Of all the disciplines of art, video has long been the one I find the most difficult to engage with. Preoccupied with notions of time and representations of space, often eschewing narrative altogether, these works tend to be overly aestheticised and empty or so conceptual as to become a good idea that really should have stayed just that. Why should I want to watch endless footage of unmoving architecture in real time? What is so interesting about a naked man being paraded through woods on a lead? I often have to force myself to sit through full screenings and leave without much of a lasting impression.
That resistance is the very reason why I pay regular visits to the Parasol Unit. Tucked behind a service station and a fast food place halfway between Old Street and Angel in North London, Parasol Unit is unassuming but worth a detour. Although the official remit of the art foundation is to promote contemporary art at large, they have one of the few galleries in London that offers an excellent programme in moving image. The current exhibition by Yang Fudong is no exception.
Fudong is a contemporary Chinese artist who was trained as a painter, but has since been transcending cultural barriers with his evocative, haunting film work. He has come to international attention during the 2007 Venice Biennial with his work Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest. The epic 5 part film lasting over 4 hours was shot over 4 years as an exploration of life’s great existential themes: society, gender, individuality, time and reality.
Often incorporating multiple perspectives via variations on a multi-channel approach, his works are spectacular for their scale but it’s the universality of the themes and the aesthetic of the images that are most striking. His process involves shooting in 35mm camera and film before transferring the final product to video. This lends a crisp depth to his images, subtle qualities of the black and white image that are rarely ever seen any more.
The recent works on show at Parasol Unit are no exception. Fifth Night is composed of 7 synchronized projections. Although there is no clear story-line, random characters engage in unrelated actions in the surreal environment of a fictional “Old Shanghai”. The atmosphere is that of an old studio film set: every detail is appropriately retro, the buildings look like flat façades, there is a stationary tram and a stage with a spiral stairwell to nowhere. Apparently random characters wander around the space without interacting or even acknowledging each other’s presence, perhaps absorbed in thought. They are all impeccably groomed and dressed in 50s fashions, as if they had walked out of a Wong Kar Wai set and mistakenly walked onto Fudong’s. This disconnection is evocative of urban alienation and of our alienation from the past. The lack of narrative allows you to fill in your own.
(“First Spring” – one of Fudong’s “ads” for Prada)
One half of August is very different and more abstract. On eight screens surrounding the gallery space, Fundong created an immersive environment for the audience to watch projections of his previous work as projected on architectural features and random objects. This work delivers a disorienting experience: you really have to stare at each screen individually, sometimes for minutes at a time, to make sense of the layering of images and spaces. As for the third projection, Ye Jian (the night man cometh) offers what appears to be a narrative but his favored existential questions still dominate in the single-screen story of a warrior after the battle. It is poetically and aesthetically reminiscent of Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood.
You are likely to walk out of the gallery more than an hour after you entered it without having realised how much time slipped by. You might even find yourself thinking about these works days later and wanting to see them again. Even I did. That is the magic of Fudong… and of Parasol Unit.
(Fudong’s second major exhibition @ Parasol is on until November 6th)