Yang Fudong's Fifth Night is a homage to Shanghai’s Golden Age
Yang Fudong: Fifth Night
At the Vancouver Art Gallery until September 3
Fifth Night, a multichannel video installation, mystifies, absorbs, and unsettles us—as dreams often do. Directed by Yang Fudong, an internationally acclaimed film and video artist, and shot on a movie back lot in Shanghai, it asks us to immerse ourselves in a vision that is deeply emotional, even romantic, and intentionally ambiguous.
This complex work, on view at the Vancouver Art Gallery, is the latest addition to Yellow Signal: New Media in China, an impressive series of exhibitions and screenings. Organized by Centre A and curated by Shengtian Zheng, Yellow Signal opens sequentially at different venues across the Lower Mainland through the spring and summer.
The title of Yang Fudong’s work refers to the fifth night of the week (Friday), when this footage was made, and to the fifth phase of sleep, when we are dreaming most actively and intensely. Shot on film in gorgeous, velvety black and white, then transferred to digital video, it plays out simultaneously across seven large screens aligned horizontally against the back wall of a very dark gallery. Each of the synchronized screens displays the same continuous scene—a city square in the middle of the night—filmed from a different vantage point, and yet none seems to render up a comprehensible narrative. A sense of unreality prevails.
The actions and motivations of the unnamed lead characters—beautiful young men and women who come and go within each screen and across them—remain elusive, implying but never fully articulating who they are, to themselves or others. They slowly wander about, looking intently at their surroundings, wrapped in wonder, melancholy, and a deep sense of displacement. It’s as if they’ve been dropped into this scene from another realm of existence. Occasionally, they gaze with longing and perhaps recognition at each other, but they never speak and, ultimately, their actions glance off each other like car headlights off roadside signs written in a foreign language.
Early on, as a kind of subplot, two garishly dressed outsiders are thrown from a passing car and make their way apprehensively across the square. Workers load and unload objects from the top of a van, roll barrels across the paving stones, or labour pointlessly at an anvil. The clinking and clanking of their tools play through the soundtrack, whose modernist music reiterates the mood of sadness and alienation. Sitting near the centre of the square, in an old-fashioned barber’s chair, on an antique settee, and at a dusty and desolate-looking banquet table, are older men who slump as if they’re drunk or stare into space, unmoving as wax figures and oblivious to the young people who pause or pass by them. Equally surreal, a laboratory table stands nearby, set with beakers, test tubes, funnels, and glass jars containing small, agitated animals.
Although the lead actors are dressed and coiffed to appear contemporary, most of the set and props, including cars, suits, carriages, architecture, and rickshaws, alludes to the 1930s. This was Shanghai’s Golden Age, when that city was an important centre of culture, particularly of filmmaking. (It was also a prerevolutionary time when a large enclave of foreigners wielded power privilege over the local population.) Yang Fudong, who is based in Shanghai, clearly acknowledges his love for his hometown and the influence of its film history on his art making, and in many ways Fifth Night stands as a homage.
A common reading of this work is that it represents the displacement and disenfranchisement of young people caused by China’s astoundingly rapid social, economic, and technological changes. (Perhaps the lab table with beakers signifies some great, unspecified social experiment.) More broadly, it speaks to the sadness and alienation of youth. Still, Yang Fudong is not interested in dictating meaning to viewers. He encourages us to walk forward and backward in the gallery, becoming actors in an open-ended drama, making our own sense out of his complex dreamscape.