I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
I curated Yang Fudong’s work for the first time in 2004 when I was an associate curator of an exhibition in Japan. I invited Yang Fudong to preview his film Backyard—Hey! Sun is Rising . Since then, he has asked me to write about his work—for his solo shows at GL Strand Gallery in Denmark (2008) and at the Hara Museum in Japan (2009). In 2010, Zhang Yaxuan and I put together screenings of Yang Fudong’s films and related seminars at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, the China Central Academy of Fine Arts, and the Beijing Film Academy.
In this interview I sought to push the envelope by examining his mise-en-scène techniques in The Fifth Night , part I. In addition, I wanted to set the anchor in the question “does spiritual life exist at all?” because it is what concerns Yang Fudong the most.
When I watched The Fifth Night in the exhibition Useful Life 2010 at the ShanghART Gallery, I was very moved by it. Seven screens formed seven scrolls and they each seemed to start at a different point in time. The stories of seven young people, with their footsteps and dreams, were told in a calm yet complex fashion. It was Yang Fudong’s unique calmness. It was still his own escapism, the dreamlike quality of his other works. There were still mixed time periods and characters, and mixed sets—artificial and real locations. And it was still beautiful and elegant. The stories were told from seven different perspectives and jumped from one to another. What happened a second ago became the past. It felt familiar in that sense. The Fifth Night is not only about Yang Fudong’s aesthetic preferences, but also about his new approaches to time in narrative. Through this interview I discovered his intentions for The Fifth Night , part II, as well as the artist’s ideas behind the making of both works.
Li Zhenhua Can you briefly talk about the relationship between the film installation The Fifth Night (2010) and the video installation The Fifth Night, part II (2010)? Part one was exhibited at the ShanghART Gallery and part two at the Eighth Shanghai Biennial. You mentioned that part two was a by-product of part one. I’m curious about how the two pieces came about through different forms.
Yang Fudong I should start by talking about the film Dawn Mist, Separation Faith (2009). During the shooting of this film, I wondered if, and how, I could make another art piece out of the same production. I realized that a lot of takes were simply discarded in the editing room, like in Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest (2003–2007) and some other shorts I did. I would shoot the same shot five, ten, 20, or more times. At the end of the day, I would pick the best take and edit it into the actual piece. Why did it have to be that particular take? Where did all the bad takes go? Shouldn’t they exist even if they were not perfect? In other words, should I reveal my working process by showing multiple takes as well as the mistakes I made? I pondered over different possibilities. So I chose to make Dawn Mist, Separation Faith only out of takes that were “no good.” It was shot in the summer of 2008. It is a film that consists of only nine shots, or, say, a film installation with nine projections. So even before making The Fifth Night, I considered trying out different lenses and perspectives that I had never used before. But none of the ideas were very concrete until I was asked to participate in the show Useful Life 2010. It was around the Chinese New Year in 2010 that I decided to make The Fifth Night.
LZ The Fifth Night is very different from Dawn Mist, Separation Faith.
YF Yes. Seven parallel screens form a line, and they connect with one another, imitating traditional Chinese long-roll painting.
LZ It feels like seven scrolls too.
YF I was trying to avoid it being like seven separate scrolls. The first version of The Fifth Nightat ShanghART was more like a live film on multiple screens. It made use of camera movements and mixed lenses with a variety of depths of field, including wide-angle, standard 35 mm, and long lenses. It created what I call a “little midnight theater” feel by slight and gradual shifts in the framing, and slow dolly movements. My first instinct then was to shoot from different angles simultaneously so that, when projected, it would look like a live feed.
LZ Do you allow rehearsals during the shoot? Do you let your actors run through the action? Are there technical rehearsals for camera positions and such? How similar are yours to the theatrical kind?
YF I definitely do rehearsals. I need them to take into account all of the details. I chose a relatively empty location at the Shanghai Film Shooting Base, the famous film-production factory in Chedun. It appears to be a city plaza surrounded by 1930s-style buildings. I chose to shoot at night because it feels more like a theater stage with its fake scenery and artificial lighting. Before I settled on this idea, I was fantasizing about moving the production to a beach, to shoot a group of boys, their youthful bodies in the sun. Their body and muscle movements as they work, play, and make love. But considering the budget and resources we had at the time, it was not practical. However, I found that night shoots in an artificial set suited my taste and temperament. It actually worked out for the atmosphere I wanted to create; it also added drama and disguised some clumsiness.
