Looking for Signs: Yellow Signal

by Brandon Chow

As Canada’s first major exposition of contemporary Chinese new media and video art, Yellow Signal: New Media in China has recently landed in Vancouver, finding refuge in a variety of galleries around the city.  The works presented reflect a mutual perception of current political circumstances surrounding Chinese artists.  Zheng Shengtian—a BC-Based artist, curator, and specialist on contemporary Chinese art—has described Yellow Signal as “a metaphor for the communal state of ambiguity in Asian countries.” He further adds that each piece invokes feelings of limitation, possibility, choice, change, confusion and self-confidence.

While each artist’s work remains tied to this political theme, they simultaneously represent different perspectives and narratives, yet with a shared understanding.  Similarly, by being spread out amongst multiple venues, each gallery inherits a part of Yellow Signal, and represents a unique piece of the project’s significance. The danger in this, however, is the possibility of interference from each gallery’s individual interpretations and the overall message of the project being spread too thin. Without a single comprehensive exhibit, can we really say that Yellow Signal is fairly represented across its Vancouver venues?

To begin looking at this question, we can explore the two galleries I visited: Yang Fudong’s Fifth Night, displayed at the Vancouver Art Gallery, and Zhang Peili’s A Gust of Wind at the Belkin Art Gallery. Both works share the same style of video formatting, yet are setup with contrasting presentations. The idea behind Fifth Night and A Gust of Wind is to portray a single short event in time and space, shot from multiple vantage points, and set across several screens. The resulting narratives provide an original twist on video art, allowing for a single scene to hold more depth through multiple layers of emotion and imagery.

Zhang Peili posing in front of  A Gust of Wind

Yang Fudong’s Fifth Night presents an eerie glimpse into the evolving cultural conditions of contemporary China. Walking into the pitch-dark room, I had the immediate feeling of mystery while trying to make sense of the silent montage of actors moving across seven looming screens. The concept of having multiple screens portraying a single event takes a bit of getting used to at first, but eventually gives way to a more detailed and layered understanding of the video’s message.  The scene invokes feelings of curiosity, loneliness, and displacement, while subtly referencing the duality between a modernizing and more traditional Chinese nation. The hauntingly dramatic instrumental score adds to the intensity of the video, making it a very powerful piece.

Although the Vancouver Art Gallery advertises Fifth Night as one of its feature exhibits, it’s easy for Fudong’s work to become lost within the diversity of other displays. Comparatively, the Belkin Art Gallery is much smaller in size and is able to devote itself entirely to the Yellow Signal project. In this way, the scale of the venue affects the way in which an exhibit can be perceived by its audience. At the Belkin I was able to completely immerse myself in the subject matter and this strengthened my experience as a result.

Yang Fudong, Fifth Night, 2010, video still

Despite the disjuncture of the Yellow Signal project, each media installation nonetheless remains an engaging piece of work on its own, dealing with heavy themes that allow for provocative imagery. With sufficient time, a journey through the varied spaces that comprise Yellow Signal makes for a good gallery hop for any passionate art connoisseur.

Yellow Signal is a metro Vancouver-wide presentation of new media works by contemporary Chinese artists. This series of programs/exhibitions was initiated by Centre A. Please consult their website for schedule details: http://www.centrea.org/index.cfm?go=site.index&section=page&tag=ysschedule



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