Chinese video artist Yang Fudong has gained international recognition for his poetic, dreamlike meditations on Chinese culture and identity, most fully expressed in his epic five-part work, Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest (2003-07), currently on view at the Asia Society in New York [see article this issue]. East of Que Village (2007), installed recently at Marian Goodman, is a sharp departure from that approach. Created for a 2007 exhibition at Tate Liverpool titled “The Real Thing: New Art from China,” the roughly 21-minute, black-and-white work seems indeed brutally, even painfully real. Projected on six screens, it depicts scenes from daily life in the artist’s native village, a desolate and desperately poor settlement whose human inhabitants are shown mutely performing prosaic tasks—eating, feeding animals and, in one scene, pulling together what appears to be a rather pathetic New Year’s parade. But the real focus is a pack of wild dogs that lurk at the edge of what appears to be an abandoned factory building or stray into still occupied homes and ramshackle courtyards. The camera also lingers on emblems of winter’s bleakness: barren trees, crusts of ice on a river, a frozen landscape punctuated by the rotting corpses and skeletons of dead animals.
The contrast with Intellectuals is striking. While certain esthetic elements are shared by the two works, they are used to dramatically different effect. Both videos are shot in black and white, but while the choice serves to distance Intellectuals from ordinary time and space, in Que Village it suggests a pitiless journalistic eye. Both works resist conventional narrative development, but in Intellectuals this temporal ambiguity serves to blur the distinction between the factual and the imaginary, while in Que Village it suggests a reality in which time doesn’t matter because nothing ever changes.
But the greatest contrast has to do with the themes of the two works. Unlike the conversing, copulating, vividly interacting characters in Intellectuals, the human subjects in Que Village are seen only from a distance, like props moving in the landscape, and have no more individuality or connection than the wild dogs. And while the young scholars occasionally play at being farmers, the hardscrabble peasants in Que Village are solely focused on survival—they clearly have no time for private ruminations. Instead, they live in a world evidently bereft of mythology, beauty, literature, art, higher feelings or inner life.
Que Village is a departure as well from much contemporary Chinese art, which tends to focus on the changes imposed on the country by breakneck development and modernization. In contrast, this work offers an unsparing look at one of the many rural areas that have been left behind by these upheavals, providing a reminder of the dark side of China’s economic miracle.