LZ I noticed that since Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest (SIBF), you seem to be increasingly interested in utilizing artificial scenery. In SIBF, part V, the only real location was Xian Qiang Fang Restaurant, one of Shanghai’s colonial places that serves traditional food. But the sets in The Fifth Night and Dawn Mist, Separation Faith were either preexisting at the shooting base or you had them artificially constructed. How would you account for that?
YF In Chinese, there is an idiom “真情流露” [similar to the English idiom “to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve”]. The “heart” is not only transparent and open, it also has to be true. It is always a challenge to direct actors to express believably “true” feelings on screen. This is something I am slowly coming to realize. Another strange phrase evolved from that same idiom: “真假流露” [an alteration: “to wear one’s ambivalent heart on one’s sleeve”]. What if we expressed our true and fake emotions at the same time, in order to reach what we ultimately desire? Mixing both yin and yang is like painting truth and lies. I wondered how to achieve such imagery and how to show this thin line between the real and unreal through film techniques: set design, characters, costumes, and music. Is seeing really believing? After SIBF, I realized that the most important goal for me was to create a psychological experience. Estranged Paradise (2002) is what I call a “little intellectual film”; it involves people with knowledge and education. SIBF is more of an abstract one. They both interested me and made me excited. I can breathe their existence, be moved by them, and have a small telepathic moment with each, but I feel I cannot comprehend them 100 percent. I am deciphering more in the works I am making now; it’s an interesting change in myself.
LZ You mention “little intellectual films,” which reminds me of your Library Film Plan, your Museum Film Plan, and so forth. How would you describe the relationship between what you focus on for your films and the focus of narrative films in general? Also, what are the connections between the Library and Museum films and your film installations?
YF I’ll have to bring up The Fifth Night. The ways it was presented in the Useful Life 2010show and in the Shanghai Biennial were very different. Even though they share the same subject, their concepts stand far apart. I call the second version in the Shanghai Biennial a “preview film,” while the version in Useful Life 2010 is a “compound-eye film”; a visual experiment to examine how an eye changes in reaction to images. The idea for part two matured before the initial production: capturing the video output from seven monitors that were connected to seven film cameras. Rather than the recorded film stock, this comprised the body of the piece on exhibit. That is what I meant by “preview film”—its raw-image quality, which included viewfinder frames, contradicts the actual results. I mentioned before how the making of Dawn Mist, Separation Faith inspired my artistic evolution: I found that what attracts me the most, and becomes my material, is the process of filmmaking itself. So for The Fifth Night, part II, I also included the last rehearsal and a bad take of each scene, in order to structure the work around the idea of a preview. In terms of content, part one and part two are very similar. Part one is a ten-minute, seven-screen film installation (it follows a clear, standard thread). Part two is a seven-screen video installation running for about 50 minutes—its narrative ends with the failure of the production. Additionally, there are three screens of photo documentation and a documentary projection, for a total of ten screens of content.
In this sense, the idea of “library films” arose in my mind after completing SIBF. On one hand, I felt that I should be more down-to-earth, avoiding forcing merely fantastic, beautiful expressions, or searching for utopian situations. Utopia is everywhere—it exists without our noticing. The Library Film Plan consists of shooting 22 films within the next ten to 15 years. Those films can be like books in a library, stored on bookshelves. I don’t mind if nobody ever opens them. But when opened, they should be interesting to “read.” So this gives me some pressure, goal, and direction. On the other hand, I want to know if spiritual life exists at all. Where is everyone’s spiritual life? I hope these films will help me find some answers. I especially want to make long films. The Library Film Plan should contain really long films, or feature-length films, some sort of forms that can hopefully be called films—film titles with colons, films resembling the idea of films or lengthy documentaries, and so on. I hope to look into people’s spiritual life by presenting and developing these ideas.
LZ You have a concept of reading film by watching it, but your final concern is whether people have a spiritual life. What you do drastically clashes with traditional film education. You challenge film conventions in your own unique way. Can you elaborate on your choices?
YF I have had an increasingly bigger budget, and thus a larger crew, each time, from SIBF to Dawn Mist, Separation Faith to The Fifth Night. My production teams look more and more like a standard-size, professional film crew. Sometimes I joke with my DP and other crew members, “Hey guys, looks like we are making a movie! We totally look like a professional film crew!” But I also keep asking them: “Do you think we are making a movie?” They say, “Of course we are making a movie.” I highly doubt everyone believes it, though. Here is what gets tricky: it’s a rhetorical question. Even though people who have collaborated with me for the longest time might still possess their own ideas of what a movie should be, I hope they are on the same page with me. If we see The Fifth Night as a little midnight theater, then part one should show the night before midnight, while part two should show the early morning after midnight. It’s the same location. The same time. The same theater. The focus of part one is to create a world where boys and girls meet and part randomly, like in a dream. We achieve this by applying regular shooting techniques, including sliding, panning, tilting, pushing, and pulling. The camera constantly moves to show individual young boys and girls in a meditative state in the middle of a small plaza at night. Moving cameras enhance this sense of loneliness: every night, there is only one person. Every night, there is only one soul wandering. The boys and girls meet with and part from one another through writing. Their encounters are brief, without deep exchanges. Maybe it is just part of the fantasy. What happened exactly? Or does it just look familiar?
