Contemporary artist Fiona Tan has garnered international fame for her video installations and photography, having had solo and group exhibitions staged at notable venues such as the Venice Biennale and Paris's Centre Pompidou. But starting this past weekend, the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery formally introduced Tan to the United States with the opening of "Fiona Tan: Rise and Fall," the first major U.S. exhibition of the artist's work.
The organizing theme of the exhibition, which features six of Tan's latest videos as well as a selection of photographs and drawings, is the individual's place in an increasingly globalized world, with explorations into the role memory plays in the creation of an identity. The topic seems a fitting subject for the artist, who is a melting pot, of sorts, herself, having been born in Indonesia to a Chinese-Indonesian father and Australian-Scottish mother. Raised in Melbourne, Australia, she now lives in Amsterdam. According to Carol Huh, curator of contemporary art at the Freer and Sackler galleries, the exhibition is largely autobiographical.
Rise and Fall (2009), a video installation specially commissioned by the Vancouver Art Gallery, organizer of the traveling exhibition, involves two videos shown on adjacent 8-foot-by-4.5-foot screens. The videos show dream-like scenes of an older woman and a younger woman doing everyday things—reading, sleeping and dressing. Interspersed in the narrative are clips of moving water, suggesting to the viewer the passage of time and the possibility that the two women are the same person.
Another work on display, The Changeling, is a compilation of more than 200 archival photographs of Japanese schoolgirls, which Tan found at a flea market. In a single, spacious gallery, two small portraits face each other, juxtaposed on opposite walls. One portrait is actually an ingenious computer screen housed within a frame that continuously streams the images of the young girls in their school uniforms. The other frame portrays just one of the photographs. The slow change of the faces is narrated by a disembodied voice (Canadian actress Martha Burns), reading a script that Tan wrote, a poetic meditation on life's little journeys. The portraits become the so-called changeling—a young girl, a mother and a grandmother—characters in a story, a young girl furtively hiding her diary beneath her pillow, a mother fretting over her daughter, and an older woman spending time in her garden.
"Respect and responsibility. Yes, your father and I could teach you that. But a sense of fun, joie de vivre?" the narrator, portraying the mother, says. "No. . .There seem to be qualities which cannot be instilled. I feel I have failed in my duties as a mother, I could not save you from pain."
The artist, says curator Carol Huh, uses "the genre of portraiture and creates a fictive account. She knows nothing of these individuals." And yet, the work forms a kind of "collective presentation of identity" in which the girl in the photograph becomes the mother of the girl in the photograph and then eventually evolves into the grandmother.
In conjunction with the exhibition, the Freer and Sackler galleries are hosting a Fiona Tan-inspired series of lectures, films and musical performances.
Fiona Tan and Venice: Thursday, Sept. 30, 7 p.m., Freer, Meyer Auditorium. Hear Saskia Bos, an expert in European contemporary art and curator of Tan's three-part project in the Dutch Pavilion at the 2009 Venice Biennale, discuss Tan's work.
Remember, Recollect, and Revive: Time and Fiona Tan: Sat., Oct. 2, 2 p.m., Sackler sublevel 1. Curator Carol Huh discusses how Fiona Tan uses images to construct memories and places the artist's work in the context of contemporary Asian art and culture.
"Fiona Tan: Rise and Fall" is on display through January 16, 2011, with events scheduled throughout.