Between Persistence and Resistence
“… the invisible power that is invested in this dehistoricised figure of Man is gained at the cost of those ‘others’ – women, natives, the colonized, the indentured and the enslaved – who, at the same time but in other spaces, were becoming the peoples without a history“. – Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture
One not familiar with the works of Erika Tan might find the 3 Channel projection baffling and at least confusing. One might not be used to watch 3 screens in a cinema setting, let alone something atypical and non-narrative. They appear disjointed at first glance, showing archival footage gleaned from materials held in the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum archives, placed in a room full of the museum’s collection. The artefacts that relate to the lifestyle of the inhabitants of our island enclose this display archival square. They are neatly arranged in cabinets, purposefully heightening the preciousness of broken pieces of ceramics and metal. Across the space, a gutter runs across, carrying more pieces of ceramics but now arranged to resemble a meandering river bed, enclosed, protected, distance by hardened glass. Those familiar with Erika Tan’s work will know her work is often a mediacy a post-colonial cultural examination, informed by geography, narrative and haunting of the British Empire in contemporary society and culture. On closer examination, they have every bit to relate to the archaeological findings in the room. Both are archival, and presented as objective as we would imagine them to be. Both sets are anthropological because they show different lifestyles of different societies. As fragments, they are ambiguous, uncertain of the artist’s and curator’s real purpose in this juxtaposition. Taking cue from the title, the work possibly suggests the persistence of thinking about the world in post-colonial terms. The brutalities of colonialism (invasion is too strong a word) is often glossed over by benefits of international trade and commerce, law and order, civility and unifying lingua franca.
We are informed by a wooden box, standing in for wall text, that the projection is in 4 parts, looped after 24 minutes, bringing us glimpse of a selected past, from a selected view point. The other viewpoint, because it was not filmed, is lost. We see Africa, topless black women carrying soil on their heads, toiling in line as they clear the land for some kind of construction. We see the pyramids of Egypt, the Middle East, the Orient and the Far East of Borneo. The explorer’s companions sometimes appear in the film, riding a donkey badly, or smiling happily like a tourist on holiday. The subjects of these footage often stare blankly into the lens, perhaps waiting for the explosion of the flash gun. The inconsequential moments of daily life are captured originally on 16mm or 8mm film, historically inspired by Louis and Auguste Lumiere from circa 1895. In 1895, everyone was awed by the moving images, collectively enthralled in a darkened room, a lit screen that showed a window into the past, and other worlds. Incidentally, Cinema was born with the documentary.
There are possibly two attitudes one can take towards Erika Tan’s work. Firstly, at face value, appreciating the cinematography for its formal qualities such as composition, powers of observation, attention to mode with light and shadows. By doing so, taking the archive footage out of their original context, dehistoricises it, making them mere moving images in curious settings. They are abstract, fragmented, and might go surreptitiously well in a club with loud pounding trance music.
Secondly, “Persistent Visions … create(s) an interpretative space, activate personalised readings, allowing for the failure of comprehension and to compromise and make difficult, total consumption.” The meaning of the artwork, is thrust in the heart and mind of the viewer. One might find the moving images scratched and aged, enigmatic and unsettling. The person who filmed it appeared half part of, half observing these moments of daily life. In the process of filming, they have included fragments of their coded, personal history. These footage are more exotic than nostalgic, and questions the authenticity and ownership of this artwork. The artwork exists for Erika Tan as the self-reflexive concept to assemble these flashbacks, presenting an edited, nonchalant but polarised viewing of one’s colonial history – the coloniser or colonised.
A deeper consideration of such archival documentaries reveal the danger of a style, then and now, that is dogmatic and pretentious about the world. The film maker is powerful, being able to make choices of what he or she wants to film. The subject, possibly unpaid may be exploited, powerless about how the film might turn out. Cross-cultural filming making is problematic. The interpretation of another culture, put through the lens that is determined to deliver a cinema experience, might end up stereotyping a culture, perpetuating ancient or new misnomers. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006), starring Sacha Baron Cohen, a mockumentary comedy directed by Larry Charles is an example of this.
Resistance by the subjects, loyal to the Queen or not, is futile.
NUS Museum, Archival Square
Sep 4 2009 – 3 Feb 2010