would be at its worst, and most petulant. This is manifested in Backyard- Hey Sun is Rising – a black and white film with four men, dressed in tattered Chinese suits, armed with knives. Apprehension induces them never to part with the weapon. They raise their knives above their heads as they pass through crowds in the street; back in the house they fight each other. The sound of beating drums at the start of the film is reminiscent of the background music in Akira Kurosawa’s film “Ran”. It does not resemble the vulgar awkwardness of the man in Robber South as he enters the city, nor does it have a woman, as in Honey, for a relief target – the men cross the streets with the glint of swords in their hearts. Their desire is to break through the limitations of this world, but they end up wounding themselves and not the world. Against the city and the humdrums of everyday life, when the relief and satiation of desires become impossible, the only way out is self-destruction. Even in the most optimistic Citylight, the two men are disassociated from their daily lives. In other words, even when the conflict with the modern city is dissolved, even when desires are satiated, antagonism towards the everyday life will not be dissipated. From Robber South, to Honey, to Citylight, and finally to Backyard- Hey Sun is Rising, the case has always been so; from labourer, to Chinese suits, to western suit and tie, this has always been a fact.

Antagonism towards daily life is the ultimate question.

Song Tao’s “Floor”: a room with its floor covered in photos.

Black and white: all of the 3,000 photos are black and white photos. Black and white: the gaudy, diverse fragments of city life on the floor are given a cosmetic flavour.

Song Tao seems to favour black and white, much more than colours. He told me about his feelings of winter, how he likes its simplicity and repetitive quality. In his first solo exhibition about two years ago in winter, one of the paintings was a dense grid of black and white: the black gradually invades the white, until the whole piece becomes black; then the white rises from a seeming hopelessness, grows, and drowns the black. But the “Floor”, when discipline was shattered, became random and disorderly. The disappearing and re-emerging blotches of black and white assume a fragmented face – black and white, shadow and light, day and night, heaven and earth, mountains and waters, male and female, dusk and dawn. The rise and ebb of the two poles of the world – one of the main themes of Song Tao’s works – continue, though with a less intense force, in “Floor”.

In the face of this black and white, one has to move upwards, towards a conclusion.

As opposed to colour photographs, black and white photos tend to evoke a more despotic quality. The convergence of same colours, forming large pieces of black and white respectively, symbolizes the building up of a despotic spirit; the fragmentation of winter, and of the black and white patches, expresses the weakening of this power. As I put together Song Tao’s earlier solo exhibition with the black and white painting I mentioned, and his later solo exhibition in September with the black and white fragments on the floor, I could see visibly, under the contrasts, the gradual weakening of power.

The adulteration of one power must enhance the strength of another.

Standing on the floor, I take a retrospective look. Song Tao’s interest in black and white photography started at the beginning of 2003. As the weather turns hotter and hotter, his technique, his concentration and his drive to capture the right moments heighten and mature day after day. With this thread of progress entwines another – as the temperature increases, the city opens up as the layers of clothing are peeled off to reveal the richness of colours, the blossoming of desires, and, in response to this change, the passions, impulses and desires of the artist himself. In the darkness of the night, these two threads interweave, on the floor. Standing on this floor is like standing on the blossoms of desire, on the fragmenting world of black and white, on the ruins of the despotic spirit.

To look at the photos, you cannot help bending down, or squatting. Afterwards, you regain your posture, back straightened, but sill gazing at the photos from above. As you bend close to the photos to see them clearly, you can feel with Song Tao’s eyes and become part of the photograph, and part of life; as you move away from the photo, your straightened body making a right angle with the floor, you feel yourself transcending life, and trampling life beneath your feet. Here your nerves and senses reach two extremes, one of the ultimate attention, sensitivity and impulse, the other of disdain and condescension towards life. On one hand life is trampled on like dirt, on the other this dirt, observed under the microscope, generates the same excitement and passion of a biologist who gathers, organizes, records then displays his specimens; it is not with awe that he carries out his work, but with intensity and force.

Song Tao might not appear to interpret his work in this way. Evidence is found on the invitation of a solo exhibition – “The Floor is filled with Meaning”; “Life is the Most Noble”. I prefer to interpret this as –

“The Floor is filled with Meaning, and thus is Empty; Life is the Most Noble, and thus the Lowliest.”

In each of the couplets, the two lines interact, mutually stimulate, and mutually destruct. To only print out the first half of a couplet is a way of ridicule, a tease. “Point at the mulberry and abuse the pagoda tree”, goes a Chinese saying. As you raise your head and stop gazing beneath, the world is in front of you and around you. You view it at eye level. With your leather shoes, you have just trampled another world, and some corners of the floor are still making you queasy. You can stand up tall in face of the floor covered in photos; but regarding life, you can but view it at eye level. And as you gaze at the floor, there is a pair of eyes, above you, gazing at you. It is for this reason that Song Tao’s work cannot be viewed just as it is. The signification of his work is partly due to the way the spectator chooses to be involved in it. He provides for the spectator a platform, a space waiting to be filled and extended.

Yang Fudong says, anything could be overcome, except for life itself. The everyday life is like the Song Tao’s photos, scattered all around you, in each and every corner. In his daily life, and in his struggle against it, Song Tao tramples all of it, simply and resolutely, under his feet. One could say, what is different from Yang Fudong is that we find in Song Tao’s work three dimensions instead of two, transcendence instead of antagonism, gods instead of mortals; one could also say, that Yang Fudong’s work explains the reason for Song Tao’s resolution and transcendence.

Yet, I still wonder, with their work aside, if they are at peace with their lives…


Published in
Ed. Per Bjarne Boym, Gu Zhenqing
Shanghai Assemblage 2000-2004
The National Museum of Art, Norway, 2004
(ISBN: 82-91727-17-1)