LZ Why did you decide to use seven cameras and monitors for shooting The Fifth Night? Why not ten, or five?
YF Five is an odd number. Does a night look familiar? The piece is led by questions like these in order to build a particular atmosphere. On set, except when directing my actors and coordinating with my DP, I spent a long time gazing at all the monitors to oversee what was going on. But when I looked at them, I felt like I was watching a different movie. This excited me, because all the imperfections seemed to belong there. Booms in the shot, noises on set, bloopers, and mistakes mixed with actual dialogue became glamorous on the monitors. So I couldn’t help but wonder: What are we really monitoring? Why do we need to decide what’s good or bad? What are our standards?
LZ This takes us back to our discussion of the discarded takes from Dawn Mist, Separation Faith. Are these thoughts related?
YF Of course. However, The Fifth Night pushes this thinking further by making certain narrative changes. One change was driven by an alternate use of rehearsals. As directors, we judge what works by referring to what’s on the monitor—this is why there is always something fake about a piece of work. In rehearsals, we refer to actors’ performances on the monitor to make sure they work and end up in the final film. Yet the process itself can actually be part of the piece. I am interested in the realistic documentation on the monitor, before the real shoot. It inspires me. The best energy is there.
LZ But then why would you still make a version—part one, for the Useful Life 2010 show—that does not include any bad takes? I feel it is quite standard. It looks like a narrative film presented in the form of a seven-screen installation.
YF I did this group show, also called Useful Life, with Xu Zhen and Yang Zhenzhong in a warehouse on Dongdaming Road in Shanghai, in 2000. It was a critical show for us. Ten years later, Lorenz Helbling, the owner of ShanghART, proposed that the three of us do a show again called Useful Life—it seemed timely to me. It was an opportunity to showcase our creative energy, ideas, inspirations, and potential. What were the other two artists doing? Would it be a show filled with everyone’s current work or a retrospective and nostalgic show? Each of us followed our conceptual and artistic development and presented something that made me very proud. The Fifth Night is a conceptual breakthrough for me; it’s more than just any piece of work.
LZ To be honest, I have mixed feelings about your work’s qualities. On one hand, I am very impressed by how smooth and slick your films look. Your seven screens unfold in front of an audience, neatly resembling seven scrolls. Your technical sophistication, mise-en-scènes, and skill directing actors are just amazing. Yet here lies my confusion: if you are already perfect technically and conceptually, are there other possibilities we can see in your work? I remember our previous conversation about Estranged Paradise (1997–2002), which carries a particular aesthetic: your very own signature work with the lens and soft-focus issues. However, we do not see anything like that in The Fifth Night.
YF Like you said, I produce images that “carry a colon.” If I make more or less the same work within a number of years, then how would those who are familiar with my body of work overcome their aesthetic fatigue? Going back to my previous state of mind and the methods I used in Estranged Paradise is absolutely impossible for me. Right after shooting each film, including SIBF, I suddenly become aware of the fact that the internal state I am in at that time is never going to return. The only way is to keep going forward. But how? It makes it feel necessary to overcome my fear, face reality, and gradually experiment with what I have never before tried.
LZ And this strengthens your style and aesthetics?
YF Yes. Does The Fifth Night look like No Snow on the Broken Bridge? Or is Dawn Mist, Separation Faith stylistically linked with SIBF? Such worries are warnings to me. My audience sees my work and reacts to it in a direct way. If I pretend that I am moving forward stylistically but actually am not, it doesn’t work for me. I have to be honest. I do not want to just talk about how I innovate when I move forward. What’s important is to truly reflect on my process, interests, and advantages and think about how I can apply them to my art.
LZ I would like to talk about synchronization in your work. In First Spring (2010), the program you collaborated on with Prada, you mixed up different time periods as well as different people’s identities, while in The Fifth Night, in the same location, seven young people pass by one another briefly and appear on separate screens. Did you purposefully conceive of the design for both pieces before the shoot?
