Fiona Tan is almost the perfect multicultural artist. Born in Indonesia of Australian and Chinese parents, brought up in Melbourne, she now resides in the Netherlands. Last year she was the Dutch representative at the Venice Biennale, where her video, Disorient, was one of the best received exhibits in a largely disappointing show.
Would it have stood out against stronger competition? Local audiences may judge the work on its merits at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, and sample another of Tan’s recent films, A lapse of memory (2007), at the National Art School Gallery. The collective title for this event, sponsored by the Shermans, is Coming Home. There is a slight irony in this, in that nowadays Tan probably finds it hard to call anywhere ‘home’. Those on the international art circuit lead the same nomadic existence as a professional golfer or tennis player.
Tan (b.1966) has drawn on her own trans-cultural background to find the themes for her films. She looks at the way personal experience fits into the grand march of history; the ambiguities of national identity; how western cultures have exoticised the east, and vice versa. These are exactly the topics that excite students of orientalism and postcolonialism. She may not have deliberately tailored her work to dovetail into today’s intellectual fashions, but that is precisely what has happened.
Disorient is arguably Tan’s most successful piece. It is projected onto two screens that cannot be seen comfortably from a single viewing position, requiring the viewer to keep turning his or her head. On one screen we watch the camera meandering around a room crowded with bric-a-brac, like the basement of a museum or a junk shop. There are carpets, shells, figurines, pictures, stuffed animals, all types of Chinoiserie. It is a fascinating horde, although nothing looks especially valuable – the treasure trove of an undiscerning collector. Like shoppers fossicking in a flea market, we search for something marvellous amidst the tourist souvenirs.
On the opposite screen we travel across Asia in the footsteps of Marco Polo, looking at contemporary newsreel footage of the exotic lands visited by that great Venetian traveller of the thirteenth century. A voiceover reads out extracts from Polo’s Travels, detailing the wealth and strange customs of each country. What we see, however, is a long trail of violence, pollution, natural disasters, overcrowding and squalor.
The irony is obvious, but no less effective for that. It is the power of the images that carry the work as the voice continues with its deadpan list of wonders, but the meaning remains ambiguous. Where one viewer might feel that Tan is pointing out the degradation of contemporary life compared to world of the past, another might ask if these places were ever as splendid as Polo had his readers imagine. His account is no less misleading than those travel articles that visit some impoverished dictatorship and talk about beautiful hotels and restaurants. In some ways, the world may be no better or no worse than it was in the thirteenth century. We are just as ready as our ancestors to let our imaginations be charmed by fabulous words, images and objects.
A lapse of memory at the NAS gallery is a single screen presentation that tells the story of Henry, an old man living in an empty mansion furnished only with memories of the east. Henry drinks tea, does his exercises and catches up on his sleep, while a voiceover recounts two possible versions of his life story. The entire process takes 24 minutes, and I suspect that few viewers will get to the end without a glance at their watch.
In conclusion, the camera pans back to reveal Henry’s abode as an elaborate palace surrounded by the sea. It is, in fact, the western pier of George IV’s pleasure pavilion in Brighton, while the interior is that of John Nash’s Royal Pavilion in the same city. Knowing this doesn’t make Henry any more interesting, not even if we see him as King George reborn.
In her catalogue essay, Julian Engberg touches ever-so-briefly on the affinities between Tan’s work and that of the French avant-garde filmmaker, Chris Marker (b.1921). This is like making a passing nod to the elephant in the room. Anybody familiar with Marker’s films, most particularly, Sunless (1983), will recognise the debt that Tan owes this great, undervalued director. Yet where Sunless is deeply philosophical and always engaging, Tan’s pieces rarely get beyond the surface. Her themes, ideas and ambiguities are laid out for our inspection but we are free to use them in any way we desire. With Marker there is a distinct point of view, a hard nucleus of truth that makes us feel – as the film progresses – that we are moving ever closer to the heart of things.
Disorient is a big advance on most video art. (As a point of comparison one might cite Australia’s Biennale entry of a leather-clad Shaun Gladwell fondling dead kangaroos, on show at the Campbelltown Arts Centre until 16 May.) It is only when we put Tan’s work up alongside that of a really accomplished artist that it reveals its lack of depth.
One might speculate that Fiona Tan owes her popularity to the teasing, abstract nature of her imagery. With contemporary art those who take a more direct approach are often ignored, as if they were merely bringing us the nightly news. As a counter to this, I’d recommend a visit to Jon Lewis’s Portraits from the Edge: Putting a Face to Climate Change, at the Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf Gallery, and Kate Geraghty’s Displaced Futures at the King Street Gallery on William.
For many years Lewis has been one of Australia’s most respected photo-portraitists. He is also a great humanist who gets along with people and likes his work to have a point. This has taken him to places such as East Timor and Bougainville, where he put together two memorable series. His latest excursion was to the tiny republic of Kiribati, in the Pacific, which is expected to be underwater in 30-40 years as a result of global warming.
Lewis has photographed the faces of Kiribati – old people, young people, at work and at play. The portraits are interspersed with stark, elegiac images such as Anchorage, in which a marker in the sea resembles a crucifix or a grave; and Pandanus, which shows the haunting silhouette of dead tree by the shore. Everywhere in these images one feels the presence of the ocean and the shoreline steadily encroaching on everyday life. While these photos are full of smiling faces, Lewis also underscores the transient nature of these carefree days.
Lewis is a great photographer of children, and it’s a fact that under the bizarre legislation with which New South Wales and Victoria are flirting, such images – now matter how innocent – would risk prosecution. This kind of political encroachment does not protect anyone, although it does erode our most basic freedoms and has the potential of criminalising the majority of Australian citizens. Who will protect us from our protectors?
Kate Geraghty says she doesn’t photograph children because they always respond directly to the camera, which is exactly what Jon Lewis enjoys. Geraghty, who has been a press photographer for thirteen years, comes out of a documentary tradition and prefers her images to appear candid and unstaged.
In 2009 Geraghty and journalist, Jonathan Pearlman, travelled to the Congo to investigate the bloody, drawn-out conflict that has dragged on for more than fifteen years, largely ignored by the world’s media. Over that time many thousands of people have made their lives in squalid refugee camps; millions have been murdered and raped by militia that have degenerated into bands of roving outlaws.
Geraghty has photographed the victims of this conflict in a way that is stark and unsentimental. This is not a horror show but a collective portrait of a people who have learned to live in a lawless, hopeless environment, supported only by organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontières. They are beyond self-pity but not yet devoid of human dignity. They are the world’s forgotten men and women, given their moment of visibility by these photographs. There is considerable artistry in these images, which are neither oblique nor obvious. In their presence, the well-worn ironies of contemporary art become unthinkable.
Fiona Tan, ‘Coming Home’, Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, 19 March – June 12, 2010
Jon Lewis, Portraits from the Edge: Putting a Face to Climate Change, Sydney Theatre Company, April 20-May 25, 2010
Kate Geraghty, Displaced Futures, King Street Gallery on William, April 5-April 30, 2010
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, May 1, 2010