Fiona Tan’s Moving Portraits: The Convergence of Cinema and the Museum
Since the 1990s, the museum has come to embrace cinema, as more and more moving image installations and works—artists’ cinema—have made their way into the white cube of the museum, and furthermore, over the past three decades these works have become among the most vital elements of today’s commercial museums of contemporary art. The entrance of the moving image into the museum; however, presents a problematic relationship between two clashing dispositifs. The convergence of these fundamentally incompatible public spheres challenges traditional museum and cinema experiences, leading to new forms of spectatorship through exploitations of this union’s altered use of space and duration. Thus, these filmmakers operate at the very point of destabilization, capitalizing on the questions unearthed by the innate contradictions. Film scholar, Thomas Elsaesser, articulates this point, asserting that the conflicting relationship between cinema and the museum renders new modes of both museum and filmic representations and viewership:
…these apparent incompatibilities, and the many contradictory relations that can be itemized or ‘‘problematized’ between these respective dispositifs, are precisely among the theoretically most fruitful and in practice most productive factors about the fine arts and visual culture today, not only enabling but necessitating the new kinds of encounter alluded to, as moving images and museums enter into sustained and no doubt permanent contact with each other.1
Thus, while the moving image’s presence in the contemporary museum may seem to signal cinema’s ultimate acceptance into the canon of the plastic arts, the museum sphere has not simply appropriated the cinema into its genealogy—the convergence of the museum and the cinema have generated wholly new forms of representation and spectatorship, unique dispositifs or “multiple cinemas.”2 Film theorist, Raymond Bellour, asserts that the merging of the cinema and the museum leads to innately independent visual and sound experiences, firmly separate from the black box or what Bellour coins, “cinema, alone”—a retroactive destinction that preserves the independence of the traditional cinematic experience during this onslaught of altering, revolutionizing cinematic modes. Therefore, the traditional cinematic experience and its passive viewership, its defined, restrictive framing, its irreversible flow/duration, etc. all stand as merely a singular execution of the infinite potential renderings of moving images. The museum unearths these new “multiple cinemas”—or an “other cinema” with its own aesthetical modes and theoretical questions:
But if it is difficult to assimilate these works [artists’ cinema] to the tradition of the plastic arts, the very framework of which they explode, it is no less difficult to take them as belonging to traditional cinema or as a supplement of cinema; it would rather be better to continue (to the extent that it will be possible) to recapture cinema in the historical and formal singularity of its own device. The strange force of these works is thus to open ever more clearly the indefinable expansion of an other cinema, according to which the conditions of an aesthetics of confusion are clarified and amplified.3
Thus, the recent proliferation of video and film installations have discovered an “other cinema”—modes of cinematic representations that do not merely expand the reaches of traditional cinema or the museum’s plastic arts; rather they “reinvent…[their] own dispositifs…that circumvent the restriction that prevailed for so long.”4 The invention and propagation of the moving portrait perhaps epitomizes this idea of reinvention in that it appropriates the museum’s most prominent medium—portraiture—while harnessing cinema’s motion to subvert the politics of representation and spectatorship of the still image. Furthermore, the moving image’s interaction with portraiture not only draws attention to cinema’s inevitable acceptance into the “high” art discourse, it presents a quintessential meta-cinema. The moving portrait’s deliberate destabilization of such a historic medium and practice underscores and overtly illuminates the very process Bellour articulates—the locating of a distinctive medium that challenges and disrupts entrenched modes of representation. The museum as a space promotes contemplation and reflexivity, while the moving portrait contained within such a setting visualizes the effective marriage of two opposing mediums. This revolutionizing dispositif is directly born out of the union of the cinema and the museum, and thus, it is appropriately positioned to question the ethics of both the museum and cinema spheres:
One facility of the moving image (at least where the subject is awake) is to challenge what might be the objectifying power of photography. No longer frozen in time, the subject is living and breathing…[the moving portrait] acts against the objectifying force of photography and allows the subjects to assert their individuality in the face of the archive’s cold classification.5
Here, Michael Godfrey articulates the means through which video installations further the representational capacity of the moving image—presenting depictions that would be impossible within the confines of cinema alone, the photograph, or the hand-painted portrait. Roland Barthes once claim that while being photographed, “I am neither subject nor object, but a subject who feels he is becoming an object.”6 Thus, this newly established dispositif of the moving portrait locates a new method that “has the effect of emphasizing such anxieties, dramatizing the difficulty of self-representation.”7 Moreover, the moving image’s manifestation within the museum setting allows for the new arrangements of space, duration, and spectatorship—thus, the spatial and temporal framing of the museum and its sometimes problematic, contradictory marriage with cinema allow and generate new aesthetical modes or signifiers through which the filmmaker can confront underlying, dominant ideologies of representation and spectatorship.
