BY Brian Dillon in Features | 01 JUN 10
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Issue 132

Different Voices

Memory, exile and cultural heritage in the films of Fiona Tan

BY Brian Dillon in Features | 01 JUN 10

In his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), the Romantic autobiographer Thomas De Quincey – the first writer in English to posit that the mind has ‘unconscious’ provinces – recounts a series of intoxicated dreams in which time and space seem to shrink and swell with awful realism. De Quincey is lost in visions of a boundless architecture drawn from his study of Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s series of 16 copperplate etchings, dating from the 1760s, ‘Carceri d’invenzione’ (Imaginary Prisons), and thrust back (‘like a person drowning’, he writes) into regions of his own past which he had quite forgotten. But his most tormenting dreams concern an enigmatic Orient of fathomless age and sublime expanse. Haunted by images of a China he has never actually seen, De Quincey finds himself menaced by imaginary birds, snakes and crocodiles – not to speak of the very decor in this monstrous country of his own invention: ‘I escaped sometimes, and found myself in a Chinese house, with cane tables &c. All the feet of the tables, sofas, &c. soon became instinct with life: the abominable head of the crocodile, and his leering eyes, looked out at me, multiplied into a thousand repetitions: and I stood loathing and fascinated.’1

De Quincey’s nightmare is of course just one instance of the weirdly aestheticized racism that would dominate Western representations of Asia during his century – he writes elsewhere, almost with admiration, of the fabled ‘cruelty’ of the Chinese. But the appearance of this Orientalist grotesque in the midst of his opiate musings on geography and memory is complicated, if not mitigated, by the fact that it is wholly fantastic: most likely based on his reading of the travels of Marco Polo and the dream Orient in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1798 poem ‘Kubla Khan’. More to the point, the passage is clearly inspired in terms of imagery by the contemporary English taste for chinoiserie: the kind of lurid fakery that was even then being installed at ruinous expense by the former Prince Regent (newly crowned George iv) in his holiday home by the sea. The Royal Pavilion in Brighton – the setting for Fiona Tan’s 2007 film A Lapse of Memory – is an absurd confection of disparate styles: mock-Indian outside, with cod-Chinese interiors and a very English oppressiveness. The building seems to ravel up several threads of imperial ambition and envy, while its decorative fabric has been stripped and restored so many times that the Pavilion is a time machine of sorts, compacting historical periods and whole continents into one lavish but somewhat shabby edifice.

Fiona Tan, Rise and Fall, 2009. DVD Still. All images courtesy: Frith Street Gallery, London, and the artist.

In Tan’s film, the Pavilion appears at a further mythological remove. Its hoard of authentic and invented artefacts, its painted serpents and carved dragons that soar like superheroes, its delicate depictions of an imagined daily life in China: all of this becomes a solid projection of the mind of Tan’s protagonist, an old man who haunts the Pavilion’s elaborate show-piece rooms and enigmatic side-chambers. A Lapse of Memory is notable for combining two innovations that have marked Tan’s recent films: her use of off-screen actors as narrators and the appearance of fictional ‘characters’ on screen. Here, the voice-over tells two competing tales about the old man: he is named both Henry and Eng Lie; he has travelled from Europe to China or perhaps in the other direction; he enacts, in the tea ceremony that we see him perform in the apparently abandoned Pavilion, either a custom from his lost home or a learned habit that denotes a different life of adventure and discovery. ‘Restlessly, he moves between his various selves’ – at times, he seems to have been dreamt up by the building itself.

When A Lapse of Memory was shown in the Dutch Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2009, Tan described it as an unexpected return to the topics of cultural hybridity and postcolonial identity that she thought she had left behind: ‘But here, all of a sudden, was this building, which refused to go away. It felt like full circle, like a way of completing a sentence.’2 But given the weight of geopolitical history and cultural fantasy that informs its setting and stories, the film is surprisingly elusive, less a ‘hybrid space’ (as the voice-over puts it) as a set of nested narrative spaces whose order or hierarchy is unclear. The narrating voice coils about itself like one of the Pavilion’s serpents, telling us: ‘Henry’s background is unclear. In the voice-over this also remains ambiguous.’ The old man, bedding down in a fragile pool of light amid the building’s looming decor, is both Marco Polo and Robinson Crusoe, with echoes of Shakespeare’s exiled magus Prospero. But he also recalls the sole character of Samuel Beckett’s 1958, one-act play Krapp’s Last Tape, who drifts disconsolately from one version of his past to another as if they were adjacent rooms in which he can find no solace. In a way that seems newly irreducible to the historical specifics of exile in Tan’s earlier work, there’s a sense here, as in Beckett’s play, that outside the Pavilion ‘the earth might be uninhabited’.3

