Rise and Fall: To Remember is Not to Repeat

The opening image fills both screens: we see a swiftly moving body of water, swirling, churning, roiling. The picture of rapidly flowing water is intercut with that of a sleeping woman who appears on one screen, then on and on the other, the images synchronized. Soon the picture changes and the churning waters appear again. We know that water doesn’t swirl and roil without purpose, but it still comes as a surprise to see the edge of the falls emerge and the water tumble off into a void. The sleeping woman returns. The camera pans across the bedding to her head; there is a slight shift in focus. To this point there has been a synchronicity between the screens but in this scene that coherence disappears and two similar but divergent images come to take their place. There is, in this divergence, a moment of confusion, a shadow of doubt, and a simple apprehension of the image can no longer be sustained. Are they the same or are they different? What does this difference connote?

A persistent and unsettling sense of dislocation is deeply imbedded in the conception of Fiona Tan’s films and videos. From her earliest works to the present she has pointed again and again to these moments of dislocation, divergence and rupture. In the final minutes of the voice-over from one of her first video works, May You Live In Interesting Times (1997), Tan describes her hope that she might see herself mirrored in the faces and the lives of her extended family living in China, but in the next breath acknowledges that this is an illusory desire. She can never align herself within that mirror, but must always see herself askew:

I started this journey in search of mirrors and have found many.... [But] there remains for me a painful confrontation. I’ll never entirely feel part of my family. No I am not Chinese, although most of my family still is.... My self-definition seems an impossibility, an identity defined only by what it is not. I can’t say that through this search I have gained more of a cultural identity, at least I know better why.1

From the late 1990s on in an extended body of work that relied on the use of archival films, Tan explored the gaps between the observer and the observed. How do we describe others? How might others describe us? What do we understand of ourselves in the descriptions we make of others? In many of the works from this period (e.g. Thin Cities and Facing Forward, both 1999) Tan utilized an archive of images that were immediately recognizable for their origins in the colonial histories of the Netherlands. Her reflections on the act of observation not only challenge the assumptions of the colonial mind, but also question contemporary assumptions about our relationship to the past. Simple gestures and interactions, the stuff of everyday life, seem familiar and yet alien. We are left with an overwhelming sense that the past is continuous with the present and yet entirely different. Tan implies that while we may chose to read the past as discontinuous and divergent, to do so is to ignore those points of continuity and interpenetration that tie it to the present.

In more recent works Tan has narrowed her focus to concentrate on questions of memory and place. Henry, the protagonist of A Lapse of Memory (2007), wanders the rooms of an aged architectural folly. The walls and carpets are decorated with patterns and images lifted from another culture. Is it Henry’s delirium that leaves us wondering about his origins in the East or the West? Or is the confusion ours? Have we misunderstood the chain of events that lead to our encounter? Have we misread the signs of his origin, his location, his identity? For Tan, the space of memory is elusive and contentious. There is no question as to its veracity, only to the degree and nature of its divergence.

Reflecting on her recent single channel work entitled Island (2008), Tan proposed that:

Memory and its connection to images in our minds is something I wanted to re- examine in this work. Cinema seems to enjoy a special place in this relationship. Recently I have become increasingly aware of how incorrect memory can be. My memories, so I am learning—of films and of books—can be surprisingly inaccurate. This has allowed me to become interested in looking at the strange creations my memory comes up with. Both film and memories can transport you to a different place, a different time. The experience is like a double projection, of being in two places at once.2

