Skip to main content
Artists  
Introduction 

< Return to artist's essay

Erika Tan

By Joanna Morra

1. Who? What? Where?

Part I: Who? What? Where? When? Why? Or Asking Perplexing Questions About Ethnography, Anthropology and Classification

Both ethnographic and anthropological disciplines begin with the premise that the classification of nations, peoples, languages, and behaviours is an ontological practice. This means that there is little room for the straddling of descriptive boundaries, or the resistance to classification. As Michel Foucault informed us long ago, organizing knowledge inevitably involves friction. And this friction puts the structure of knowledge under pressure. As a result of this epistemological pressure the belief in the singularity of an ontological project - such as ethnography or anthropology - becomes difficult to sustain. What these disciplines are confronted by is a need to recognize that which is 'in between' classificatory structures. It is at this juncture between the ontological and epistemological that Erika Tan's art practice dedicates itself to excavating by representing that which is always and already 'in-between'.

Tan's work relentlessly interrogates the feeling and knowledge, the materiality and embodiment of past and present memories that never subsides because one is living 'in-between'. Working from this position, the artist's practice examines what it means to live and work in the gap, on the edge, and in between classificatory systems, nations, political and military regimes, languages, ideologies, and subjectivities.

Boatrace (1998-2000) is a fine example of both the anthropological and ethnographic critique that Tan engages in her work, and the participatory imperative of her practice. Orchestrated as a race of small paper boats, the colour and number of which represent 19th century British racial classifications, members of the public participated in both making and launching the boats down a river. In addition to the theoretical questions asked by such a work, such as who are we and how do we constitute ourselves - the boat race itself is a poetic display of both the hierarchies and dismantling of classificatory regimes as the boats disobey any rules of their implementation and abide by the river's own flow.

The participatory aspect of Boatrace is also quite clear in Faint (2004) and Beacon (2004) where Tan worked with individuals in Margate to consider questions of location and dislocation. An ongoing photographic collection The International Collection of Cultural Cross-Dressing analyzes our fantasies about the stranger within ourselves, and our ability to 'conform' or 'pass' within our cultural contexts.

2. Who? What? Where? contd.

Although not all of Tan's art practice involves the audience in such a clearly defined manner, her tendency is to make installation work that requires the viewer to engage with the artwork - intellectually, visually, aurally and physically. This approach becomes integral to her demand that upon entering a work of art we figure our 'self' out, while we are figured within. For instance, Passing: Slipping between the boundaries unnoticed (1995), Sites of Construction (1996) and Chintz (various versions from 1997-2000) are three works that invite, mandate and implicate the viewer in a consideration of the constructed representation of difference and the other within a western context. In doing so, the works demand that we examine our own place within this racial, ethnic and cultural formation.

Passing is a three-screen video and sound installation that critically engages with the classification of cultural and racial difference through which embodied subjects 'pass': are noticed and unnoticed. Using images from a variety of sources - Hollywood movies, military events, postcards, ethnographic and anthropometric photographs of Chinese people, Chinese sounding music and the patriotic singing of national anthems - the work forcefully represents the relationship between epistemology, ethnography, anthropology, phrenology and the construction of the racialized 'other'. Passing makes clear that 19th and 20th century classificatory regimes used in legitimating the stereotypes of the Chinese 'other' - from classifying hair, eye and skin formation, to personality traits and sexual desire - are bound up with our past, while at the same time are a present-tense concern that not only constitute who we are, but continue to inform our understanding of culture as we confront the ever-expanding arms of global capitalism. Tan's work asks: When have these concerns not been with us?

3. Propping Open Archives

For Walter Benjamin writing in 'Theses on the Philosophy of History' in 1940, 'every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably'. It is not only that the image disappears, but also the historical, political, and economic ramifications, their ideological formations, the social and cultural contexts that surrounds that image is forgotten in our failure to remember.

It is in such a context that Erika Tan's Persistent Visions (2005) should be considered. This three-screen video installation (shown silent or with a sound-track) is based on footage from the moving image archive housed in the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol. This archive originally formed a part of the Commonwealth Institute in South Kensington, London which told 'the' story of Britain's colonial and imperial history from the rise of its Empire to the establishment of a Commonwealth. Although the archive houses government produced films, commercial documentaries, news footage and Christian missionary films, Tan chose to work on the 'amateur' silent Super-8 films recorded by individual colonial families 'out in' the colonies and 'at home'. The images range from the travellers moving through 'foreign' landscapes, talking to the 'natives', and taking spells of relaxation within the colonial territory, to being back home entertaining, chatting with friends, surrounded by children playing in the garden. What we are privy to, are the power dynamics of colonial rule and those of intimate relations. This is what Tan has called the 'subjective memorising' that is symptomatic of these archives, and what Jacques Derrida would name the archival 'unconscious'.

Understanding that once these archival films are collected, classified and institutionalized, they lose their connection to the 'original' maker, Tan is keen to take advantage of this breach through artistic intervention and interpretation wherein as she states, '"original" histories become opaque, [and] new stories are told.' An installation such as Persistent Vision works through what Rey Chow would call our need for 'a thorough disassembling of the visualist epistemological bases of disciplines such as anthropology and ethnography as we know them to date'. For Chow, this is possible by making the viewer privy to the 'full, materialist, and most likely equally corrupt, equally decadent participants in contemporary world culture' and its histories. This is the ethical dilemma of Persistent Visions. And it takes place in silence.

