Art review: 'Fiona Tan: Rise and Fall' at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery

Unsettling: "Rise and Fall" views the lives of an old woman and a young one. (Blake Gopnik -- The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 30, 2010

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.

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