Yang Fudong: Beyond GOD and Evil—Preface is an uncanny meditation on time and space. It is also participatory, requiring the viewer’s movement and thought to complete its temporal and spatial distortions. This aesthetic cornucopia of an installation is elevated by its immersive impulses, which enact a kind of spectatorial disembodiment upon the viewer.
Yang Fudong: Beyond GOD and Evil—Preface is the sequel to a series entitled ‘Dawn Breaking’ that the artist Yang Fudong produced for the Long Museum in Shanghai. ‘Dawn Breaking’ was a participatory cinematic project that allowed museum-visitors to interact with a film crew as they captured actors performing tableaus set in the Song Dynasty. Beyond GOD and Evil, at Marian Goodman in London, disseminates clips from ‘Dawn Breaking’ between various screens in an expansive spatial labyrinth. Some play on boxy televisions perched on tables and others fill entire rooms. Many are projected onto the gallery’s wallpapered walls whose floral motifs blend into the universe of each scene.
The episodes evoke the opulence of the Song Dynasty, a golden period of art and culture in China. Their colors are rich, often featuring deeply-saturated shades of red, and their textures are decadent. The floral wallpaper that serves as backdrop to many scenes optically blends into the filmic universe, adding another layer of texture to tableaus already brimming with tangible fabrics, plants, and faces. The women’s powdered complexions are starkly corporeal and their glossy lips luminescent. Flowers strewn across their faces feel as if they are rooted in female skin, but at the same time, they form a barrier between the spectator and the screen. The wallpaper may be enmeshed in the cinematic plane, but we are separated from it.
Many scenes depict men and women mouthing sentences slowly, their movements elongated and their gestures suspended, as if their limbs are supported by puffs of air. Others, like an elaborate battle sequence, feature figures moving in double-time. In all, the illusion of reality is eventually broken. It might be subtly dismantled, when a fluffy boom microphone enters the corner of the screen. Or, reality might be shattered more drastically, as the camera zooms outward to reveal an entire camera crew capturing the figures in costume.
The effect is unnerving. One moment we are immersed in the film, intently focused on the silent procession of figures through space. And then, suddenly, we become aware that the figures are characters—that their faces are masks and that we are spectators. As voyeurs, we start to question our own identities; what does it mean to be the voyeur who observes others who are watching? Are we cameras too, like the physical apparatuses depicted on screen? If not, what space do we occupy, and in what form? In this way, Fudong constructs three planes– the characters, the filmmakers, and the viewer’s disembodied self– and makes us aware that we occupy this third, uncanny category.
The viewer’s spectatorial disembodiment is reinforced by the exhibition design, which requires us to enter Fudong’s den of screens by way of a padlocked black metal fence. One must descend several steps to reach the fence, a procession that recalls the descent into Hell. I am reminded of many myths of gate-keepers between this realm and the next, and of heroes who journey into the latter by way of many steps.
Fudong is fascinated by boundaries, from physical barriers to abstract planes. Beyond GOD and Evil—Preface forces the viewer to cross thresholds that are then obfuscated. The artist compels the viewer to descend, a seemingly clear spatial delineation, only to leave him disembodied on a third spectatorial plane.
Fudong manipulates time in much the same way that he reconceptualizes space. His characters move slowly, at half the speed of human beings in the corporeal world. But they do so with ease such that we are hardly aware of the passage of ‘true’ time. Furthermore, Fudong’s figures speak words the viewer cannot hear; their prolonged pauses and elongated vowels would break the artist’s spell. But we hear nothing, and thus Fudong prevents the viewer from establishing a narrative pace. We are suspended outside of time—and outside our bodies—simply watching, while the world hurries on without us.
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Yang Fudong: Beyond GOD and Evil—Preface is on view at Marian Goodman through July 26. Hours are Tuesday-Saturday 10-6pm.