Fiona Tan: Willing Subjects, Resistant Souls


Installation view of Fiona Tan’s Projection (left), 2010, HD video, 1 minute, with May You Live in Interesting Times (right), 1997. Courtesy Frith Street Gallery, London.


One of Fiona Tan’s latest works is a self-portrait titled Projection (2010). To create it, Tan filmed herself standing erect and mostly still, her hands sometimes adjusting the navy blue shirtdress she wears over a pair of jeans. She then projected the footage on a suspended bed sheet and recorded her image a second time as it wavered in a gentle breeze. The resulting video, a 1-minute loop rear-projected onto a 32-by-18-inch screen, shows the artist fluttering before our eyes. Tan’s diaphanous image is legible, but occasional ripples pass through her body and compromise its integrity. While reminding us that many portraits are contrived and only skin deep, Projection also posits Tan’s own identity as something fluid and endlessly changeable.

Projection was one of three works featured in Tan’s recent solo show at Peter Freeman gallery in New York. Fittingly, it is also the first video that visitors encounter in “Fiona Tan: Rise and Fall,” an exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery of seven films and video installations made over the past five years. Organized by senior curator Bruce Grenville, the show demonstrates Tan’s abiding interest in portraiture, her thoughtful interrogation of the genre’s traditional modes and limitations, and her inventive use of film and video technology to deepen our understanding of her subjects’ identities.

Tan was born in 1966 in Pekan Baru, Indonesia, the daughter of a Chinese father and an Australian mother of Scottish extraction. Most of her childhood was spent in Melbourne, and as an adult she relocated to Amsterdam, where she continues to live and work. These biographical facts are often invoked when discussing Tan’s work of the late 1990s, which frequently explored the construction of postcolonial identities through the strategic editing of archival films, most of them shot by European ethnographers confronting the “exotic” cultures of the non-Western world. While none of those early works appear in Vancouver, the show does contain May You Live in Interesting Times, an hour-long film that Tan produced for a Dutch television station in 1997. In this autobiographical travelogue, Tan searches the Chinese diaspora for family members who fled Indonesia in the mid-1960s, when a violent anti-Communist purge led to the slaughter of thousands of ethnic Chinese. In a voice-over toward the end of the film, Tan explains that she “started this journey in search of mirrors,” but quickly admits that her “self-definition seems an impossibility, an identity defined by what it is not.” This poignant concession may help explain the trajectory of Tan’s more recent work, which since 2006 has largely jettisoned documentary imagery and its attendant claims to truth. In its place, Tan has begun writing scripts, drafting story-boards and directing actors on location, ultimately creating fictional characters who variously sift through their memories.

Writing in the show’s catalogue, Grenville suggests that despite its reliance on found photographs, a 2006 installation titled The Changeling prompted this shift in Tan’s practice, as it was the first of her works to employ the voice-over of a professional actress. The Changeling consists of two small wall-mounted monitors, one of which displays roughly 200 photographs of anonymous Japanese schoolgirls in looped succession. Extracted from a 1929 yearbook that Tan found in a flea market, these sepia-toned portraits are studies in strict conformity, as every girl wears the same lapel pin on her dark jacket while gazing at the camera from beneath a bluntly cut bob. Tantalizing signs of individuality may be detected in some of the girls’ facial expressions, but each picture disappears within seconds, ceding momentary visibility to the next. As if to relieve the viewer’s frustration, Tan placed another monitor on the opposite wall, where one of the schoolgirls is singled out for sustained meditation while a woman’s voice recounts episodes from her life. The 12-minute-long narrative defies the limitations of the photograph, granting the girl an imagined identity and an extended presence that her counterparts lack. A local performer reads the translated monologue wherever The Changeling is presented (in Vancouver the voice belonged to Canadian actor Martha Burns), straining to connect subject to viewer across temporal and cultural chasms.

Tan introduced another imaginary character in A Lapse of Memory, a 2007 film that marked her first attempt at directing a live performer. Shot in color and presented on a wide screen in Vancouver, A Lapse of Memory was inspired by a visit to the Royal Pavilion, an extravagant architectural folly in the seaside town of Brighton, England, that was constructed for King George IV at the turn of the 19th century. A stylistically hybrid monument to British imperialism, the building’s exterior mimics the grand palaces of Mughal India while its interiors reveal a period taste for fanciful chinoiserie. Tan’s episodic narrative begins inside this building, where a grizzled, silver-haired elderly man, asleep on the floor, twitches into consciousness. Upon awakening he practices tai chi, prepares tea on a tatami mat and, mostly, wanders from one room to the next, all of them decorated with dragons, pagodas and other Orientalist motifs. A woman’s voice identifies the man as Henry, speculates that he may have traveled to the East in his youth and mentions that he now suffers from senile dementia. A bit later the man’s name is changed to Eng Lee, and the narrator describes his initial exposure to the Western world.

If the voice-over sometimes seems overly didactic, needlessly repeating that Henry/Eng Lee “feels lost within his various selves,” it is because Tan’s imagery alone conveys the reclusiveness and confusion of a man who is Caucasian but nonetheless practiced in particular rituals of Asian origin. In an especially affecting scene towards the end of this 24-minute-long film, Henry/Eng Lee, wearing spectacles, wields a flashlight to examine the surface of a large globe in a dark room, apparently seeking a sense of place while inhabiting a building that represents scrambled identity and postcolonial dislocation.

Tan abandoned voice-overs but continued to work with actors and ambient sound in Rise and Fall (2009), which was commissioned by the Vancouver Art Gallery. With two streams of video imagery presented on adjacent screens, each measuring 98 by 55 inches, she conjures the fluidity of memories, demonstrating how they can evoke an irretrievable past while also exerting a profound influence on the present moment. Tan’s protagonist in these expertly edited videos is a woman in her autumn years, who in the opening panning shots is twice shown asleep in bed, although a slight shift between the two camera angles implies that her physical presence is coupled with a dreamy drift elsewhere. As the videos progress, her image is frequently paired with that of a much younger woman, who we eventually sense is the older woman’s former self. In similar intimate close-ups, both women are shown bathing, dressing and writing in a journal, and wider shots sometimes reveal them moving through the same houses and gardens. At various points in their 22-minute loops, the two videos may display identical images, contiguous glimpses of a larger visual field or entirely distinct scenes, thereby plotting the spectrum of feelings that memories can engender, from warm familiarity to disturbing déjà vu. To the same end, Rise and Fall also incorporates some spectacular footage that Tan shot of Niagara Falls. Though perhaps an obvious metaphor for the swift passage of time, the interspersed clips of moving water are also poetic analogies for the women’s varied recollections. At times the flow between screens is placid and continuous, as if seamlessly linking past and present. In other moments Tan’s hovering camera suddenly plunges us over the falls’s precipice, where the churning water sends up an occluding veil of mist.

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.