One of the central conflicts that surfaces as cinema enters the museum is the evolving position of the spectator—the forward, concentrated orientation of the black box directly opposes the museum’s contemporary, wandering flaneur. While much of Bellour’s cinema, alone is rooted in narrative, even experimental works screened in the traditional black box still dictate the notion of an alignment with narrative—the irreversible, one-way flow of the projection and the contained, uniform frame all replicate the focused, forward motion of narrative. Conversely, modernism, the avant-garde, and more broadly, contemporary art seem rooted in a decided avoidance of narrative, while art historian, James Elkins, asserts that “the avoidance of narrative is one of the great dogmas or working assumptions of art production, criticism, and instruction.”8 While the moving portrait’s non-narrative form may appear to sever the medium’s connection to its forebear—cinema, alone—this breakdown of narrative structure signals how the museum alters moving image viewership and frameworks. The narratives of classic and mainstream cinema capitalize on replicating and reinforcing the many ways people view and process the surrounding world—the forward, relentless unfolding of plot mirrors humanity’s irreversible experience of time. Humanity’s reliance on causality, consequence, and anticipation to make sense of the world highlights the affinity for archetypical narrative structures and characters. While much of humanity’s hardwired dispositions adhere to narrative modes, the processing of memory is backwardly oriented. Thus, reflexivity, contemplation, and identity are innately void of any anticipatory or causal processing—thus, they present a non-linear, non-narrative tendency. Furthermore, as the digital age sees much of the world’s information archived and stored on servers and computers, the discovery of information becomes more and more reliant on search engines and other non-linear modes of retrieval. The moving portrait artist often sets out to capture some notion of his/her subject’s identity, while the collective installation serves as a photographic archive—an attempt at a depiction of a time, a people, a location, etc. This reflexive act relies on non-linear thought, and thus, the museum setting allows for a moving image medium that exists independent of the forward-oriented cinema, alone—a cinematic medium that can properly reflect this mode of thinking. Thus, the cyclical, non-narrative moving portrait has decidedly no beginning, middle, or end—the spectator must find their own way through an installation cluttered with screens and portraits. The role of the moving image spectator has shifted from passivity to wandering flaneur— the museum affords multichannel visual representations, while pathways and associations are deliberately left undefined. Dominique Paini defines this individual, undefined experience as a “spatialization of narrative,”9 in which any sense of linearity or structure comes from the moving viewer and their specific interaction with the installation:
Now it is the mobile spectator who threads together and edits the fiction. Some of these installations effect a profound transformation, creating a new kind of spectator who, in fact, harks back to a forgotten but enduring heritage. Here, quite unexpectedly…we witness the return of Baudelaire's flaneur…10
This recalled image of the flaneur wandering through cityscapes and crowded arcades is only amplified by the fact that the moving portraits have the capacity to look back at the viewer, challenging the politics and experience of spectatorship. Artist and filmmaker, Fiona Tan, whose numerous video portrait exhibitions deeply dissect this fraught relationship between viewer and subject, asserts that the moving portrait destabilizes the anticipated dynamics of viewer and viewed:
I am more aware of…the artificiality of the encounter and simultaneously involuntary resistance against it. It is as though as a viewer, I cannot own and cannot pocket the image in the same way I imagine I could if it were only a still photograph hanging on the wall. When looking at a video portrait, I am looking at something, which is constantly escaping me.11
Thus, the moving image within the museum transforms the role of the viewer, while the moving portrait and its living subjects draw direct attention to this shift in particular—embodying reflexivity’s innate role and influence in contemporary viewership and reception.
