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While the sensual cosmopolitanism of 1930s Shanghai once again looms in New Women (2013)— Yang Fudong’s latest five-channel, black-and-white video installation — its aesthetic and historical tropes are unspooled into a rich tableau as anachronistic as the notion of newness. The film’s five protagonists, stark naked and exquisitely coiffed in styles redolent of early 20th-century decadence, evade indexical reading into archetypes such as those from the eponymous film of 1935 portraying personal turmoil and struggles during a time of societal transformation. In Yang’s work, the women ramble through ostensibly artificial settings of ancient ruins, and twirl around in Art Deco or Ming minimalist interiors with expressions of coyness, doe-eyed bewilderment, longing or pensiveness. Priming the audience to follow the transition of movements on screen also heightens an awareness of the viewer’s own navigation through the installation space, where five illuminated panels are sparsely strewn at oblique angles to unmoor spatial perception.

Simultaneously, the artificiality of the environments and roles the women inhabit diverts the focus from temporality to the fictitious dimensions of any nostalgic gesture fraught with dynamic, associative uncertainties. As the movements distill into meticulous compositions, they variously recall a neo-classical frieze and the glistening, architecture-dwarfing, worldly eroticism of Tamara de Lempicka. Specific yet disembodied, flesh and blood but also allegorical, these women exhibit very little of the ennui of the educated, cognizant youths that inhabit Yang’s earlier works; politics of the gaze or society appear to be non-issues.Yang recently offered an intriguing analogy regarding his fascination with the past: “The scent of early cinema is a lot like the smell of roasted chestnuts in the winter air that you encounter when going out for a walk; its existence doesn’t necessitate holding the chestnuts in your hand.” Perhaps more so than before, Yang’s latest work affirms an intensely personal sensibility that can be at once vacuous and potent for its beholders.

by Xin Wang

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