The viewer of Persistent Visions is drawn into the image because of and through the installation's silence, and yet the image is calling for critique. We are seduced and repelled by the image: its aesthetic quality, its material and documentary character, its record of everyday life and personal history, and its function as evidence of colonial rule, of our history, and the ethnographic and anthropological impulse of Empire. And yet, we as viewers are implicated in a perverse viewing experience as the 'evidence' also becomes an ethnography of watching the 'white' colonialists as 'others': making the coloniser the colonized. The dialectic of the image's disassembling, its survival and loss, and ours, set within the stillness and intensity of a silent viewing, is what constitutes the political and ideological critique in Persistent Vision.

4. Pidgin: pij'in: pigeon

PIDGIN: interrupted transmission (2002) is Erika Tan's three-part installation, which includes a two-screen video piece, a workstation, and research documentation. Across the screens a multiplicity of images, sounds, words, phrases and languages flow in an evocation of our hybrid, diasporic and global culture. The polyglot internationalism represented is constituted by images of power and history, and personal interactions between various individuals, together begetting the need for linguistic and visual translation and its inevitable impossibility.

At the workstation in PIDGIN two computers and research documentation seem to give us clues and answers to the linguistic-ideological-global nexus that is being represented here; as the viewer is seemingly made privy to the underlying code and textual annotations of the images, sounds and texts on the monitors and screens. But, this is not the case. Rather than a decoding, what Tan's unintelligible display demonstrates for us is the impossibility of translating the complex interplay and slippage between language, capital and subjectivity. It reveals how this polyphonic and polyglottal flow in a globalized culture leads to the inevitable transformation of subjectivities in this state of constant becoming.

5. Pidgin contd.

The projected images that engage, seduce and confound us range from individual faces, lips, and eyes; to cheering crowds, airplanes and airstrips; to written texts, computer code, and a fictional timeline; to the glorious image and sound of a flock of homing pigeons being released and in flight. At times the visual and acoustic components of PIDGIN provide us with a narrative such as the game of 'broken telephone'/ 'Chinese Whispers' wherein a statement from Roland Barthes on the phenomenological and erotic nature of language is whispered from one pair of lips to another's ear reminding us of Trinh T. Minh-ha's question: 'Do you translate by eye or by ear?' The 'Chinese Whispers' leads to much fun and consternation for those involved in the game and for the viewer straining to hear what is being said through their eruptions of laughter and other inadvertent signs of anxiety. There are also the 'exercises in phonological stretching' wherein participants are asked to transliterate excerpts from, for example, the Tower of Babel story in Genesis wherein the idea of translation originates, and Karl Marx and Friedrich Englels' writing on production and capital. Here, statements are phonetically turned into another language, without regard for the meaning of either the original or the transliterated language. This moment in PIDGIN makes a fine bookend to Tan's work Waterloo Sunset (2005) wherein the song by The Kinks, nominated in 2004 as BBC Radio London listener's favourite song, is translated into numerous languages highlighting the multicultural and multilinguistic makeup of Britain. Both works are, as Tan notes with regard to PIDGIN, about the 'elasticity of language' and the metaphor of homing.

The modern German philosopher, Rudolf Pannwitz has informed us that 'the basic error of the √úbertragende [translator/transference] is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue.' In effect, this is the role of pidgin. A term which may have originated from a Chinese mispronunciation of the English word 'business' in 19th century trade ports like Canton or Shanghai, pidgin is a language that is a combination of two or more languages as a means by which groups of people that speak mutually unintelligible languages can communicate with one another. Pidgin is Pannwitz's dream wherein languages powerfully affect one another. To work from the knowledge that we are always already othered - linguistically, subjectively, culturally, ideologically, ethnically - this is the task of the translator in contemporary culture, and the task upon which PIDGIN insists.

6. Becoming

becoming (2006) is a six-channel video and sound installation that extends Tan's concerns with the linguistic-national-military nexus of her earlier work Vent & Mimesis (2003). Tan's attention is squarely placed on the 'naturalisation' of persons who have migrated through necessity or choice as a result of globalization. Using a handmade dummy which is an uncanny double of the artist herself, becoming and Vent & Mimesis critically interrogate the mimicry that is necessary for a personal 'pledging' of 'allegiance' - 'uttering' a promise of political, ideological, and cultural commitment - to an 'other' nation, while disassembling our understanding of this very 'obligation' and 'loyalty.'

Originally commissioned for BELIEF, the Singapore Biennale in 2006, becoming re-situates the earlier Vent & Mimesis within a disused courtroom of Singapore's City Hall, itself a place of affirming, upholding and pledging allegiance to rule and law. In this context, Tan appropriated various clips from YouTube such as the naturalisation rituals performed by 'foreign' adults or the faltering memorisation and recitings of children learning their pledges (in this case, primarily Anglo-American nations). Other rituals such as those seen within the context of international sport such as the nationalistic chanting found within football grounds as well as clips of military marches, military bases and airstrips, and sites of political power in Washington or Beijing's Tiananmen Square, for instance. Inserted into these appropriated moments, the artist places the 'dummy' which mimics and mocks, aggressively and comically interrupts, disrupts and disturbs the proceedings, the images, and the ideologies represented in the construction of national identities in both the 'natives' and the 'others'. Following on from this initial context, Tan continues this work through the re-insertion of this material back to the YouTube 'archive' as an attempt to further repatriate the dislocated and now re-insert the 'public' back into the 'private' in the relative borderless space of the internet.

We are all in need of a reflection upon the 'dummy' within. This is the force of becoming, its ability to interrogate the notion of 'home,' 'citizenship,' and 'permanent resident' to such an extent that we recognize that we are all inevitably in a state of perpetually becoming.

Joanna Morra

< Return to artist's essay