By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 30, 2010; C01
Try, right this second, to think back on what you had for breakfast.
Did you call up a detailed picture of yourself hoisting your coffee, with the ficus tree behind your head and the toaster to your left, while a glimpse of a loved one's elbow intrudes into the image from the other side?
Neither did I.
We think of memories as being like pictures, and of pictures as being like memories. The truth is that most memories, for most of us, are very far from photographic. They are a subjective mess.
A major new show titled "Fiona Tan: Rise and Fall" -- it's at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery, part of our national museum of Asian art -- tackles the unreliability of recollections, and of the images that are supposed to evoke them. At her best, Tan is direct and powerful; sometimes she slips into artifice and cliche.
Tan has long been based in Amsterdam, but was born in Indonesia, in 1966, to a Scottish-Australian mother and a Dutch-speaking Chinese-Indonesian father. She was mostly raised in Australia. Tan has made a name in the art world for videos that address her mixed identity -- and what anyone's identity might really be about, as we think back to our origins. Six of her video installations are now filling the top floor of the Sackler, in a show that reaffirms the museum's commitment to the art of today.
The earliest piece, from 1997, comes right to grips with Tan's trademark issues, in the most immediate way. "May You Live in Interesting Times," a modest monitor-based video that originally aired on Dutch TV, looks back on how her family suffered from the Chinese curse of its title.
The hour-long work, in a fairly standard documentary style, is about how identity plays out when it's as blended as Tan's. She visits with her parents, who had to leave Indonesia during the anti-Chinese pogroms of the 1960s and are now leading what seems to be an uneventful suburban life in Australia, with faint whiffs of Scottish and Chinese culture.
Tan discusses roots and culture with her freckled, Asian-eyed sister who knows she stands out as a touch "foreign." She also talks to her perfectly European-looking brother who says he feels fully Australian. We get to see how the pure accidents of genetic mixing can affect people's views of themselves and their culture.
And she visits one of her father's ethnic-Chinese brothers, who still lives in Indonesia and, speaking to Tan in Dutch, says that he feels stronger links to the Netherlands than to China. "Westerners call us 'yellow Jews,' " he says, and adds that these days, he and his wife are working hard to be nothing more than "true Indonesians."
"Family or culture: Which determined my identity more?" Tan asks in a voice-over. But her video makes clear that this question cannot be answered, since the terms in her equation -- notions of "identity" and "culture," and even "family" -- can never be pinned down.
"May You Live in Interesting Times" shows Tan at her best, prodding and unsettling us simply by showing how unsettled things are, anyway.
Other pieces by her, not in this show, have given 20-second views of 200 Berliners, or 40-second portraits of 300 inmates in American prisons. At the Venice Biennale, in 2009, she filled the Dutch pavilion with a video "portrait" of Central Asia today, built around the trip that Marco Polo made there eight centuries ago. The gap between the written "memories" of a medieval man and our current realities made you wonder: Was Marco Polo's recollection accurate? How accurate will anyone's recollections seem, when seen by their heirs -- even in video?
The modest and varied imagery in Tan's more documentary works almost capture the real slip-sliding that memories do. They're like snapshots jumbled in a box instead of finished and framed works of art.
That is in contrast to Tan's more recent videos, as seen in this show. They can feel too contrived, too polished, to be anything but works of art. Their links to reality start to feel slight because their links to fine art are so strong.
A lavish production called "A Lapse of Memory" builds a fiction about a sickly older man camping out in the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, the Orientalist folly built around 1800 by George, Prince Regent of Britain. The setting is now, and a hushed, breathy voice-over tells us that our protagonist's name is Henry, and that he spent time in the Far East -- and then a moment later tells us that he's actually a Chinese traveler named Eng Lee. The man practices tai chi among the carved dragons of the crown prince's decor, but has perfectly European features. The camerawork is gorgeous; sound effects are striking to a fault. (We hear each click as the old man clips his nails.) And these lavish production values give the whole video the feel of a manufactured lesson in fractured identities; it isn't a real-world demonstration of them, such as Tan gave in her earlier works.
Even as "Lapse" tries to talk about how memories slip from our grasp, it gives the clearest, crispest view of the slippage.
The latest piece in the show, called "Rise and Fall," just about collapses under these faults. A lush, evocative palimpsest of images plays out across its two screens, as the piece explores the lives of two women, one young and one old. Is it a mother and her daughter? The same woman in youth and old age? We're never sure, because the piece is determined to hide behind the genteel veilings of poetry. Its meditative footage veers from water going over a falls, to a beautiful young woman being caressed by her lover, to an older woman putting on makeup or elegiacally at work in her garden, where her younger "self" later appears.
"Meditative," "lush," "evocative," "palimpsest," "elegiac." Those are precisely the words we're supposed to identify with memory and its failings, because that's how art has always treated them. But it seems to me that we want art to tell us things we don't already know, not confirm ideas and images we've already formed.
Fiona Tan: Rise and Fall
runs through Jan. 16 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, on the south side of the Mall at 10th Street. Call 202-633-1000 or visit http://www.asia.si.edu.