Fiona Tan: Depot review – mementoes from the deep
Source:theguardian Author:Laura Cumming Date: 2015-07-22 Size:
In the autumn of 1827, a blue whale was seen swimming off the coast of Belgium. The exact nature of what happened next is debated, but within a matter of weeks its preserved skeleton began a European tour that reached London in 1831……

‘Starfish and seahorses ‘riding high in their glass vitrines’, from Depot, 2015.

In the autumn of 1827, a blue whale was seen swimming off the coast of Belgium. The exact nature of what happened next is debated, but within a matter of weeks its preserved skeleton began a European tour that reached London in 1831. Visitors could enter through the open jaws and sit inside the ribcage, like Jonah.

Fascinated by this tale, Fiona Tan has produced a captivating installation that invokes the many whales that have been dragged about the world for our wonder and amusement. A gigantic lorry (a facsimile of the one that ferried dead whales around Britain in the 1950s) is beached in the Baltic, giving the sheer measure of the creature. Clamber inside and you will certainly see bones, and whales aplenty in astonishing old photographs, but Tan has reversed the historic experience. The skeleton is no longer empty: it contains an ocean of images.

These come in the form of a classic Tan film – beautiful, slow-moving, so absorbing you could watch it over and again – which balances an interior monologue concerning one man’s lifelong passion for the undersea world with an equivalent narrative filmed in the amber twilight of a natural history museum. He remembers the long-ago past, a life spent searching for strange creatures beneath the waves, dreaming that he can breathe in this watery element; and the camera moves pensively among these creatures, suspended in glass vessels of formaldehyde.

a travelling Jonah the Whale show reaches Rugby, March 1954.

Two kinds of memory are preserved. Tan’s film circles the exhibits as if they were still alive, so animate do they appear in their shining fluid, not so much dead as sleeping, while the narrator’s words turn them back into a shoal of myths. Here is the narwhal, the true unicorn of the waves; here is the swordfish, a samurai reincarnated in Japanese folklore; here is the sea urchin, an old blind warrior roaming the ocean’s floor.

Fish, eyeless and lacquered, vector forward like spiky bronze dragons; seahorses ride high in their glass vitrines; nameless serpentine forms turn gold in the museum light. The narrator describes them as sad messages in bottles, turning up in the present long after the writer has gone. Like photographs, they speak of death before they speak of life; and some are now all that remain of memory too. Many of these creatures are now extinct.

Tan’s Leviathan screening at the Baltic, with archival footage of the stripping of a whale.

Born in Indonesia in 1966 to Chinese and Australian parents, and now based in Amsterdam, Tan is the most international of artists. She has made films in every continent and even been commissioned to create national portraits – in photographic form by the Norwegian government; in 20-second film bursts, of German society. In recent years she has deepened her subtle form of portraiture, writing scripts, commissioning music, assembling fragments of all kinds of footage into films that try to capture the slip-sliding vagaries of memory.

In Disorient, Marco Polo’s memories of the Silk Road form a wild narration of praise and damnation to a film that shows the contemporary Asia of these travels – challenging his words, but occasionally chiming with them too. He talks of precious indigo dye and here are poor Indians re-dyeing rags. He praises the marvellous spices, and here are cinnamon sellers in Chinese alleys.

How can one trust the memories of a medieval man who claims “the Kashmiri are all idolaters, they change the weather by enchantment, and bring down thick darkness”? Tan tests his words, yet the images she presents seem at times equally improbable – camels carrying cars on their humps; mountains turning copper in the sunset; high-rises as spindly as river shacks on stilts.

Watch long enough and the film casts its spell so that even the shoal of silver fish leaping from the sea appears miraculous. The strangeness of our world might be Tan’s true theme. On the opposite wall a second film shows a museum of artefacts stretching back to Marco Polo’s day. The counterpoint is surely political; people’s lives frantically occurring on one screen, while the relics of their labour gather dust on the other. Which represents life, which is the true human memento?

Fiona Tan’s Inventory, 2012, featuring Sir John Soane’s Museum.

As the show continues, Tan holds the medium of film itself to the light, meditating on the ways it preserves (or erases) memory. This is at the heart of the mesmerising Inventory, which takes us deep into the sepulchral corridors and crannies of Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, chaotic shrine to his neoclassical collection.

Tan’s camera seems to see everything as if for the first time, intent with wonder, acutely perceptive

Multiple screens show marble busts, funeral monuments and death masks in different formats (Super 8, 16mm and 35mm film; analogue, digital and high-definition video) altering the look, and even the nature, it seems, of these sculpted portraits of long-dead people. They appear more or less mysterious, antique or modern, more or less animated, alien or lifeless.

As always, Tan’s camera seems to see everything as if for the first time, intent with wonder, acutely perceptive, even when she is filming the same object over and again from different angles. As always, her film is delicate and humane. But as the classical strings hover in the air, intensifying the sense of estrangement and melancholy, she seems to be portraying time’s depredations as our memories of the dead come and go, shuffling, slipping, fading like dreams. The film is itself an elegy.

[Editor] 张艳

    Artintern