Starting in the late 1990s, Yang Fudong (*1971 in Beijing, lives and works in Shanghai) is one of the most successful young artists of his generation. As one of the most talented visionaries, he is especially known for his video installations. Fudong has participated at Documenta XI in 2002, and in 2003 and 2007 at the Venice Biennial. Group shows like The Real Thing: Contemporary Art from China at the Tate Liverpool (2007) and the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (2006) contributed to his international reputation. His most important solo exhibitions were those of the Renaissance Society in Chicago (2004), at the Kunsthalle Wien (2005), Parasol Unit in London (2006) and the Phoenix Art Museum (2008). The Kunsthaus Baselland now shows the first time in Switzerland the complete five-part, digitalized film series Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest, which the artist produced between 2003 and 2007. Yang Fudong started his artistic career studying painting at the China Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, which he graduated in 1995. A year later, he studied photography and film at the Fine Arts Academy in Beijing. The influence of his training as a painter on his cinematic work was already manifested in his early films and has now become one of his main filmic traits.
The focus of the film series on show concentrates on the socio-cultural and political situation of Chinese intellectuals. Yang Fudong defined the main characters in an interview with Zhang Yaxuan in 2002 first as “minor intellectual” and described them as follows: “[minor intellectual] means that from the writer's point of view, there is a group of special people, who may not do anything astonishing or remarkable. They may not create masterpieces but they have their own qualities. Maybe you do not notice them on a daily base and they will never be anything special, but when you suddenly discover them they are very adorable. They can touch your heart... The spirit of intellectuals is the dream you have for yourself and the sensation of chasing a dream in dreams. In other words, being an intellectual means imposing the status of being an intellectual upon oneself-that is the flavor... Of course, to intellectual needs to have the spirit in himself and in his bones... Similarily, each plant will have its own beauty, such as a wild flower. When the rain drops on its petals, or when the sun touches it, the flower is always beautiful. Maybe the flower is not very strong but it will somehow touch you one day. Such is the spirit of the intellectual.” from Zhang Yaxuan, Yishu, p. 90f.
Yang Fudong’s Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest is an adaptation of the story of a group of seven Taoists in the Chinese ancient Wei (220–265) and Jin Dynasty (265–420), who had withdrawn from public life. Open and unruly, they used to recklessly gather and drink in the bamboo forest, singing songs, discussing and pursuing freedom and liberty. In Fudong’s version, the group consists of five men and two women, all about twenty years old wearing urban outfits, which are reminiscent of the fashion in photographs of Jean-Paul Sartre and other intellectuals of that time. Part I of the film series (2003) was recorded against the backdrop of the peaks of the Huangshan and the Yellow Mountain, an area that plays an important role in traditional Chinese landscape painting. The film is shot in black and white, referencing the era Yang Fudong is referring to. The actors lose themselves in thought, in contents they never have experienced, or as Molly Nesbit keeps it: “They try to grasp loss. They try to grasp death. Clouds and a soft rain hold them back”. Returned from the mountains, the artist interviewed his friends and actors in the film and poses questions about the fate and the fragility of life. Their thoughts add a documentary note to the film and carry the special mood back to the reality of the film shoot. The artist designed the first part of the film as a prologue, similar to the prologue of a book.
In Part II (2004), the scene shifts from the mountains to the urban environment of Shanghai. The group of seven intellectuals is enlarged by a married couple that stands in big contrast to the young people whose questions are still concerned with the meaning and the varieties of sex. By talking about it, they try to understand its phenomenon. The film transforms time into non-time and places into non-places. The seven intellectuals act in a plot-less film noir. Compared to the life in the mountains, life in the city strikes as being lifeless although the mountains seem to be forgotten. At the end, the song “Were there other ends in sight?” resounds, interrupted by a spoken, remembered mother's advice.
The scene at the beginning of Part III recalls the surrealist films of Buñuel or Dali: a black ox is decapitated in a rice field. The dreams of the Yellow Mountain and the dreams of the one true love are followed by brutal reality. The seven intellectuals travel to the countryside and learn about the work of farmers. They learn to plow, to lead the ox and the water buffalo, and to plant rice and corn. At night they are thinking in solitude. Here, the physical experience goes beyond the sexual existence. Part III was shot without a script in Jining in 2005, a poor neighborhood in the southern province of Zhejiang. The scenes were developed in situ and edited after the shoot. The film has no spoken words only background noises of the respective scenes and the natural environment.
Also Part IV (2006) is without dialogues just featuring the sounds of fishing. In this part, the seven intellectuals acquire the trade of fishing. They pose with their trophies and it seems that the catch takes up the place of a thought or a thread. Here, the scenes of two different locations are connected: Weihai in the Shandong Province and Xiangshan in the Zhejiang province — both sites located at the sea — deliver the motives for the fictional film. In this part, he worked with different actors who form a loose group. For the first time, the individual characters appear more strongly: The man who never takes off his glasses, works, but also breaks out into a state of madness, as he waves a trowel like a scepter. The other actors now seem to perform rituals. Sitting in bathtubs, they organize a parade and bath nakedly together with a flock of cranes. The episode ends with the protagonists climbing into a small boat that takes off and moves across the coast and the sea. Yang Fudong conceived this part as an island of faith. In the end, the boat that makes the intellectuals fly becomes the only existing island.
The prelude to Part V (2007) starts with the image of a large cargo ship, whose horn signals the arrival in the port of Shanghai. The seven intellectuals enter Shanghai on the sea bottom gaining access through the old city aquarium. They wear wet suits and run without protection against sharks, rays and fish of all kinds. Unlike the previous episodes they pass through excessive settings, places and actions. They drink cocktails, learn cooking, play a baseball game, try to dance and more, ‘descending’ on the city and its various possibilities. There is no reference to the experiences that have been described in previous episodes. Any form of memory and an embedded-ness in history seems lost. The film presents itself as a patchwork, mingling extracts from Shanghai's history of the 20th Century. The loss of memory as well as a return to reality characterizes this film. Yang Fudong describes the connection between the film and today's China as follows: “To me, the great change that is happening today in society can be seen and perceived in various forms... What is lost is the idea of living together, a collective search for a better way of life... Many young people — I'm referring above all to the subsequent generation of mine — don’t take the past into consideration at all. They don’t even need to forget it, since they didn’t know it in the first place”. At the end of the film, the seven intellectuals attend a dinner. A number of chefs enter the room and begin an increasingly rapid clapping of hands, which eventually flows into applause. In the background two videos appear on a wall showing Part I of the film series thus forming an intrinsic loop.
The film series spans a wide array from reality to dream, from the collision of dreams, from thinking and formulating of emotions, from learning of physical activities to the point of simply forgetting everything acquired. Yang Fudong points to a number of references to Chinese history and references surrealist films, philosophers and thinkers as well as personal experiences. The films are complex and as he himself says “are created for China”. The often-praised picturesque and enigmatic beauty of the films opens a door that allows the viewer to approach its complexity and experiences.
Text by Sabine Schaschl