Just as the role of the spectator becomes less restrictive and the moving image works become open and susceptible to infinite ways of being viewed, the filmmaker and artist is able to take on new roles when working within these new modes of representation—within this other cinema. Tan perhaps best embodies this more mobile, shifting role of the artist—born in Indonesia to a Chinese mother and an Australian father, she now resides in the Netherlands, and thus, Tan’s diverse background epitomizes the fluidity of identity in the contemporary, global world. The question of identity is central to Tan’s precise, alluring moving portraits, as they operate within “the contested territory of representation: how we represent ourselves and the mechanisms that determine how we interpret the representation of others.“12 Tan’s 2002 moving portrait exhibition, Countenance, attempts to answer these questions, as it stages a reply to August Sander’s prolific photographic project, Citizens of the Twentieth Century (1910-1964), which was an attempt to archive the vast personalities and identities of the first half of the twentieth century in Berlin. Sander placed a deep trust in typification, believing that he could capture enough faces, enough stereotypes to subsequently preserve and visualize the essence of Berlin in this specific time. Tan also visits Berlin in hopes of creating her own archive; however, she understands the complexities of representation. Her exhibition opens on a moving self-portrait, over which she reads a monologue and questions, “Could I possibly collect, collate a time in history? Whose history? Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief.”13 Her rhyme concludes the opening narration, and while the commentary leaves the ambition of the piece unsaid, the closing poem asserts that her installation will not merely be a rendition of stereotypes or categorized individuals; rather her portraits will aim to subvert this restrictive thinking, while questioning “how we recognize and define those around us…she confronts contemporary ways of seeing.”14 Rather than accepting the position of omniscient artist, Tan fluctuates between three self-reflexive roles: traveller, scientist, and archivist.15 Her shifting approach to her work mirrors the fragmented content of the portraits, as they search for identities that refuse to adhere to Sander’s reductive categories. As a traveller, Tan takes on the fraught position of the ethnographer—as a foreigner, her portraits come from the skewed perspective of an outsider. This position produces the possibility of unearthing realities that are undetectable to native Berliners; however, more significantly, Tan understands that her subjects are unavoidably presented as “the Other.” Tan’s cautious and self-reflexive approach does not hide her position as an outsider, and subsequently allows for a new, redeemed tourist gaze. Godfrey articulates this point, asserting that Tan reworks and rethinks formerly fraught modes of representation through her distinct medium of moving portraits:
Tan has found a way to countenance the “tourist gaze”…Tan revisits formerly forbidden practices, never redeeming them casually, nor naively re-accepting them, but thinking again about their facilities as a means through which to represent and engage with the world.16
Tan’s roles as a scientist and an archivist are approached with the same caution and self-awareness. As she categorizes her subjects—like “an amateur biologist in the nineteenth century would collect butterflies”17—and obsessively collects numerous images, she reiterates the impossibilities of her objectives. The juxtaposition of her work to Sander; however, not only exposes shifts in society over time, it reveals the new modes of representation and identity in the contemporary image. Thus, while capturing an entire epoch in the facial expressions of a select collection may prove impossible, this altered approach unearths the evolved position of the artist in this contemporary, globalized museum. Godfrey highlights the richness of this new position and its moving portraits, asserting that “the sense that self-scrutiny of the work is matched by its generosity.”18 Thus, moving image works in the museum not only signal a shift in the position of the viewer, their revising of representational modes emphasizes the changing, fluid positions of the artist and the central role of self-reflexivity in artists’ cinema discourse.