This sense of being in two places at once is a critical trope within Tan’s recent two channel video Rise and Fall (2009). The title evokes a sense of fluid and ineffable flux, a description of two states of becoming that are part of the same continuum, and yet from a certain distance appear distinct. Certainly this is the condition that best describes the two women who figure prominently in this work. The older woman, it seems, dreams of a younger self. They share a history, a body, a garden and more. A lover appears and disappears; his caresses seem to pass between the women, remembered on the skin. Lipstick, eye shadow and painted nails also mark a point of convergence, but in later life they have become a ritual, a marking that may be intended to ward off, rather than attract. Each woman moves within a garden and a house. Their gestures are simple and natural: sleeping, dressing, sitting, writing, bathing. But in every scene we aware of a greater or lesser divergence between the images, incongruities of furnishings, architecture or landscape. The purpose of this divergence remains obscure, unsettling and mutable. The two screens seem to tell a story of different lives, and yet also suggest they are same. We might wonder if we are seeing these scenes only from a different angle, at a different moment in time, or through a different lens. The importance of the flux at this point is unclear but, significantly, it heightens our awareness of memory as a constructed image subject to change and variation.

Tan’s depiction of memory as an image recalls the writings of Henri Bergson, whose description of the memory-image offers a compelling account of the memory process. For Bergson the memory-image is consciously drawn from the past; it is produced in the mind, through a process that unites, what Bergson would call, the spirit (the past) and the body (the present). The formation of a memory-image, and of temporality itself, involves a coming together of these two seemingly distinct states. Although written more than a century ago, Bergson’s Matter and Memory offers a concise description that relies heavily on the notion of the photographic as a model for our perception of the past:

Whenever we are trying to recover a recollection, to call up some period of our history, we become conscious of an act sui generis by which we detach ourselves from the present in order to replace ourselves, first in the past in general, then in a certain region of the past—a work of adjustment, something like the focusing of a camera. But our recollection still remains virtual; we simply prepare ourselves to receive it by adopting the appropriate attitude. Little by little it comes into view like a condensing cloud; from the virtual state it passes into the actual; and as its outlines become more distinct and its surface takes on colour, it tends to imitate perception.3

Throughout Rise and Fall we are aware of a similar process of focusing and adjustment, a shifting of attitude that allows the past to take on a shape to enter the present. At moments memory flows calmly, soothingly, summoned by a touch, a gesture, some simple action that allows it to pass seamlessly from the virtual world of the past to the physical world of the present. At other times unbidden memories threaten to overwhelm with a turbulence that is deeply unsettling. Memory, we are reminded, is not something that we can always control. To remember is not to repeat, but reflection based in memory does bring the past and the present closer together, creating a consciousness that is charged with an awareness of the interpenetrating nature of time and space.

Tan emphasizes the physical character of her subject matter through her choice of a double screen utilizing back projection. The images often seem to push forward into the space of the viewer, threatening to overwhelm and consume; we are aware of how tightly Tan crops the images throughout. Her active use of close-ups and long slow pans along the body highlights its sensual character, its susceptibility to touch, and the fundamental link between memory and the physical.

By another critical decision, to use a 16:9 format, turned from its traditional horizontal position to that of the vertical, Tan emphasizes the image as a portrait within time and space, but not necessarily within a recognizable place or locale. It is, as Tan has suggested a world seen through a keyhole, an intimate view into a private space.

The format and intimacy recall the world of seventeenth century Dutch portraits and tronie5 pictures, and at times there is a close affiliation between the portraits presented in Rise and Fall and those offered in Tan’s concurrently produced work, Provenance (2008). With its links to the Rijksmuseum and Tan’s study of the portraits and tronie pictures in the museum’s collections, Provenance provides an obvious source for her interest in the vertical portrait format and the fragmentary space often described within those works. In the Provenance portraits Tan offers up wonderful insights into the personal spaces of her subjects, but provides a surprising lack of specificity with which to decipher the actual place in which these people exist. The same is true of Rise and Fall, where the vertical format offers a remarkable sense of intimacy and but affords little access to the exact locale. The predominance of this approach is made particularly evident when, by contrast, Tan offers a pull-back shot that starts focused on the shoulder of the young woman but slowly draws back to reveal her and a young man in a room overlooking Niagara Falls. The specificity of the location is surprising and unanticipated. It has a similar resonance to those scenes where memory is evoked by physical touch, a moment when the virtual world of the past is drawn into close alignment with the physical world of the present.