YF When I produce visual work, I can barely make out what exactly is in my head. I want to make sense of it, and capture it with some clarity, even though it is full of ambiguity. When I was working with Prada, I vaguely sensed an urge to improvise. At the beginning, I was not sure what time frame to choose. It could span from hundreds of years to thousands. Would it be long enough? In this undetermined time frame, what kind of people would come out? Are they from the Song, Yuan, Ming, or Qing dynasty? What about modern youth? They would be on set with these “period people.” The set is such an artificial environment that there must be a key to breaking down its essence and mystery. Maybe the key was a suspension wire for Geng Le (the mainland’s famous lead actor) and some of the foreign models. It wasn’t only for the sake of safety; it was something penetrating the line between reality and fiction. A lot of my friends argued that they were not convinced by the mixed time periods; they experienced difficulty entering the story in order to believe it. But why believe it? That is my point. I don’t feel like explaining it too much. Let the suspension wire explain it. It is totally inevitable to see the impossible and the fake coexist on set. This approach was carried into the production of The Fifth Night.
In college, I worked on a set as an assistant art director. We turned a Western chapel into an elementary school, a school that transitions from the pre-liberation to the post-liberation era. The set was entirely fake, but, mixed with the original old campus, it appeared very real. It took a couple of days to achieve each look: before the liberation, during the Cultural Revolution, and during the ’80s opening-up policy. One rainy day, during a break from working on the set, it suddenly turned sunny. The sunlight shined on the wall of the fake school. It looked so fake that it looked real! That incident stirred a lot of things inside of me and has inspired me since. Regarding creative aspects, sets explain the awkwardness of a narrative. There is no distinction between the real and the unreal. They are equal. A lot of things are so unspeakably evasive … but you can feel them.
LZ Do memories affect your creativity?
YF Each time I’ve decided to make a project, I have had a vague conception of the general direction I’d like to take. For example, during the shoot of Dawn Mist, Separation Faith, I knew I wanted eight or nine shots, but I was unsure about their cinematic feel. Maybe I was uncertain of how it would feel to escape from a city, as those young people do in the film. Instinctively, I have a tendency to go for perfection and beauty. That is why I wanted to create the feel of a stage at the plaza between the two buildings at the Shanghai Film Shooting Base before I figured out what I was doing on set. I have a lot of appreciation for Yin Xiaoming, my excellent production designer, who built a lighthouse-style structure with a spiral staircase. He was able to design a set based on my ideas, which weren’t clear until much later. I also had hoped to shoot night scenes in the woods so that it would look like a prop forest. Again, it was a matter of budget. I also wanted synchronic and fluid images, which could be moving cars, horses, pedestrians, lights, sound, or whatever. It was very vague. Images of young blacksmiths setting up the fire and pounding on the steel came much later. At that point, I only knew that there would be a few boys and girls walking around. But I had not yet decided how to shoot it.
LZ It took you three days to complete the shooting?
YF The preparation of the shoot took about 20 days. Finalizing ideas and pre-production did take some time, but it went by really fast. We rehearsed for two days and started shooting on the second night of rehearsal. We shot for a whole night. The first two days were very tiring; we did not get much rest. Coordinating, preparing, and adjusting took a lot of energy since we had seven cameras, seven cinematographers, a DP, and additional crew members.
LZ Did you shoot the seven screens separately or all together? How many individual takes did you do for each shot?
YF They were shot simultaneously. About four takes for each shot. Once we did one take, it seemed impossible for us to stop. No matter if we were ready or not, we would play back the first take and check for problems. And there could be a lot of problems: the dolly track was in the shot, actors missed their cues, or the composition was not right. We stopped then, made adjustments, and did the second take around midnight.
LZ In the final cut, did you pick the best moments from those four takes and mix them together, or did you pick the best take?
YF I picked the best take.
LZ Which take was that?
YF The third one. Actors’ performances and the images seemed to breathe. It was relatively difficult to get something like that with very complicated mise-en-scène and coordination between the seven cameras shooting simultaneously. In my previous experience, usually the best take has been the first or second one. It is incredible how my judgment evolved from one take to the next: I would feel secure at take two, but I would hardly stop there. I’d do a new take. Then I’d start forcing things to happen. When I was doing SIBF, I did 20-something takes for a shot and ended up picking the third one for the final film—actors’ performances and energy would go downhill at a certain point, even though we assume it has ups and downs. It is very subtle. A good take is not achievable through the director’s pursuit only; it also depends on the actors’ contributions. They are humans and they express their emotions and feelings in acting. It would not work if the energy were flat. In some way, the performances became even more important than in traditional narrative films. For one scene, one of my actors was supposed to walk alone at night. I told him that walking was his “dialogue.” His lines were his body, his eyes’ expressions, hand movements, and breathing. He had to understand this in order to “say his lines” with grace and rhythm in front of cameras for ten minutes. You see, making a successful picture really depends on an actor’s understanding and talent.
