Time and tide wait only for artists

So what do we have in this exhibition?

‘Nellie,’ video installation, 2013 (photo credit: FIONA TAN)
‘Nellie,’ video installation, 2013
(photo credit: FIONA TAN)
Some time during the fourth century BCE, the Chinese Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu had a dream: “Once upon a time, I dreamed I was a butterfly.... Suddenly, I awoke.... Now, I do not know whether I was then Chuang Tzu dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming that I am Chuang Tzu.... This is what is meant by the transformation of things.”
This is also what came to mind while viewing Lapse of Memory, a haunting 24-minute video by video artist, filmmaker and photographer Fiona Tan. We see an elderly man, living alone in a once elegant but now shabby old mansion, making tai chi movements one moment, scrutinizing an antique globe the next. He makes himself tea according to Japanese tea ceremony ritual, strings lights along the floor of a long corridor, and sleeps alone on a mat.
An unseen narrator, Tan herself, presents two possible “alternative truths,” one describing the old man’s memory of a past as a young Asian man named Eng Lie, who followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and left his home for the West, and the other of a young European man who left for the East, where he fell in love with a young woman. The narrator tells us that the old man, whose lonely movement we are following, is “trying to find a memory that he can comfortably live in.”
 ‘A Lapse of Memory,’ video installation, 2007. Credit: Fiona Tan ‘A Lapse of Memory,’ video installation, 2007. Credit: Fiona Tan
Lapse of Memory is one of four identity-bending and time-transcending videos currently on display at Tan’s solo exhibition, “The Geography of Time,” at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Tan’s artistic vision, evident throughout the exhibition, is quite evidently driven by her own geography of time.
“My mother is Australian, my father is Indonesian Chinese. I was born in Sumatra, Indonesia, in the central Sumatra town called Pekanbaru. My father was a geologist, working in that part of Sumatra at the time,” Tan says. In 1968, at the age of two, she and her family moved to Melbourne, Australia, where she grew up.
“I took my first photograph when I was 12, with my mother’s box Brownie,” she recalls. “And when I was a teenager finishing high school, I was photographing a lot. And I majored in art. So that made me think I wanted to study art, if possible. So I studied art in Germany, and later on moved to Amsterdam, where I’ve been ever since. So I think what I do now – it comes from that time as a teenager, when I was walking around with a camera around my neck all the time.”
Despite having taught at universities both in Amsterdam and in the German city of Castell, along with being a world-renowned video artist since the 1990s, Tan believes that the essence of her work has remained more or less the same.
She says, “I kept a sort of photographic diary when I was a teenager. And I found it the other day and was looking through it. And I got a huge shock as I realized that I haven’t really changed the style I work in. The way I work is still the same. And that shocked me as I thought, well, I’ve studied art, and I’ve been a professor, so you’d think I’d learned something during the time in between. But on the other hand, I thought, well, it’s always been me. The thought was comforting and disconcerting at the same time.”
Asked about the difference between film and video, Tan suggests that whatever differences there might once have been between the two media have long been blurred.
“It becomes very hard to draw a line between the two, and the line is very subjective,” she says. “I would say that I work with lens-based media. That’s what I do. It’s looking through a lens, with some sort of recording device on the back, be it either still images or moving images. And with still and moving, that’s something I’m always pushing and pulling at. The difference between photography and film is also something that I’m interested in, but I wouldn’t be able to define it.”
So what do we have in this exhibition? Tan thinks a moment, gestures toward the exhibition area and says, “We have four pieces in there. Three of them are video installations, one is a video.”
Asked what makes a video a “video installation,” Tan replies, “The installations are spatial works that use moving images. So the way they are presented in the space, and the experience of the viewer within the space, is part of the piece. It has a certain sculptural element to it. The other piece is more a conventional narrative of 60 minutes, which is basically shown on a TV on a wall.”
In addition to “Lapse of Memory,” the exhibition features the fascinating installation Diptych, composed of video footage of 15 pairs of identical twins on the Swedish island of Gotland, whom Tan filmed repeatedly over the course of five years.
 ‘Diptych,’ video installation, 2006-2011. Credit: Fiona Tan ‘Diptych,’ video installation, 2006-2011. Credit: Fiona Tan
And while Tan’s life brought her from Indonesia to the Netherlands, her video installation Nellie explores the life of Rembrandt’s illegitimate daughter, Cornelia van Rijn, whose life followed the opposite trajectory, from Holland to the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia.
And finally, May You Live in Interesting Times is the earliest work included in the exhibition, as well as the most autobiographical. In this hour-long video, Tan travels around the world in an attempt to trace the roots of her family and her two-sided identity.
Journeying from Australia through the Netherlands, Germany, Hong Kong, and Indonesia, Tan ends her voyage in China, at her father’s small ancestral village in which everyone shares the family name “Tan.”
The exhibition, which opened on February 17, will run through the end of June at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
What’s next for Tan? “I’m researching at the moment, researching quite intensely, for what will hopefully be several new pieces,” she says. “Perhaps you’re familiar with the 19th-century French painter Théodore Géricault. His most famous work is The Raft of the Medusa. He died very young, but at the end of his life he painted 10 portraits of the insane inmates of Salpêtrière asylum in Paris, commissioned by psychiatrist Étienne-Jean Georget, one of the founders of social psychiatry. These portraits were lost; then, 40 years after his death, five of them resurfaced.
“I think they are extremely beautiful. They are very simple studies. They were made just before photography came on the scene. They are very beautiful portrayals.
He carefully observed the people he was painting and I think felt a great deal of empathy for them.
Video artist, filmmaker and photographer Fiona Tan. Credit: Carl HoffmanVideo artist, filmmaker and photographer Fiona Tan. Credit: Carl Hoffman
“There were 10 of these paintings. Five are lost. And these five lost paintings are for me the starting point for a new work. I want to find out more about these five lost paintings. I call this project “Ten Madnesses.”
"If I can find out what five madnesses are now missing, I can hopefully be inspired enough to make a new work, or five new works, to take their place.”
Asked why she is so interested in these paintings and what might be driving her to embark upon a project devoted to madness, Tan flashes a smile and replies, “That time in France was a very interesting period – post-revolution, restoration, a lot of unsettlement in the society trying to rediscover itself.
“To me, there are very strong parallels with the current time we’re living in. So, given the political situation today, thinking about madness is certainly is not such a bad thing to be doing.”
For more information: www.tamuseum.org.il/ about-the-exhibition/fiona-tan-geography-of-time