Whitehot Magazine

Fiona Tan @ Vancouver Art Gallery

Fiona Tan, A Lapse of Memory, 2007 (still)
single-channel video installation, 24 minutes
Courtesy of the Artist and Frith Street Gallery, London

Fiona Tan: Rise and Fall
Vancouver Art Gallery
750 Hornby Street
Vancouver BC
V6Z 2H7

Formally, Fiona Tan synthesises stylistic elements from an array of sources: the saturated light and precise detail of the Old Masters, the stark elegance of Chinese calligraphic ink, the patient unfolding of Bill Viola, the hovering luminousity of Jeff Wall. Conceptually, she points out a radical softness in the line between memory and imagination, and delves into the role this plays in our understanding of self. In common nomanclature, we 'imagine' our future and 'remember' our past. Tan's work suggests that in each present moment we are, in fact, actively creating our past every bit as much as we are shaping our future; narratives about what we have done and what we will do are equally nebulous. As individuals, we hover as the fulcrum of this past-present dynamic, trying, often in vain, to extract a familiar, concrete sense of ourselves from the fluctuating narratives we are continually rewriting.

Rise and Fall consists of seven pieces. The first, Projection, is a self portrait. Footage of the artist was projected onto a billowing sheet, then re-filmed and re-projected onto a small, suspended screen. Seemingly weightless and endlessly unstable, the notion of self is introduced as fundamentally ephemeral. With pervasive narration, A Lapse of Memory follows an isolated old man through a day in his fantastical residence, an old mansion steeped in lush, extravagant Orientalism. As he shuffles, dazed, through his eccentric daily routines the narrator describes multiple potential histories of his explorations between the West and the East. The Changeling uses historical, impassive school portraits of Chinese girls. Tan has singled out one of the images, and a narration slips from first person to third, alternately inhabiting imagined personas of the artist, the girl in the picture, and the girl's mother and grandmother, as it struggles to pin down the identity of the subject. The portraits of the rest of the class rotate through a single screen on the opposite wall. A documentary, May You Live in Interesting Times, records Tan's attempts to connect with members of her diasporic family. Each meeting results in a narrative of personal dislocation and re-identification that is embedded in broader familial and global histories. Island uses stark, slow footage of the rugged Swedish island Gotland and binds it inextricably to the narrator's intimate perspective.

Fiona Tan, Rise and Fall, 2009 (stills)
Two-channel video installation, 22 minutes
Courtesy of the Artist and Frith Street Gallery, London

The two final pieces of the show, Rise and Fall and Provenance were exhibited as part of Disorient at the 53rd Venice Biennale; they are the most engaging. Rise and Fall is a luminous diptych that meditates on the lives of two women, one older, one younger. Inter-splicing quiet, deeply personal yet parallel moments across two large, hovering screens, it is an intensely psychological installation. The possibility that these women may be the same person is constructed through various analagous scenes, synchronous moments, and mutual behaviours so specific that if the two are not the same person, they must be parent and child. In the opening minutes, the older woman's eye's flicker in agitated REM sleep as the younger woman ducks and weaves playfully amongst trees in an abstract dream-like sequence; as their morning routines unfold they use the same exaggerated technique to apply lipstick. The younger woman occupies various physical locations and points in time, and these are grafted onto the elder's single day. These devices, in conjunction with a quick cutting technique reminiscent of movie flashbacks, imply that we may in fact be party to the the older woman's memories. There is no narration, but the ambient sound is as precise, rich and emotive as the imagery. The dominant metaphor for their generally unsettled emotional state is water, specifically, Niagara Falls. 

Provenance is a series of animate portraits featuring people in Tan's current city, Amsterdam. These are silent, sedate films presented in the dimensions of a traditional canvas. There are moments with each when they appear to be static pieces: the sitters are often entirely still and the movement of the camera is impossibly slow. The films cycle through periods of distilled focus on the subjects themselves to gradually sweeping shots of their personal environments (either home or work), to close-ups of objects intimately related to them. As these various elements are slowly revealed the viewer pieces together an increasingly comprehensive sense of each individual. Out of all the pieces in the show, Provenance engages most overtly with the role art history has played in the representation of (a) self. The work is coherent with an early modern painting tradition in which specific attributes that define the subject are intrinsic elements of composition. At times, two side-by-side pieces, again, one of an older woman and one of a young girl, are so visually in sync they create a diptych - the temporary, seemingly spurious nature of the diptych's existence draws attention to the particular conceptual mechanisms of this artistic device in both contextualising and refining its subjects. Specific shots are gorgeous references to Dutch still lifes, and make for an quirky comparison between video and painting - life, in Provenance, is more literally 'still'. Its subjects are merely calm and quiet as opposed to being perpetually stopped in a single, painted instant. The inherent potential for change imbues the work with a temporal energy specific to video.

Fiona Tan, Provenance, 2008 (still)
six-channel digital installation 
Collection of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Photo courtesy of the Artist and Frith Street Gallery, London

When Tan's work falters it is more often than not due to narrative heavy-handedness. The narrations tend to delve too deeply into a self-concious explanation of the artist's thoughts about her process, for example, in the opening moments of both The Changeling and A Lapse of Memory. Though perpetually illustrative of the evolutionary nature of memory, her narration also can often bind a particular image too closely to one idea, collapsing its imaginative potential. The underlying story in Rise and Fall, though free from any vocal constraints as it is imparted entirely with images and ambient sound, seems somewhat simplistic. An unhappy love story unfolds amongst close-ups of the deep, powerful water that constitutes an iconic honeymoon destination; the pivotal scene after which the younger woman's mood shifts to a heavy state of concern that is strongly analogous to that of the older woman, is set with a lover in a hotel room above Niagara Falls. After this scene, the watery component of the footage, previously consisting of shots of the river leading up to the falls, moves up to and beyond the precipice, and concentrates on the unstoppable descent. Though beautifully shot, the metaphors are not subtle. The inclusion of the documentary, May You Live in Interesting Times, too, has a certain heaviness. It casts the artist's personal experiences and concerns so strongly over the rest of the works it could encourage too-literal and overly-fixed interpretations that might stem the lovely, evolving flow of ideas her work can induce.

Tan relies heavily on setting up points of comparison - older versus younger versions of subjects, the asian versus anglo-saxon histories presented in A Lapse of Memory, the single school portrait with multifaceted narration placed in opposition to a silent, rotating series of school portraits in The Changeling, even in the narration of Island that references another island from the past. At multiple points between these structural poles, fleeting versions of individuals surface and recede in a mesmerising flux. Her greatest strength lies in her incredible eye for composition, which imparts her concepts to the viewer with stunning impact while allowing ideas to continually evolve. Her imagery itself is rarely closed; there is always almost always room for the imagination, which will in general be deeply seduced, to stretch and to wrestle with what is on screen. Overall, the ideas she presents are sophisticated, complex and culturally broad while remaining relevant to the viewer as an individual.


Fiona Tan, The Changeling, 2006 (still)
two-channel digital installation, 12 minutes
Courtesy of the Artist and Frith Street Gallery, London


Fiona Tan, Rise and Fall, 2009
installation view of the Dutch Pavilion, 53rd Venice Biennale, June 7–November 22, 2009
two-channel video installation, 22 minutes
Courtesy of the Artist and Frith Street Gallery, London
Photo: Per Kristiansen, Stockholm