Tan’s subsequent exhibition, Corrections (2004), further dissects the politics of representation and exposes the power of the moving image through its moving portraits of over 300 American prisoners and guards. In a darkened museum space, six suspended, vertical frames circle the center of the room, on each is projected a continuous loop of inmates, facing the camera head-on—to see each distinct portrait within the show takes about three hours. This monumental project embodies the tendentious convergence of the cinematic image and the museum space in that Tan builds on one of the museum’s most historic and central mediums—the portrait—while exploiting cinema’s unique ability to capture a “living” image and furthermore, to amplify a sense of place through ambient sound. The artist describes the moving photograph—distinctly born out of the conflicting hybrid of the museum and the cinema—as a window into the mind of the subject and the corresponding turmoil that resonates with self-representation and the ritual of posing for the camera’s eye:
A filmed photograph stretches time, and in those often uncomfortable moments a lot happens: The viewer can see the embarrassment, bewilderment, and anger or the curiosity and shyness due to the confrontation with the camera.19
The moving portrait’s expansion of the traditional representation exaggerates the relationship between the viewer and the subject, as her posturing, stirring depictions have the ability to gaze back at the museum visitor. In his essay, “The Cinema in the Museum: Fiona Tan – Perspective Correction, Facing Forward,” Thomas Elsaesser articulates the negotiation with the moving portrait that is innately distinctive from the painting or the still photograph:
The observer, rather than shifting more or less safely between witness and voyeur, finds herself enfolded, repositioned, at once drawn in, and kept at a distance…These individuals [the prisoners/subjects] neither seek our empathy and understanding, nor does the camera solicit any on their behalf; we are ‘free’ to reflect more generally, and also to decide more personally, on what it means to have a face-to-face encounter with the cinematic image.20
Thus, Corrections harnesses a unique interaction between subject and viewer that is born out of the convergence of cinema and the museum, with its roots in cinema’s close up and in the museum’s portrait. The installation subverts the traditional experience of both cultural spaces—cinema (moving image/immobile viewer) and museum (still image/ mobile viewer)21—in its embrace of both an active viewer and a moving subject. Paradoxically, the show simultaneously relies on an innate stillness—its accompanying soundtrack reduces the chaotic echoes of an overpopulated prison to an indiscernible murmur and furthermore, its visuals attempt to force themselves still, only succumbing to oscillation because they are indeed human. The stillness contained within this rubric defined by movement heightens the viewer’s sensitivities, reintroducing them to the capacity of the moving image—allowing for pensiveness and attentiveness, incongruous with the persistent visual and auditory distractions of the digital age. Moreover, this intersection of the museum and the moving image allows Tan to illuminate individuals that are deliberately hidden from society—ironically, these inmates are perhaps the most photographed individuals on the planet, as they live their entire lives under constant surveillance—they are never outside of the camera’s eye during the duration of their sentence. Tan alludes to this perpetual surveillance through the circular formation of her six screens, mirroring the Panopticon prison layout—a design intended to optimize total observation, with all the prison cells circling a single inspection house. Tan places the viewer in the position of the inspector; however, the encircling projections of Corrections, instead, afford its subjects the opportunity to briefly take back their identity, to willingly present themselves to the camera, and to tangentially connect with the outside world.
In many ways, Tan remains more faithful to the conventions of portraiture than that of the cinema—she shifts her camera vertically and the resulting framing is “a format that is foreign to moving pictures…Tan’s video clips are intermediate pictures, hybrids…”22 This appropriation of the portrait and its framing provides a suitable window into the overwhelming confinement of the prison world. The subjects were asked to stand as still as possible, which renders almost static, uniform poses. The six monitors float within the darkened room, dwarfed by the open museum cube. This surrounding neutral space results in two parallel effects—each subtle movement and expression is magnified as they contrast the encircling darkness, which is void of movement, and secondly, the subjects feel noticeably restrained, trapped within an unorthodox frame that draws deliberate attention to itself. Art historian, Joel Snyder, highlights these effects, and claims:
The result is a vertical, moving portrait of a constrained, barely animated human subject—a pictorial metaphor for the inhuman effects of imprisonment...These pictures show what we otherwise could not see—the loss of mortality, of animation, of an indispensable condition of life. Why should we expect this loss to result in correction?23
Therefore, the physical staging of the exhibition room and its spatial constructs shapes an innate sense of dehumanization that is decidedly separate from the raw video clips themselves. Moreover, the spatial and temporal framing of the museum reinforces political undertones lingering within the piece. These portraits present a rare moment in which the prisoner reclaims control over his/her representation—the singular nature of this opportunity exposes the inevitable loss of humanity within the prison system. Thus, the layout and design of the exhibition challenge the title of the show—Corrections—asserting that the notion of rehabilitation is a charade, which masks society’s vindictive desire to punish those it deems dissident. Conversely, although this framework alludes to isolation and inhumanity, one can still locate distinct individuals within this highly constrained milieu. The uncomfortable stillness matched with the muted framework enhances details within the images, providing hints at the notion of personal identities and narratives:
