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YANG FUDONG, No Snow on the Broken Bridge, 2006, 35 mm film transferred to DVD. Courtesy the artist and ShanghART Gallery, Shanghai, and Marian Goodman, Paris/New York.

No Snow On the Broken Bridge

Yang Fudong

Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation
Australia China
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Yang Fudong’s films are best characterized by their understated elegance and the range of narrative strategies they employ. “No Snow on the Broken Bridge” at Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF) was an austere, thoughtful look at a pair of works by the celebrated 40-year-old Chinese artist. The exhibition, striking in its attentiveness to design and the particular needs of the works displayed, paired No Snow on the Broken Bridge (2006), a series of eight screens placed in a semicircle in the foundation’s main gallery, with the single-channel Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest (2003–07) in its theater annex.

Drawing on traditional Chinese literature, philosophy and art, Yang rejects linear storytelling by creating a collage of imagery that leads in many directions at once. Visual threads feed in and out of themselves or between multiple screens, generating a reverie in which time slows, and small details, such as a leaf trailing across water, become significant as the camera pans across distant horizons. Yang’s contemplative and extravagantly layered style reveals his original training in painting, which he pursued before taking on film in the late 1990s. In his fusion of tradition and modernity, one might also read something of the tussle with globalization in China today.

No Snow on the Broken Bridge takes its title from a popular touristic view on Hangzhou’s West Lake commonly referred to as “Lingering Snow on the Broken Bridge.” For Yang, the city has nostalgic significance as the place where he spent his formative years as a student at the Zheijang Academy of Art (now known as the China Academy of Art) between 1992 and 1995. He notes in the exhibition catalog that Hangzhou is renowned for its breathtaking mountain scenery, and its reputation bears out in the finished work. Filmed in black-and-white 35 mm, No Snow comprises loosely interconnected scenes and narrative fragments. Interpretation is left open to the viewer.

During the 11-minute film, eight young men and women take a meandering walk, admiring the surrounding scenery. Nothing definitive occurs. Without narrative resolution, one might become frustrated, but it is this very sense of expectation and longing that sustains the film. “It is what is going on in their hearts and minds that is important,” Yang explains. With the thawing of the snow, spring’s arrival becomes a metaphor for the budding hopes and ideals of the young protagonists. There is an elegiac nostalgia to the film—17th-century Chinese gowns, worn by the cast members, are interchanged with suits, with both sexes made up to resemble 1920s dandies—yet the film is firmly rooted in the present. No Snow draws parallels between Yang’s characters and modern Chinese youth; both groups drift between past and present, seeking relevance in a rapidly evolving China.

Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest takes its title from “Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove,” a folk narrative in which a group of third-century CE Taoist scholars, artists and musicians would gather at a bamboo grove and enjoy each other’s works, escaping everyday life. Created in five parts over five years, Seven Intellectuals was presented at SCAF on a single screen, with one part shown each week through the exhibition’s run. The film follows seven characters disillusioned by urban life as they set out to change their identities and move to a rural village, and then to an isolated island. In the final chapter, the intellectuals return to the city, resigned that it is where they belong, but also hopeful about overcoming their disillusionment.

Yang describes the completion of Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest as a turning point, and his subsequent works have grittier frames of reference. In 2007, Yang shot East of Que Village, a menacing film about starving wild dogs living in desolate areas of northern China—focusing on a grim present rather than an idyllic past. “I can no longer make films with that utopian feeling,” Yang explains. “How to give thickness to the work is what I will be giving thought to in the future.” In some ways, Yang’s artistic trajectory mirrors that of his protagonists—maturity brings with it complexity and greater awareness about life. To maintain one’s youthful courage in a new social realm is the challenge that lies ahead. This exhibition faithfully teed up that future for him.

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