Fiona Tan in Sydney

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I experienced Fiona Tan’s work over two days – not because it was an extended durational work but because her show, Coming Home, was being presented at both the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation and the National Art School Gallery. The fact that the experience of the video works was a journey was the perfect mode of experiential presentation of a work that itself explores the idea of journey and its representation through time.

Fiona Tan, Disorient (still), 2009. Image courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London.

There is little wonder why Indonesia-born, Australia-raised and Netherlands-based artist Fiona Tan explores the idea of journey, perception and representation in such exquisite nuance and layered detail. Her project for the 53rd Venice Biennale, Disorient (2009) explores the 25-year journey of Marco Polo by elucidating and illustrating his text, Il Milione, about his epic quest through Asia. Presented at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Disorient consists of two videos accompanied by a narrator reading the aforementioned text. One video pans slowly through a warehouse of lavish and miscellaneous curios from a pan-Asian journey: lanterns, spices, statuettes, stuffed animals… The other, projected on the opposite wall, displays scenes of contemporary daily life along Marco Polo’s route: urban hustle, dense traffic, fabric dying, mountain ranges… Both videos cannot be seen at the same time, the viewer must literally move from a symbolic past to a contemporary present, all while hearing words from history brought to life. Tan asks her viewer to inhabit a complex space, traversing time and space and consequently creating a multiplicity of new meanings.

Fiona Tan, Disorient (still), 2009. Image courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London.

At the National Art School Gallery (presented alongside the first Australian display of the work pivotal Canadian animator Norman McLaren), Tan similarly and quite astutely creates a poetic space full of possible meanings between text and representation. A Lapse of Memory features Henry, an isolated old man living like a vagrant in an abandoned palace. The wall outside the video reads: “Henry is waiting for a story he can make his home.” We watch as Henry goes about his day, from morning Tai Chi to the evening meal, from lighting the hallway to cleaning the rug of an old room. There is something fascinating about this old man unattached to a specific place. As a viewer, I became enthralled with his actions, somehow prophetic in senility. The video and the accompanying narrator’s text recount stories of the past while displaying, very simply, a story unfolding from moment to moment. Tan’s aestheticism infuses power into her audiovisual work. In the silences, my mind imagines possibilities, trying to piece together the story told in the space between word and image.

Fiona Tan, A Lapse of Memory (still), 2007. Image courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London.

From Shanghai to Istanbul, New York to Paris, London to Berlin, Fiona Tan’s work has travelled the world over. In artistically capturing the complex spaces created by journeys, Tan has tapped into a fundamental space of daily life. What I experience from moment to moment, the overall arc of the story of my life and the spaces created by time, place and memory all make for a very layered human experience. Tan preserves this complexity with her sensitive, intellectual  and confident point-of-view. Her art breathes for itself, inspires spaces of imagination and inspiration and invites you on a journey.

Fiona Tan, A Lapse of Memory (still), 2007. Image courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London.

Coming Home will be on exhibit at the Sherman Foundation for Contemporary Art and the National Art School until 12 June, 2010.

Tags

australia, fiona tan, national art school gallery, sherman contemporary art foundation, sydney

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