The rhythm of the successive portraits imposes itself, modulates expectations, and one begins to notice detail: badges, tattoos, a baton, a white overall apparently buttoned at the back, a security wristband, a walkie-talkie; distributed across these often broad expanses of body, the items both link the persons with each other and distinguish them, not always along the lines of keeper and kept.24
Elsaesser maintains that the juxtaposition of these uniform compositions not only highlights the distinctive identities of the subjects, but it definitively alludes to a democratization, an egalitarian framework that directly opposes the strict hierarchy of the prison world. Both the guarded and the guards occupy the same space within the circular formation of frames. The familiar and established conventions of the portrait allow Tan to present prisoners and guards in the same structure—restoring some sense of dignity for the prisoners, while acknowledging that the identities of the guards are to an extent also restricted—they are forced to embody the authority of the institution, a uniform within the prison walls and not a fellow human. Tan boldly breaks down the deliberate divide between prisoners and guards to expose the calculated and unquestioned hierarchy of the prison apparatus. The endless looping of these symmetrical portraits one after another matches what the show’s curator, Francesco Bonami, describes in his creative essay, in which he uses the perspective of an imagined prisoner, as the “abnormal state of suspension [of prison life]…We belong to society, we are its property. Society needs to remember why freedom exists.”25 Tan’s floating portraits and their endless rotation mirrors the purgatory that is the correctional facility—the physical, disconnected location of the gallery mirrors prison’s existence as a microcosm outside of society and its structures. The exhibition cannot replicate and will not romanticize the experience of prison; however, it forces the viewer to linger and connect with society’s forgotten population—exposing an inevitable dehumanization and the remaining struggle for identity. Furthermore, Tan’s exploitation of the museum framework highlights prison’s separate hierarchy that is entirely distinctive from societal norms, while exposing the façade of the “correctional” system as truly an apparatus for punishment.
Tan’s operation at the intersection of the cinema and museum spheres also exposes a new space for the digital within high art and filmic discourse. While film scholars lament the “death of cinema” and the digital photograph’s lack of indexicality and its susceptibility to manipulation, Tan locates an intimacy in the digital image that perhaps mitigates the seemingly inevitable disappearance of celluloid and the embrace of digital video. Furthermore, Tan’s moving portraits and their slight, involuntary movements push the viewer to rethink the classic, painted portraits—to find movement within these stationary images. Elsaesser articulates the position of the philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, that all images contain an innate sense of motion, the still image is; in fact, stilled:
…an image is always ‘in motion,’ not merely because the eye restlessly scans, probes and touches even the (still) image in the very ‘act of seeing’: the still image is a ‘stilled’ image, slowed down to the point of imperceptible motion or stilled because it is taken out of the flow or extracted from it, but carrying with it as its virtuality the signs and traces of the movement to which it owes consistency, energy and substance.26
Thus, the delicate motions contained within Tan’s portraits illustrate and expose the movement contained within even seemingly stationary stagings. Tan’s exhibition goes beyond commentating and uncovering the political and social ramifications of her subject matter, as she challenges both the cinematic and museum-going experiences—forcing the viewer to find new ways of seeing both still and moving images, and to locate stillness in cinema and motion in photography, painting, and sculpture. Elsaesser confirms that Tan’s work is at the forefront of this rethinking partially brought on by the digital takeover:
…the digital ‘live’ portrait also ensures that her work is at the cusp of one of the most important transitions in the visual arts: today, as we are in the midst of remediating chronophotography, we recognize that a photograph has always been as much a ‘stilled’ image as a ‘still’ image, setting free the possibilities of a different way of thinking not only about images in the present, or images of the past in the present, but of past images in the past.27
Tan not only embraces the digital as the contemporary medium through which both the masses and acclaimed artists are presenting various forms of self-representation, she has also employed the digital image as a tool to rethink the entire history of the visual arts. While her found footage films more directly challenge the gaze, aesthetics, and politics of past imagery, Corrections displays a juxtaposition of stillness and movement that articulates this remediated chronophotography. Tan succinctly eludes to this power of the moving image to unearth and to rethink modes of seeing, stating: “It is true that the camera, photographs and films, show us things in a different way and things we sometimes could not otherwise see.”28 Through the convergence of the public spheres of the cinema and the museum, the moving portrait locates a new way of seeing—Tan’s installation illuminates an invisible population, exposes the politics of representation and personal identity, and subverts the hierarchy and rhetoric of the correctional system. Furthermore, this blending of the museum and cinema spaces establishes a new mode of representation that alters the position of both the artist, the subject, and the viewer, and ultimately, challenges the way in which one processes past, present, and future imagery.