In terms, however, of its ostensible subject matter – the involution of East and West in the spectacular memory palace conjured by the film’s narrator, of which the Royal Pavilion itself starts to seem merely the architectural corollary – A Lapse of Memory returns to the questions of identity and exile that animate Tan’s early work. Her 1997 film, May You Live in Interesting Times, is the starting point of this focus; as she herself has expressed it, she is ‘a professional foreigner’. Tan’s exploration of her own heritage – born in Indonesia to an Australian mother and Chinese father, raised in Australia and resident in the Netherlands for the past 20 years – informs much that she’s done since. At times, her work is explicitly inspired by her own displacement – as in the case of the Amsterdam portraits in her film series ‘Countenance’ (2002), or ‘Provenance’ (2008): a series of monochrome video portraits that obliquely recalls paintings in the collection of the Rijksmuseum in her adopted city – but elsewhere the thematics of identity and distance are deflected onto others. In the series of installations and books ‘Vox Populi’ (2006–7), for example, Tan corralled private snapshots donated to her in Australia, Japan and Norway – in each case small dramas of localized or global exile may be discerned. A certain drift has been evident in recent years, away from geo-cultural complexities and from documentary modes, towards fictions that seem at first glance more straightforwardly universal or existential.

A case in point is Island (2008), a 15-minute black and white video that again deploys the motif of solitary exile, this time on the (actual) island of Gotland off the east coast of Sweden. It was the location for Andrei Tarkovsky’s last film, The Sacrifice (1986), but it is neither named nor its history exploited in a voice-over that tells us of a woman who has gone there for obscure reasons and whose angst is unexplained. ‘She did not come here all that long ago, but already she’s lost track of time […] Slowly memories surface from time spent on another island […] Today she can find no peace of mind. Despair puckers at the smooth surface of her days. Feeling very small, feeling very useless, she paces in circles.’ The island itself remains mysterious too: seen mostly in static long shot so that black trees compose a wind-slanted calligraphy against grey skies, a few houses and a lighthouse are distant and unexplored; only the sounds of wind and water and seabirds suggest that there is movement or life here at all. The island, we’re told, has become a prison; in one of the few mobile images in the film, Tan’s camera hares through colourless undergrowth: flying, so the voice-over implies, from the memories that assail the exiled mind.

It’s in the artist’s two-screen video installation Rise and Fall (2009), however, that Tan’s turn towards a more implicit (and ultimately temporal rather than geographical) sort of exile becomes clear – or rather ravishingly unclear. The two upright (‘portrait’ orientation) screens appear to show doubled lives that are actually one: two women whose bodies, actions and pensive moments brush up against one another in ways that suggest a biographical unity, and yet depart sufficiently from one another to introduce some doubt. The older woman, who may be remembering her younger self, wakes slowly in bed, bathes, stares from a window, sits by a table in a lush, half-wild garden. The younger woman, who may be imagining her future self, and whose face remains obscured much of the time as though in a frustrating dream that will not give up its secrets, does not quite rhyme with her older double: when she stares out of a window, the camera pulls back to reveal her lover, and a startling vista on the Niagara Falls.

A Lapse of Memory, 2007. DVD Still. 

The parallels between the two screens in Rise and Fall are managed with some delicacy, even if there are occasional hints – such as twinned images of the women walking in woods, the older in spring, the younger in autumn – at a more explicit or literal-minded structure that, at some point, Tan abandoned, or let subside deeper into the visual fabric of the work. She had originally written a script, to be read as a voice-over, which suggests that the mnemonic, affective traffic between the two women, no matter how complex, all moves in one direction: ‘She would like to repeat in her head her favourite scenes. Re-member, re-collect, retrieve, revive. After careful consideration it is becoming clear that to remember something is not to repeat. For her, a memory is a fold in the fabric of time. Forgetfulness leaves gaps, picks holes in the picture. Holes, nonetheless, that she can look through.’4

Instead of a work manifestly ‘about’ memory and its slippages, Rise and Fall is itself patterned with odd eddies and currents that will betray the viewer. One such, which is also an emblem of the process of mis-recognition at the level of character or narrative, is the recurring image of roiling water which is suddenly revealed – a steaming void descends from its top left corner – to be speeding towards the edge of the Niagara Falls. (There is a reminder here of Tan’s 2001 video piece Saint Sebastian, with its phalanx of female archers approaching the moment of release and flight.) A surface that had seemed exercised in situ by localized depths turns out to be irretrievably part of some vaster process of becoming and vanishing. It would be easy, and too hasty, to call that process ‘life’ and conclude that Tan turns here, and more generally in her recent work, towards a merely humanist reflection on Time, Memory, Age and Death. In truth, what Rise and Fall leaves one with is the question of what constitutes a ‘life’ in the first place: where exactly among the half remembered instants of action or lassitude, the stalled desires and fearless projections of self into the future, the texture of habit and accident, we can discover ourselves.

1 Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Macdonald, London, 1956, (first published 1821), pp.426–7
2 ‘Other Facets of the Same Globe: A conversation between Fiona Tan and Saskia Bos’, in Fiona Tan, Disorient, Mondriaan Foundation, Amsterdam, 2009, p.22
3 Samuel Beckett, Krapp’s Last Tape, in The Complete Dramatic Works, Faber, London, 1986, p.223
4 Fiona Tan, Rise and Fall, voice-over, unpublished text quoted in Fiona Tan, Rise and Fall, Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, 2009, p.36


Brian Dillon is a writer. His latest book Affinities: On Art and Fascination will be published in spring 2023 by the New York Review of Books and Fitzcarraldo Editions, London. He is working on a book about Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love.