Yang Fudong, Fifth Night, 2010, still from a seven-channel black-and-white HD video transferred from 35 mm, 10 minutes 37 seconds.

Yang Fudong, Fifth Night, 2010, still from a seven-channel black-and-white HD video transferred from 35 mm, 10 minutes 37 seconds.

Yang Fudong

Parasol unit

Yang Fudong, Fifth Night, 2010, still from a seven-channel black-and-white HD video transferred from 35 mm, 10 minutes 37 seconds.

Yang Fudong’s black-and-white film Fifth Night, 2010, offers an allegory of philosophical searching in Shanghai’s old town over the course of one night in the 1920s. The roughly ten-minute piece (shot in 35 mm and transferred to HD video) follows several characters who, with pained expressions, wander around carriages, vintage cars, and a table set with laboratory-specimen jars (one with a live fish swimming around in it) as bicycle rickshaws pass by, workers attempt to repair an old tramcar, and men in business suits sit silently on a couch placed on a platform in the middle of the square. Throughout, the city appears more like a stage set than a real urban context. Yet despite—or perhaps because of—the work’s high production values, redoubled by its exquisite installation over seven screens mounted on one wall of Parasol Unit’s largest gallery, it felt superficial.

Yang’s camera—endowing the image with lush detail worthy of classic noir—focuses on the roaming figures, whose expressions and insecure bodily movements enact a drama of subjective disorientation and existential curiosity, while the other characters simply go about their business. A sound track of symphonic orchestral music à la Bernard Herrmann (the composer of scores to many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films) adds to the psychological pitch, otherwise unaided by any voice-over or speech. The press release claims that “all is left open-ended, with no beginning or end. Without conclusion, the search for spiritual life continues.” But one might view the central figures simply as dazed and confused, or suffering inexplicably from some sort of traumatic disorder, and take the artist’s ambition to explore the spiritual as mere stylization.

A second installation, One Half of August, 2011, greeted visitors in a smaller, second-floor gallery. Eight screens arranged around the square room showed clips of the artist’s past films (in particular, “Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest,” 2003–2007) being projected onto various architectural interiors, furniture, and kitchen appliances. The resulting nineteen-minute film produced some elegant visual montages and modish distortions of imagery fragmented over uneven surfaces, just as the represented domestic space was enlivened by the cinematic projection. Yet ultimately the purport of this reframing of the artist’s own imagery remained unclear; aestheticization eclipsed meaningfulness, just as the significance of the title’s allusion to the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival was vague at best.

The remaining presentation, Ye Jiang (The Nightman Cometh), 2011, is a single-channel video of nearly twenty minutes. Set in a frozen wintery landscape, with snowflakes gently floating to the ground, the scene, shot in luscious black and white, is again one of interpretive disorientation. A lone warlord, dressed in a seventeenth-century military uniform, is shown camped out by a fire, the set’s artificiality immediately evident from the unnatural appearance of the snowbanks. It’s like a Kurosawa film set transformed into the stage for a nonnarrative, metafilmic revelation of the character’s existential crisis. Three ghost-like figures appear, one by one, dressed mostly in white, their outfits reflecting different historical periods (one young man sports a modern suit and tie; two women wear traditional gowns). They walk around the set, visibly confused, like the seemingly shell-shocked characters in Fifth Night. However, if the point is to create allegorical value— to dramatize a philosophical quest or a spiritual awakening—it appears forced and unconvincing. Indeterminacy appears here gratuitous rather than profound. The look of serious thinking is a poor substitute for the real thing.

T. J. Demos