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Friday, November 26, 2010

Fiona Tan at the Sackler

There's a fascinating video exhibit at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery. Fiona Tan: Rise and Fall presents the first major presentation of her work in America. Tan uses video to explore identity, memory, our place in the world and how we might understand and experience another person. Fiona Tan was born in Indonesia, grew up in Australia, her father is Chinese and she lives in Amsterdam. Her struggle to understand her own identity is a jumping off point for her art. More to the point, her work is unlike any video presentation we're familiar with. She pushes the realm of portraiture into uncharted territory. Yet her work inspires me to see things differently.

One piece, Rise and Fall, compares two women, one younger, the other older. They seem to be musing on their lives, on each other. Are they the same person, encountered at two stages of their lives? Is the older woman remembering the past? Or the younger imaging her future? Tan's languid images are striking in their simplicity. She has a wonderful eye for composition, often inspired by the Dutch masters. Each moment unfolds with a sense of mystery, while building a strong connection between the two women. It is quite a meaningful experience, yet no words come between us and the powerful images.

Another work, Provenance, explores portraiture as a fluid construct. We meet a person; see the artifacts of their life that surround and define them. Again, each person is presented without words, yet the profiles have a surprising sense of intimacy. The images are stylized, feel more like paintings than video, and are an example of her effort to create a new way of capturing identity.
Her pieces reveal themselves slowly, almost hypnotically. Go when you have some time to give to the experience. There are many unexpected pleasures that await. The exhibit runs through Jan. 16th at the Sackler Gallery.

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