“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Lost, the inaugural exhibition of the newly established Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Singapore, plays to this outdated but still oft-studied dialectic with three major video works by Fiona Tan, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and Zarina Bhimji, all of which seek to question the politics of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. Disorient, 2009 (film still); double-screen video installation; color HD installation, 5:1 surround, 2 HD-cam safety masters, 2 HD projectors, 2 computers, 2 surround amplifiers, surround speakers. Courtesy of Museum voor Moderne Kunst, Arnhem.
Fiona Tan. Disorient, 2009 (film still); double-screen video installation; color HD installation, 5:1 surround, 2 HD-cam safety masters, 2 HD projectors, 2 computers, 2 surround amplifiers, surround speakers. Courtesy of Frith Street Gallery, London. Photo: Per Kristiansen.
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.
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