One might be tempted to call Lisa Tan’s exhibition at Arthouse in Austin poetic. But what would this mean? It is spare, filled with layered and complex allusions, much like a poem. The imagistic lyricism of two finches in a cage; a lone man smoking as he stares out a window; flashes of barren mountain peaks; and a doctor’s stark appraisal of an aging body might suggest something more than prose as an apt metaphor. But regardless of the correct literary comparison, this exhibition is an aggregate of images – a series of artworks that collect around a few themes. One of the most evocative is the notion of the double.
Much of the work is about relationships, both real and imagined, between two bodies. Letters From Dr.Bamberger is a project that Tan begun in 2001 when her boyfriend at the time went to the doctor. He received a letter from the doctor after his physical that summarized his health. Tan followed suit and also went to this doctor, shortly receiving her own letter. Year after year Tan and her romantic partner would go to the doctor and receive a letter that detailed their physical health. These letters, standing in for each of these years stand side by side, wrapping around the exhibition. They speak to the luxury of health insurance and the shifting of a body’s physicality over time. They also speak to the relationship between doctor and patient, which Tan originally compared to the teacher-student dynamic in graduate school when she began the piece ten years ago.
Another work is National Geographic (2009), which is composed of two slide projectors and a screen. Tan took her late father’s magazine collection and cut out all of the images of mountains and photographed them. She then photographed the image that was on the backside of the page. In the dual projections this back-to-back relationship is splayed out in such a way that we see side-by-side comparisons governed by chance.
Les Samouraïs (2010) is based on Jean-Piere Melville’s 1967 film Le Samourai. This film, which was remade by Jim Jarmusch in 1999 as Ghost Dog, tells the story of an assassin who lives in relative solitude with only a small caged bird for company. The finch in the original film died in a studio fire shortly before the film’s completion and Tan memorializes it by digitally adding a second bird into the film, complicating the film’s tragic sense of isolation.
Finally, there are a series of prints that record the correspondence between the nineteenth century French artist Eugene Delecroix and his friend and lover Madame Forget. Tan was fascinated by the wonderful associations that the English pronunciation of this woman’s name evoked. Was she indeed forgotten? What was her true relationship with this great titan of Romanticism? Tan’s process involved research in France and New York but rather than looking for concrete truths as an historian might, the artist is content with the richly ambiguous and open suggestions of correspondence and parallel gestures of expression.