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Issue 241

Tan Jing’s Dreamy Homecoming

At Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai, the artist’s olfactory installations yield to the unreliability of memory

BY Hindley Wang in Exhibition Reviews | 12 DEC 23

It is hard to trace where works begin or end in Tan Jing’s ‘Inlet of Arid Dreams’. A peculiar scent leads me up to the second floor of the Rockbund Art Museum, a tropical citrus balanced with a clean powdery smell. It intensifies as I approach the door, which opens to a dimmed field of pale green plaster tiles and their crumbs, brittle like chalk. The frailty of the ground is exposed in its different stages of disintegration, diffusing scents of lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, native to Thailand. The patterns on Floor Tiles and Flowers (all works 2023) come from a memory of Lingnan, a macro region of China which includes Guangdong and Hong Kong: we are situated in an imprecise nostalgic nowhere. From this scented ruin, the Shenzhen-born artist paves a field of illusive dreaming and obstinate remembering.

Tan Jing, ‘Inlet of Arid Dreams’, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist

For her first institutional exhibition Tan presents only three works in total, yet in their varying states of fracture and obscurity they manage to fill the entire space and cohere it with elegant command. The four-channel video installation Nook of a Hazy Dream plays among four handmade glass panels that hang above the gallery floor, perfusing the olfactory sensorium with colourful flickers from different directions. To the right of the entrance hangs a piece of commercial-grade Begonia-patterned glass, commonly seen on historical buildings from the early 20th century. The glass interrupts the amorphous light with its surface, casting stains on the window behind.

Tan Jing, ‘Inlet of Arid Dreams’, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist

Stationed further into the depth of this shoal, two smaller glass panels are suspended in a low hover. Modelled after archival envelopes, Tan embossed the translucent sheets with distant addresses, edges eroded with regret, casting a hallucinatory glow. The frosty glass projections satisfy a voyeuristic kink with their withheld familiarity, showing two angles on the same action: a Southeast Asian domestic scene of folding flowers out of paper, a rite of remembrance common to Asian cultures. Gleaming in a spectral shadow, the blossoms are folded from archival Thai advertisements, multiplied in iridescent glow. Some find their way up to The Souvenirs, forming a floral chandelier.

‘I kept folding until all the dreams are turned into gestures of folding flowers,’ a voice from the central video intones in a Cantonese monologue, divulging a vague quest of indeterminate ‘return’, triggered by a scent. The camera follows Tan’s journey in Thailand and Canton, retrieving the memory of Lap Hung, a fictional character whose difficult recollection parallels the journey of Tan’s late grandfather, who re-migrated to China from Thailand in the 1950s and lived in a suppressed anguish of longing and not-belonging. Tan cracks open this suppression as she remembers, unveiling the topologies of its desires in fugitive colours.

Tan Jing, ‘Inlet of Arid Dreams’, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist

All four of the videos play in synch, punctuated by dialogue between Jing and Lap, flitting between disillusion and dreams, dwelling in the slippage of history and memory. Between the three segments of voyage, silence falls and lights withdraw. Boys chase a football towards the goal in slow reverb and haze. Segments repeat like a revisitation or a second chance: the opening of the third section repeats the second. While the pause is allegorical to the discontinuity of dreams and history, the repetition echoes a mnemonic entry, as also emphasized in the act of folding paper: a futile repetition that nullifies labour to a point of emotional transcendence through loss and time. 

The classical art of memory called for the association of place with image, according to Simonides. Tan Jing rebels: how can one remember without either? As sight loses its primacy to olfaction, this show is a witness to the fact that embracing the artificiality in such art as memory could yield potentially a more truthful return at the brink of hallucination and wishful thinking – a homecoming.

Tan Jing’s ‘Inlet of Arid Dreams’ is on view at the Rockbund Museum, Shanghai, until 25 February

Main image: Tan Jing, Floor Tiles and Flowers (detail), 2023. Courtesy: the artist