A night in purgatory, and other reveries of the ruling class

Fifth Night is currently on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery until September 3, 2012

Yang Fudong’s highly-stylized, black-and-white film, Fifth Night (2010), best resembles a state of purgatory. Threadbare proletariat, ripped at the collar, drag themselves through a movie set that imitates a Shanghai city-square. Although the setting is dated to the 30s and 40s with vintage cars, plaid suits, and tramways, the temporality of the film is indeterminate. More like a nightmare, the film resists any historical specificity. Wandering nowhere in particular, Fudong’s actors appear imprisoned in a world not their choosing. Not one of them possesses the capacity to speak. Dirtied by soot and grease, their bodies are marked by nights of labour and slowed by fatigue. Commanding an insubstantial weight, their poverty is extreme: they do not even own their own exhaustion.

Despite their poverty their stature is monumental and their faces oscillate between the reserved and the searing. Counterposed to the  labourers, two elegantly dressed upper-class women are admixed in the setting. Despite their class position, they share the same countenance of the laborers: melancholic, distraught, wistful. Isolated from one another, each character treats their surroundings with a good mix of suspicion, contemplation and disbelief. Ultimately caught in solitude, these characters trawl themselves through the square with hesitation, or at times, stumble backwards in shock.

The effect of wading through the mise-en-scène is both disorienting and banal. The 7-channel panorama places your head on a swivel. The longer you watch, the more your own movements begin to resemble the dazed protagonists. Technically, Fudong filmed each scene simultaneously as a single shot and then projected the composite as a panorama, in what Fudong calls “multiple views film.” Each scene is synchronized to such an extent that the background often becomes the foreground — and vice versa — yet remarkably there is no trace of the seven cameras within the setting. Visually enticing and picturesque, the high design is manufactured to confuse and overwhelm. The drama is structurally enhanced by Fudong’s black-and-white lens, which insists upon an immaculate presentation of the illuminated decay of these battered subjects. They appear as photographic images saturated with a nostalgia for the Old World. On the one hand, the filmic environment may at first assume an air that is oppressive and unbearable, but in reality, the short film just smacks of misplaced melancholia and pathos.

It is impossible not to read Fifth Night as a static portrait of class and containment. The depiction of class in Fifth Night is sentimental and undialectical. Each character is strictly confined to their preordained place. Labourers solely labour, the bourgeoisie continue their vegetative existence, while the two upper-class women are depicted in an Orientalist fashion — mute, downcast and submissive. Littering the margins, other members of the lumpenproletariat perform menial, repetitive tasks in distracted collaboration: one hammers an anvil with no purpose, another trolls a heavy barrel that weighs a ton, a group packs and unpacks a tramcar, a cycling-rickshaw driver encircles the square. They appear as though they are about to collapse at any minute. But the exhaustion is never actualized. Instead, they are suspended in a fragile space of disintegration, decomposition and communicative breakdown. Clearly there is no deviation from this zone of exclusion and rigid classification.

Although the film constantly oscillates between the background and foreground, labour is still placed at a distance. In the act of distanciation, work is made strange and unapproachable. In the history of cinema, this perspective is not new. Work is often expunged from display. In the history of art, the sites of labour are often depicted, but what happens in them is not. In Yang’s film for example, although some of the main protagonists are labourers, they are not entirely working. Instead they are positioned as though caught in an interlude: absorbed in this or that particular thought, transfixed, or suffering from this or that particular ailment. Robbed of the capacity of speech, these characters are deprived of subjectivity. Instead, the camera enunciates their existence, and in doing so denies them of their own power of enunciation. Accordingly, within this fleeting community, everyone is organized according to their predetermined place and assigned role in the social edifice.

Take for example the unexpected arrival of two urban flaneurs. Early on in the film, two characters are tossed out of a cab with suitcases in tow. On arrival, they look just as bewildered as the rest of the bunch. They stumble and stammer through the midst of the square, until they find sanctuary at the scene’s margins. Again, there is no interaction between the two even though they are fused at the hip. Although they may be of a different class, their destiny is fixed to subjugation. With no chance for a moonlight flit, this inhospitable terrain is now their new residence.

Strangely enough, the common reading of the work completely misses this essential element. The didactic panel that first greets the visitor before plunging into the total darkness of the installation suggests that the film is clouded in ambiguity due to its “elusive narrative.” This perspective was echoed by local press-release art critics Kevin Griffin and Robin Laurence, who slightly altered the gallery’s promotional documents by stressing the “open-ended” nature of the piece. Yet any prolonged encounter with the work suggests otherwise. What may at first be ambiguous and indeterminate eventually runs aground. The effect of disorientation does not expose a world that is socially diverse and unexpected, rather, its staged performances gradually become vapid, repetitive and predictable. To quote TJ Demos in a recent review of Yang’s work in Artforum “indeterminacy appears here gratuitous rather than profound.”

During the critic’s preview, VAG chief curator and associate director Daina Augaitis stated that the work operated as a metaphor for human displacement. If the work is a cipher for anything, however, it is only a representation of the dreamwork of displacement, in that it elicits the repressed image of poverty and transforms it into a sparkling image on display. This is how the dreamwork of the artwork fixes the image of bare life as a subjective state dispossessed of the capacity to transform and supersede class subjugation. Yang’s lumpenproletariat are condemned to continue to “act out” their roles — in the psychoanalytic sense — without memory of their repetitions. They produce their lives not as memory, but as an empty action: they repeat these actions without the knowledge that they are repeating them — a condition rendered all the more inescapable by its reproduction by the remaining actors in the film and ultimately by the film’s own audience. But what matters in any life located at the margins of society — outside the law as bare life — is not the state of subjugation as such, but rather how the vicious cycle of subjugation is rendered inoperative when poverty is transformed into a constitutive power.

To put it clearly, Yang’s lumpenproletariat are not making history, they are simply subjected to it. “Filthy, delightfully dirty, extraordinary: that is after all what men in the grip of poverty become. And people actually complain about that?” — Sartre’s analysis of popular depictions of Chinese poverty in “One China to Another” (1954) still resonates with Yang’s film:

What splendour in those royal rags, not forgetting the ravishing arabesques traced in dirt on young necks. Have we changed so much? We no longer go visiting the poor in their homes. It might even be said that we avoid them. It is because they go too far; for quite a long time now, they have embarrassed the rich.

Today, it might be still embarrassing to go visit the poor in the homes, but what is certain is that we are comfortable with it projected on the walls of the Vancouver Art Gallery. If Fifth Night evokes a nightmarish scenario, it should be interpreted more generally as a pleasant reverie for the ruling class. It is a reverie whose beauty is decadent, while its images are barbarous. If it is still possible to be a great lover of poverty, it is only on one condition: that the poor stay in their place.