1. Elsaesser, Thomas. “Ingmar Bergman in the museum? Thresholds, limits, conditions of possibility.” Journal of Aesthetics and Culture. Vol. 1, 2009, pp. 5.
2. Bellour, Raymond. “Cinema, Alone/Multiple ‘Cinemas.’” Alphaville Journal of Film and Screen Media. Vol. 5 (Summer 2013). Web. ISSN: 2009-4078
3. Bellour, Raymond. “Of An Other Cinema.” Art and Moving Image. Vol. 3. 2004, pp. 408.
4. Bellour, Raymond. “Cinema, Alone/Multiple ‘Cinemas.’” Alphaville Journal of Film and Screen Media. Vol. 5 (Summer 2013). Web. ISSN: 2009-4078
5. Godfrey, Mark. “Fiona Tan’s Countenance.” Countenance. Modern Art Oxford: 2005, pp. 74.
6. Ibid, pp. 74, quoting Roland Barthes.
7. Ibid, pp. 75.
8. Elkins, James. “The Place of Narrative in Contemporary Art.” 2004, pp. 39.
9. Paini, Dominique. “The Return of the Flaneur.” Art Press. No. 255. March 2000, pp. 4.
10. Ibid, pp. 4.
11. Elsaesser, Thomas. “Fiona Tan: Place after Place.” Fiona Tan: Disorient. Dutch Pavilion, Venice Biennale. Mondriaan Foundation: Amsterdam, 2009, pp. 23, quoting Fiona Tan.
12. Cotter, Suzanne and Andrew Nairne. “Preface.” Countenance. Modern Art Oxford: 2005, pp. 5.
13. Tan, Fiona. “Monologue.” Countenance. Modern Art Oxford: 2005.
14. Cotter, Suzanne and Andrew Nairne. “Preface.” Countenance. Modern Art Oxford: 2005, pp. 5-6.
15. Godfrey, Mark. “Fiona Tan’s Countenance.” Countenance. Modern Art Oxford: 2005.
16. Ibid, pp. 78-79.
17. Tan, Fiona. “Monologue.” Countenance. Modern Art Oxford: 2005.
18. Godfrey, Mark. “Fiona Tan’s Countenance.” Countenance. Modern Art Oxford: 2005, pp. 69.
19. Gefter, Philip. “Is That Portrait Staring at Me?” The New York Times. April 10, 2015, quoting Fiona Tan.
20. Elsaesser, Thomas. “The Cinema in the Museum: Fiona Tan – Perspective Correction, Facing Forward.” 2012, pp. 7.
21. Ibid, pp. 11.
22. Snyder, Joel. “Setting the Record Straight: Fiona Tan’s Correction.” Correction. Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL: 2004, p. 28.
23. Ibid, p. 28.
24. Elsaesser, Thomas. “The Cinema in the Museum: Fiona Tan – Perspective Correction, Facing Forward.” 2012, p. 6.
25. Bonami, Francesco. “If I Was Them.” Correction. Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL: 2004, p. 38.
26. Elsaesser, Thomas. “Stop/Motion.” Between Stillness and Motion: Film, Photography, Algorithms. Eivind Røssaak, editor. Amsterdam University Press: 2011, p. 118.
27. Elsaesser, Thomas. “The Cinema in the Museum: Fiona Tan – Perspective Correction, Facing Forward.” 2012, p. 10.
28. Jackson, Tessa. “Reading the Visible and the Invisible.” Correction. Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL: 2004, p. 15.