Dutch entry 2009

Fiona Tan - Disorient. Dutch Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2009. Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London. Fiona Tan - Disorient. Dutch Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2009. Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London.

Fiona Tan

Curator: Saskia Bos
At invitation of the Mondriaan Foundation

At the 53rd International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, the Dutch pavilion was presenting the work of Fiona Tan. The artist was selected by curator Saskia Bos at the invitation of the Mondriaan Foundation, with the works being installed in close consultation between the artist and the curator.

The relevance of Fiona Tan’s body of work is to a large extent determined by the manner in which she provides the micro-political sphere of the individual with a voice and a face within the macro-political sphere of our global culture: her oeuvre is recognised and viewed in many countries as a metaphor for the exploration of hybrid identities.

Fiona Tan (born 1966) has been living in the Netherlands for over 20 years, and has also studied there. As the daughter of a Chinese father and an Australian mother, born in Indonesia and driven by its repressive regime to relocate to Australia, her biography resembles that of immigrant children or the children of the diaspora. She calls herself ‘a professional foreigner, whose identity is defined by that which I am not.’ Tan’s work responds to what in art history is called ‘provenance’, which is also the title of one of her most recent installations.

‘D’où venons nous?’ wrote Gauguin in 1897, on a painting that he made in Tahiti – ‘Where do we come from?’ – but he also wrote ‘Where are we now; where are we going?’ . Tan ostensibly only asks the first question; the other questions have an implicit presence. The object of her work, which has enjoyed attention from the very start of her career and was soon exhibited at prominent cultural institutions, is never a literal search for truth or identity: the artist is able via a variety of means to deconstruct and complement memory processes and storylines, whether or not with the help of found film fragments that both bring history to life and seem to question it.

Fiona Tan - Disorient. Dutch Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2009. Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London.

For the Dutch pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale, Fiona Tan has developed the project Disorient, which consists of three different works that have been selected and installed so that they reinforce and complement one another.

Provenance is based on 17th-century paintings in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Fiona Tan was invited to work with the collection of the museum; a result of her cinematic investigation into the extent to which our perception is formed by our own cultural background and what we project of this background on other people. Although inspired by the portrait paintings of the Dutch Golden Age, these film portraits do not seek to simulate paintings: each portrait is a loop of three to five minutes. The films are shown simultaneously on six small lcd-screens that are fixed to the wall at eye level, like paintings in a museum. The individuality of those portrayed is perhaps expressed most strongly in those few instances when they have eye contact with the viewer via the camera – just long enough to create the impression that it is not we who are watching them, but they who are watching us.

Rise and Fall is a double screen projection, unusual for its vertical orientation. Here Tan asks us to consider the transient and conflicting nature of human experience, in every movement we rise and we fall; and in every encounter we come together and we fall apart. There is no consolation in this knowledge, it discloses nothing that might redefine our thinking and our actions. We are left, like the character in Rise and Fall, with a melancholic awareness of the passage of time, the actions that mark its movement, and the memories we create to give meaning to that knowledge. In this piece memory is translated as movement; the focusing of a camera or a shift in focal depth. We see the memory take on a certain shape and configuration, but then the focus is pulled, by the current, by the tide, by forces that are as relentless as they are invisible.

Fiona Tan - Rise & Fall. Dutch Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2009. Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London. Foto: Per Kristiansen.

Disorient: Fiona Tan has involved herself with Venice before – albeit indirectly – by referring to Italo Calvino’s texts that remember the travels of Marco Polo. For her latest film, the artist used the original text for a contemporary encounter with the age in which Venice was a strategic centre of the world. The starting point of this new work was to confront Marco Polo’s seven-centuries-old descriptions with images of the present in her own associative montage. The voice-over in the installation consists solely of quotes from The Travels of Marco Polo. Tan connects the 13th-century mercantile power of Venice to Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism: the inability of ‘the West’ to truly come to grips with the essence of ‘the East’. As a result, Tan allows Marco Polo’s account of his travels to be brought to bear on our own times. She not only refers to a centuries-old tradition in the West of creating unilateral images of the East, but also emphasises that the West needs to find new bearings.

Tan: ‘The lack of comprehension of other cultures and societies, the reluctance to engage with and to learn about other customs and other religions is just as pertinent and tragic today as it was seven hundred years ago. The old, even if distorted and skewed, can give unexpected, worthwhile insights into the current and new. The violence of powerful nation states against other countries and peoples in the name of global peace can arguably be called colonial aggression in a new disguise. Even in our times trade and pursuit of economic gain is repeatedly given precedence over justice, common sense and human compassion.
Marco Polo’s story is one running in some ways parallel to my own biography, be it in the other direction. Coincidentally I was also seventeen when I first travelled to Europe and I am now forty-two. The young Marco intrigues but also irritates me. He embodies in many ways the ideal traveller – neither warrior nor politician, he has no goal, no final destination. I am straining to see and imagine the future beyond the restrictive dichotomy of East and West (one which always implies East versus West). And thus a lost and much altered historical document more than 700 years old is my starting point for a new and contemporary artwork. Venice is – literally and figuratively speaking – my point of departure and return, and this merchant of Venice is my unlikely guide.’