“Southern Asia, in general, is the seat of awful images and associations. As the cradle of the human race, it would alone have a dim and reverential feeling connected with it… [the] mere antiquity of Asiatic things, of their institutions, histories, modes of faith, &c., is so impressive, that to me the vast age of the race and name overpowers the sense of youth in the individual,” wrote Thomas de Quincey in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821).
Of course, Quincey’s opiate-fueled reflections of Asia as an imagined site of mystic sublimity have all the familiar trappings of a particular system of thought that has dominated Western representations of Asia in the past few centuries: the power of the gaze to fabricate and invent an eroticized and exoticized Other. For a large part, the rhetoric of Paradise Lost, the inaugural exhibition of the newly established Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Singapore, plays to this outdated but still oft-studied dialectic with three major video works by Fiona Tan, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and Zarina Bhimji, all of which seek to question the politics of migration, cultural identity, and transnational boundaries.
Fiona Tan’s Disorient (2009) is a two-channel production commissioned for the Dutch Pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale that contrasts discordant perceptions of Asia. The first video delineates a fictional but richly textured space curated to showcase objects found and gleaned from an exotic Other. Accompanied by a voice-over narration of Marco Polo’s travel accounts that were written at the end of the thirteenth century, Tan’s theatrical set—designed to emulate the exotic appeal of a cabinet of curiosities—imagines Polo’s lived experience of the material world, with shelves filled to the brim with figurines, taxidermied beasts, and other unnamed ornaments. But if the cabinet of curiosities is often meant to provide a visual narrative for the classification and analysis of the material world, Tan’s enormous Kunstkammer seems solely designed to disorient and to celebrate the act of collection for its own sake, highlighting perhaps the West’s centuries-old unilateral perception of the East. Yet the pursuit of capturing atavistic myth, so intricately drawn out in the first video, is dashed away by the jarring contemporary footage of the second video. The unsentimental, poverty-stricken urban landscape of East Asia, derelict and in disrepair, concurrently provides an ironic counterpoint to Polo’s romanticized configuration of these same regions, and bluntly questions the ideology presented in the first screen.
Zarina Bhimji’s Yellow Patch (2011) is a slow, delicious cinematic exploration of architecture, hinterlands, and destinations that utilizes the camera’s ability to create a disjuncture between image and referent. By carefully correlating the moving image to affective sounds, Yellow Patch eschews cerebral contextualization and factual presentation in favor of visual sensations created by mise-en-scène where interiors are merely obliquely equated with individual and collective memory. Like reticent sentinels of a time long past, monuments and buildings serve as Bhimji’s markers, which foreground the migration and movement of peoples and cultures in the British colonial subcontinent of the late 19th to the early 20th century. The passing of time is marked by abandoned buildings, peeling paint, and decaying walls, as the desolate urban landscapes—elegiacally softened by slow-moving shots and framing—carries the tumultuous weight of a nation’s history.
Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989) tackles issues of documenting, translation, and interviewing within the familiar territory of cultural voyeurism, identity politics, and the construction of memory. Through a series of montages, archival footage, voice-over narrations, obscure Vietnamese proverbs, and English subtitles, Surname Viet Given Name Nam uses the power of fragmentary storytelling to explore aspects of Vietnamese reality as seen through the lives of women in Vietnam and the United States. The camera shots are deliberately unsteady as though wielded by an amateur’s hand, yielding information that is only coherent enough to glean partial information of the injustices that women suffer. The staged quality of these “ethnographic” interviews becomes more pronounced as the film progresses, until we realize that Trinh’s deliberate intention is not for us to misconstrue their halting speech as shyness or them as people struggling to speak in a different language, but rather the uncertainty of amateur actors who are in fact Vietnamese women living in the United States. Surname Viet Given Name Nam redefines identity as an interview experience, a quasi-fictional way of encountering the ethnographic self through the act of speaking and recollecting. But Trinh’s feminist critical discourse also raises questions that strike at the core of identity politics: What is selfhood and how should (or can) it be represented?
Seen in this light, Paradise Lost does not merely showcase narratives of displacement but also validates the notion that encoded within people are an indeterminate amount of political and cultural selves. As a consequence, identity—whether personal or collective—is at best too slippery to be pinned down by a taxonomic and digestible checklist of authentication. Certainly, the exhibition makes a convincing case of the value of exploring diasporic perspectives and the global aesthetic influences that come into play, despite the recurrent eagerness of such exhibitions to assimilate the oft-explored hallmarks of post-colonial discourse. At every turn, we are constantly reminded that the show is an unrelenting exercise in probing issues of memory and identity (which seem to be recurrent obsessions of regions that have a colonial past), and of the artifice of such illusions. There are questions heaped upon questions, but no ready answers as we are left to ponder the politics of conflicting narratives and sensitivities in each installation. As acutely sensitive to such concepts as the exhibition has proven to be, perhaps the most unsettling realization it leaves is that representation—rewritten from the perspective of an object that has always been represented—obfuscates as much as it reveals.
Paradise Lost is on view at the Centre for Contemporary Art at the Gillman Barracks through March 30, 2014.