Re-collecting memories

Currently on view at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, ‘Geography of Time’ presents video works by Amsterdam-based artist Fiona Tan that explore themes of memory.

April 15, 2017 21:27

LAPSE OF MEMORY, 2007. (photo credit: FIONA TAN)

On show at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art through June 24, 2017, is the “Geography of Time” exhibition by renowned contemporary photography and video artist Fiona Tan (b. 1966). Tan’s first solo exhibition in Israel presents four video works that explore the themes of memory and identity.

“She makes use of both moving and still images to study personal and collective memory and captures complex identities, while contemplating how the past continues to live within the present” says Ruth Direktor, exhibition curator and curator of contemporary art at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

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The Indonesian-born artist was raised in Australia and has lived and worked in Amsterdam since 1988.

With a Chinese father, Australian mother and nomadic upbringing it is no surprise that Tan’s hybrid identity plays such a deep-seated role in the issues she chooses to deal with. It is also evident in the sensitive manner in which she approaches each of her subjects.

“The works in this exhibition reflect her interest in the ephemerality of time, in the vicissitudes of biography and in the power of portraiture” says Direktor. “Each of the works reveals how even highly personal materials are inextricable from larger political histories and processes that extend far beyond the realm of private life.”

The exhibition opens with one of Tan’s most autobiographical films and the earliest work on show, a 60-minute travelogue, May You Live in Interesting Times (1997).

“It offers a parable for any quest for origins, a sense of belonging, or an arena of potential action” says Direktor.

The work records Tan’s year-long voyage around the world. The self-proclaimed “professional foreigner” ventures across continents and countries from Australia, Holland and Germany to Indonesia, Hong Kong and China, in search of her identity.

“I started this journey in search of mirrors, and have found many.

I wanted to learn about the family, and at some level, deeper than words, deeper maybe even than images, this has been extremely satisfying” says Tan.

The final stop on Tan’s quest is patrilineal origin; a small Chinese village, where all residents share the surname “Tan.” While the 400-year-old ancestral home provides historical insight, it does not provide Tan with the sense of belonging she had hoped for.

“There remains for me a painful confrontation; I’ll never feel entirely part of my family. No, I’m not Chinese, although most of my family still is. But, rightly or wrongly, I’ll never entirely feel Western either” says Tan.

“I’m still not sure to what extent my ‘image of self’ is determined. The sense of being foreign runs so deep, I wonder if I deliberately seek it out. My self-definition seems an impossibility, an identity defined only by what it is not. I can’t say that through this search I have gained more of a cultural identity....”

The rich visual aspect of Tan’s oeuvre makes her a unique representative of contemporary art. Her works assigns particular importance to questions of time and place, while also addressing historical and gender-related ideas.

“Tan’s art is saturated with consciousness about images and their role in daily life, as well as the way in which they construct our memory” says Direktor. “Her works involve diverse influences such as historic Dutch painting and the history of portraiture, and encourage viewers to reconsider the very idea of the portrait and the thin line between moving images and photography.”

This is evident in her short film Nellie, 2013, which focuses on the mysterious, illegitimate daughter of Rembrandt, the renowned 17th century Dutch painter. Very little is known about Cornelia van Rijn, known as Nellie, except that in 1669, following the death of her father, the 16-yearold left Amsterdam for the Dutch colony of Batavia in Indonesia (present day Jakarta).

The homage to the great artist’s forgotten daughter is a visually beautiful, almost silent piece, save for a few ambient sounds. Tan tells Nellie’s story through her own perspective as a female contemporary artist, and through her nearly reversed biography, having been born in Indonesia and then immigrated to Amsterdam.

The work was filmed in Amsterdam’s the Van Loon Museum, a building originally constructed in 1672 and transformed into the museum in the 1960s.

The video work is projected onto a screen similar in size to many of Rembrandt’s better known works, and is delicately presented, floating at eye level between two walls in the exhibition space.

“Despite its subtle and intimate quality, Nellie offers a larger reflection on what is known as Holland’s golden age” says Direktor.

Tan’s work over the past two decades alternates between documentary and fiction, photography and installation.

In her video installation Diptych, Tan further confuses the boundary with footage of 10 sets of identical twins, shot over a period of five years (2006-2011), on the Swedish island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea.

Her images of these twins appear like photographs at first, and only upon closer inspection the images reveal themselves as filmed portraits.

It is a startling realization, and the visually deceptive quality of the work is enhanced by the design of the installation: Tan presents multiple portraits of each twin individually by simultaneously screening them in two identically constructed, adjacent rooms. To further obscure the situation, in each room, the portraits of one of the twins is screened onto two parallel screens. The double projections of varying sets of twins, on sideby- side screens in side-by-side rooms, evokes the strange feeling of déjà vu.

“The viewers find themselves moving between the double, or indeed quadruple portraits. In an attempt to pin down the elusive identity of one or the other” says Direktor. “The identical, duplicate rooms raise a number of themes that have preoccupied Tan over the years: the hypnotizing power of portraiture and its ability to capture the essence of the photographed subject; the passage of time and its presence in our life; and the simple magic inherent to the blurring of moving and still images.”

Tan’s repertoire of Tan cinematic tools includes voice-overs, music, written texts, archival footage and photographic imagery. In the work A Lapse of Memory, 2007, Tan’s cinematic portrait of a man suffering from senile dementia, lost within his fragmented memories and various selves, is projected onto a theater-sized screen in a darkened room.

The scenes in the sentimental film continuously shift between the protagonist, Henry, and the stunning palace where he resides (The Royal Pavilion of Brighton, designed in 1787-1823 for King George IV). A calm, almost unemotional voice-over poetically narrates the histories of both Henry and the palace.

The “Geography of Time” exhibition was jointly organized by four museums: The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo; MUDAM Luxembourg; MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt am Main; and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. For more info on exhibit visit

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