While Rise and Fall constructs a woman's identity with fragmentary glimpses into her past, Provenance (2008) offers piecemeal portraits of several individuals. Displayed at the Vancouver Art Gallery and at Freeman, Provenance was originally commissioned by the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, which invited the artist to create a work that responded to its collection. Drawing inspiration from the museum's deep reserves of 17th-century Dutch portraiture, Tan shot six short black-and-white films that portray various residents of Amsterdam. To underscore their relationship to traditional easel painting, all the films are silently screened on small, black-framed LCD monitors (the largest measures 18 by 14 inches) hung in a row at eye level.
All six subjects of Provenance are closely related to Tan; they include a neighbor, a former teacher, a local grocer and the artist's youngest child. One senses this intimacy in each of the films, which range in length from three to five minutes. Showing her subjects at home or work, Tan's steady panning shots capture quiet, quotidian activities like reading a newspaper, peeling fruit or typing on a laptop. For most viewers, of course, Tan's subjects are complete strangers, and her deliberate camerawork helps one gradually formulate a sense of their identities. As she slowly circles an activity, or lingers over framed photographs, figurines and other personal possessions, a provisional understanding of each person accrues.
At one point in every film, the subject turns to look into Tan's camera, essentially breaking the fourth wall and striking a formal pose that invokes the painted portraits which inspired the project. Despite their direct address to the viewer, these moments are the least revelatory, and the subjects we have gradually come to know appear to retreat behind a measure of self-consciousness. While this device seems to question the transparency of traditional portraiture, the installation's title, Provenance, implies that greater insight may derive from accumulated knowledge of a person's origins and history-the kind of information that so much of Tan's work strives to provide.
Not all of Tan's recent work may be characterized as portraiture. Island (2008) is a 12-minute black-and-white video that surveys the distinctive terrain of Gotland, an island off the eastern coast of Sweden. Projected on a large wall in Vancouver, Island uses prolonged static shots to immerse the viewer in an austere landscape. Utterly flat windswept meadows extend to low horizons, or sometimes meet a silvery band of sea. Bent and gnarled pine trees grow in stark isolation. In some shots a distant lighthouse is visible, but no people are ever seen. Meanwhile, a man's voice describes a female visitor to the island, someone who "did not come here all that long ago, but already has lost track of time." The serenity of Island is disrupted after eight minutes, when the camera suddenly begins to move. As it rushes across a grassy field, aimlessly swerving this way and that, a subjective experience of the landscape emerges, one seemingly fueled by restless anxiety. The narrator confirms as much, describing a despair that afflicts the woman: "This place cannot contain her unease. If she walks fast enough, perhaps she can overtake herself."
Among the works shown in Vancouver, Island may seem anomalous. Its exploration of a barren landscape clearly departs from Tan's typical focus on the real or imagined behaviors of specific individuals. Nearly all of Tan's films and video installations concern a search for identity. Her characters are often engaged in such a quest, and her strategic deployment of still and moving images tends to elicit a similar investigation from her viewers, who are generally inclined to concede that identity often eludes representation. Surely the crisis that lies at the heart of Island speaks to this theme, with its unseen protagonist who becomes profoundly uncomfortable in her circumscribed environment and seeks an escape from its limitations. And although they may engender anguish and confusion, such crises are embraced in much of Tan's work as positive symptoms of a mutable self engaged in continual evolution and adaptation. Indeed, in the closing minutes of Island, the camera stops moving and a measured assessment of the landscape returns. Amid this calm, the narrator describes a change in the woman. "Now the air feels cooler," he states. "She thinks that perhaps this place is becoming her home."
“Fiona Tan: Rise and Fall,” organized by Bruce Grenville, appears at the Vancouver Art Gallery, May 8-
Sept. 6. It originated at Aargauer Kunstlerhaus, Aarau, Switzerland, Jan. 30-Apr. 18, and continues
its tour at the Sackler Gallery, Washington, D.C., Sept. 18, 2010-Jan. 9, 2011, and Galerie de l’Uqam, Montreal, Feb. 25-Apr. 5, 2011. “Fiona Tan: Provenance and other works” was at Peter Freeman,
New York, May 13-July 30.
Matthew Guy Nichols is an assistant professor at Christie’s Education, New York.