The world that Tan describes in Rise and Fall is one that is largely detached from the politics of place, location or territory. It is an informal view of everyday life and the interconnected spaces–-bedroom, bathroom, sitting room, garden–-that shape (form, inform) that life. We are offered a world that is instantly recognizable as the space of memory, a space Tan has returned to again and again. It is an indeterminate space shaped, to be sure, by a larger world of politics and social interaction, but now framed and deliberately delimited in such a way that we cannot be sure of the terms of its connection to a larger world.

The medium that Tan chooses to contain this world is water. It is a persistent and provocative medium for Tan and often appears in her work, especially at those moments when remembrance and introspection are the predominant subjects. Linnaeus’ Flower Clock (1998), Rain (2001), News from the Near Future (2003), A Lapse of Memory (2007) and Island (2008) all use water as an evocative medium within which memory is contained and through which it flows. Water allows for the expression of continuity and difference, the possibility that the same and the other can be contained in a fluid space that is open to interpenetration and multiplicity. For Tan, it seems that water provides a space of contemplation and of potential within which memory images can take on a different temporality. Time can be folded, adjusted, modulated and shifted, but the images themselves remain part of a continuity. [or should I use the original final sentence here? – ‘The sense of time that they express can be folded, adjusted, modulated and shifted, but they remain part of a continuity.’

In a voice-over text that was originally conceived for Rise and Fall, but later discarded, Tan introduced the story of an older woman who tries to remember “the girl she was back then” and “the woman that girl became.” Not the woman that she is, the woman who tries to remember, but “the woman that girl became.” We are, it is clear, in the realm of memory, where neither pure memory nor clear perception is possible. The woman that girl becomes and the woman who remembers can never be one and the same. They share the same time and space but the image of one cannot be the image of the other:

She would like to repeat in her head her favourite scenes. Re-member, re-collect, retrieve, revive
After careful consideration it is becoming clear,
that to remember something is not to repeat.

For her, a memory is a fold in the fabric of time.
Forgetfulness leaves gaps, picks holes in the picture.
Holes, nonetheless, that she can look through.6

In Rise and Fall water is the medium within which memory is formed. Water appears and disappears: water rushing toward a falls; slowly moving water in a creek; turbid water swirling with seaweed; still water in a tub. Memory is realized in movement, such as the focusing of a camera or a shift in focal depth. We see the memory take on a certain shape and configuration, but then the focus is pulled--by the current, by the tide, by forces that are as relentless as they are invisible.

Tan asks us to consider that within every movement we rise and we fall; in every memory, we remember and we forget; and in every encounter we come together and we fall apart. There is no comfort in this knowledge, no revelation to redefine our thinking and our actions. We are left, like the characters in Rise and Fall, with a melancholic awareness of the passage of time, the actions that mark its movement, and the memories we create to give meaning to that knowledge.

Bruce Grenville
Senior Curator
Vancouver Art Gallery

1. Fiona Tan, transcribed from the voice-over of May You Live in Interesting Times, 1997

2. Excerpt from an Interview with Fiona Tan, September 2008, Magdalena Malm. Published as a pdf document by Mobile Art Production, Stockholm, Sweden, www.mobileartproduction.se/pdf/Intervju_Fiona_EN.pdf

3. Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory (1896), translation Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer, Zone Books, New York, 1988, pp. 133-134.

4. The artist in conversation with the author, September 19, 2009

5. The term ‘tronie picture’ has fallen out of use but was, in the seventeenth century, a term used to describe a genre of pictures that presented images of figures, faces and heads, but were not conceived as portraits, rather they were intended to represent character types – a young woman, an Oriental, an old man, etc.

6. Fiona Tan, RISE & FALL, Voice-over, version 6_1, date 16 January 2009 (unpublished text)