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Crossing Continents for Art and Identity

Fiona Tan’s first major American exhibit considers geography and autobiography

Fiona Tan often makes her life story the subject of her work. And given her birth to Chinese and Australian parents in Indonesia and her subsequent move to Amsterdam, it’s easy to see why. With “Fiona Tan: Rise and Fall,” the first major US exhibition of her work, she focuses squarely on the interplay of global forces on individual identity.

Tan works primarily in film and photography to quietly illustrate themes of time, memory, and identity. Austere white walls and large gallery spaces allow each piece space to breathe and provide the show with a Zen feeling.

“Provenance,” a collection of six video portraits in the center gallery, makes for startlingly intimate viewing. Tan chooses subjects from her personal life: her mother-in-law, a next-door neighbor, and Kees Hin, a colleague and Dutch filmmaker. Shot in crisp black and white and completely silent, the flat screens blend seamlessly into the wall, creating the illusion that the viewer is peering through windows into these other lives.

“May You Live in Interesting Times,” a 1997 documentary, chronicles Tan’s journey to trace her family history, an investigation that includes a 1965 Indonesian coup—hardly normal family angst—and ends in a small Chinese village. Fascinating and deeply personal, this is the most obvious example of Tan’s biographical influence on her work. But the film is 60 minutes long, too long for even a seasoned gallery visitor to stand and watch.

Time also plays a significant role in “West Pier I-V.” The shots depict the West Pier in Brighton, England, which has slowly crumbled into the sea since 1975, creating a dilapidated island. Taken under varying light conditions, the large-scale images are misty and forlorn. They serve as an appropriate introduction to the video installation in the adjacent room, “A Lapse of Memory.” Shot at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton and narrated by Tan, the fictionalized film has a similar mood to the “West Pier” photographs.

Several subsequent rooms display conceptual drawings and story-board sketches, intended to give some insight into her artistic process. But the delicate ink sketches are enigmatic small works of art in their own right, showcasing Tan’s nimble skill with a brush.

“Rise and Fall,” a film installation commissioned for the exhibition, has an intense visual and sonic clarity. Suspended on thin wires in the center of the dark room, the two adjacent screens display quiet and intimate scenes of two women sleeping, bathing, and writing juxtaposed with roaring, dramatic footage of Niagara Falls. The dramatic contrast provides an emotional heft that the rest of the exhibition sometimes lacks.

However viewers react to the work, this is art designed for individual contemplation. With most of the films running past the 20-minute mark, Tan’s work benefits from more than a quick walk-through. Fortunately, visitors have an appropriately tranquil environment in which to consider it. The exhibition runs through January 16 at the Sackler Gallery.

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