LZ I was very moved when the girl in The Fifth Night walked out of the willow forest.
YF If there is an invisible script, every character has his or her own individual story. The girl on the fourth screen slowly walked down the spiral staircase and occasionally stopped to look down to the plaza. Then she resumes her walk and eventually sees two elderly people on a sofa. To me, this has a sense of narrative. Here, everyone is alone at night, thinking. It is as if everyone wanders around a gallery in solitude. Everyone sees one another. Yet they look at each other as if they were just staring at statues. The girl keeps walking toward a young blacksmith and an old man. She walks by the willow trees and looks out into the distance. She leaves a trace the way a brush leaves a stroke on a long-roll painting. A boy standing by a horse near the willows approaches two other young men in the plaza. They just met two girls who did not stop for them. Yes, everyone walks in his or her own orbit at night. There is no real communication; no words are exchanged at all. What links all this together? It is the sound of footsteps, hammering, horses’ hooves, and street traffic.
LZ Your work usually unfolds from a freeze-frame, but this was not the case in The Fifth Night. You mentioned before that the freeze-frames had something to do with painting and photography.
YF Yes, I do feel that a painting or a photograph is like a frame from a movie, or a movie with only one frame. I used to be a painter. Making paintings is like directing a film in a personal style. I wanted to visualize a frozen second of my heart. Would the remnants of that second attract me more? I feel the need to dig deep and figure out what I really like. It is important for me to know what I should do with images and how I can move further.
LZ From my perspective, your shooting process is a filmmaking process, while your way of conceptualization and presentation challenges conventional film-watching experiences. SIBFand some of your older short films are definitely in the experimental-film category because of their length, narrative and nonnarrative content, and presentation. Yet your more recent works are film installations. The way they were shot is their only connection to film; it would be difficult to identify them as films in the traditional sense in light of their viewership and exhibition format.
YF I have been thinking about the idea of a film for a specific exhibition space and what form it would take. What makes me happiest is people’s acceptance and understanding of films with unlimited formal possibilities. My films are open to interpretation, like Cubist paintings. Some Cubist works share qualities with Futurist works. Then they are Futurist Cubist, right? Can we use similar terms when it comes to films?
LZ Maybe what is important is not whether your films should be called films or some other thing. Perhaps it is more critical to find guidelines and boundaries within your own work, or in relation to other people’s work, which I find that you seem to have great interest in. Otherwise you would not keep asking yourself, Are they films? Especially when it comes to the Library Film Plan, the term itself cannot be a flat one. It is not as simple as if we were to go to a library to pick up a book.
YF The unknown down the road interests me and gives me energy. What more can I do? I am curious about the answer. The Library Film Plan is a broad term. The underlying question I want to ask is whether people have spiritual life or not. That is something that constantly gets me going. Personally, I hope ideals and beliefs exist.
For instance, there are three spiritual states I was trying to articulate in Dawn Mist, Separation Faith—the belief in faith, the escape from faith, and the loss of faith. I also wanted this to relate to the danger of approaching a poisonous snake and the uncertainty that the morning mist brings. I wanted to know if such danger and uncertainty had anything to do with spiritual life.
LZ There is another hidden theme in several of your works, that of “returning to reality.” What is the reality you are facing, let alone the spiritual life you are talking about?
YF First of all, what is reality? What is reality to you? What’s surrounding you? What are your thoughts on reality? What’s your inquiry into reality? There is a lot that we can digest and reflect on. In terms of paintings, are those orchids in Chinese paintings real? What do you see besides orchids? From ancient through modern times, what metaphor do orchids embody? Sadness, loneliness, worries about the country and people? This makes things interesting. How can we make sense of reality? We might imply certain things, beat around the bush, or throw in thoughts from a completely different angle. All these approaches are valid and have a lot to do with our daily life.
Li Zhenhua is a writer, curator, producer, and artist living in Beijing, Shanghai, and Zurich. He is a founder of Laboratory Art Beijing and Mustard Seed Garden Productions. He has participated in numerous new-media art symposiums and has curated exhibitions for galleries and museums worldwide, including the ZK M Karlsruhe, the Walker Art Center, and the Guangzhou Museum. A recent art project of his can be seen in the online exhibition Beam me up, organized by plug.in, a new media art institution based in Basel, Switzerland. Visit his website here.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee