Fiona Tan was born in 1966 in Pekanbaru, a city in the center of Sumatra, Indonesia, to a Chinese father and an Australian mother. Based in the Netherlands since 1988, Tan calls herself a “professional foreigner,” a migrant by birth whose background heavily informs many of her works. Her insightful productions combine film, video, and photography to examine postcolonial identities amid the globalization of culture, particularly in relation to the fabrication of myths and legends of the colonial East.
The two-channel video installation Disorient was produced in 2009 for the Dutch Pavilion of the 53rd Venice Biennale, where it was also partially staged and shot. It reflects the history of Venice as a strategic center for the trade of goods from newly charted Asian territories in the 13th to 16th centuries. Tan’s film evokes the dream of a great Orient, especially as described by Marco Polo in his famous Book of the Marvels of the World (ca. 1298). Widely translated and commented upon for more than seven centuries, Polo’s collection of stories has informed Europe’s imagination of an “Orient of marvels” despite its contested truthfulness—a paradox that Tan emphasizes in her work.
In Disorient, Polo’s description of scattered lands and peoples is read almost at a whisper by a male voice that plays on a speaker placed between two facing screens. On the largest one, an anachronistic collection of souvenirs and trophies is depicted though a slow travelling shot. Taxidermied exotic animals, gold statues, luscious fabrics, fine porcelain, spices, amulets, lamps, and other relics coexist with modern bibelots, cash in various currencies, TVs, and even a model of the Dutch Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. These objects are stored in a lonely warehouse, a cabinet of Oriental curiosities kept by a mysterious, pensive man—a Westerner—dressed in a golden robe. On the opposite screen, a montage of undated clips describes the contemporary conditions of life and production in the very lands allegedly visited by the celebrated Venetian explorer. These images, obtainedIraq, Afghanistan, and China, show factory workers and scenes of mass production, riots, poverty, exploitation, and survival in highly polluted and derelict environments. Viewed together, they obliquely document the creation, collection, shipping, and installation of the riches represented on the first screen. Like the work’s title suggests, a sense of disorientation results from the juxtaposition of these two narratives, which at first seem disparate but are revealed to be deeply connected. By transforming the warehouse into a stage and archive for cultural memory and modern myth, Tan reconstructs, or recollects, Polo’s legendary Asia.