Why Art Matters

When I start thinking I’ve wasted my life on art, I know I’m lying to myself. The lie is hurtful for many reasons, but this past weekend—five days after my mother-in-law passed away—I was reminded again of why art matters.

On Saturday, we gathered near Washington, D.C., for a small memorial. My mother-in-law’s death wasn’t unexpected, but it happened with shocking abruptness. She was ninety, but a hardy ninety, until her heart turned on her.

It was the kind of sunny-sky, temperate fall weekend that defies death. On Sunday, we spent the day in the District: first a church service in Georgetown, then touristing on the Mall. While my husband and his younger sister took the boy cousins to the Air and Space Museum, my other sister-in-law and I headed for the quieter halls of the Sackler Gallery.

The Sackler, one of the Smithsonian’s Asian art museums, now features a show by Amsterdam video artist Fiona Tan. Her title piece, Rise and Fall, is 22 minutes long and shown on two vertical screens. According to the program description, Tan filmed in Niagara Falls, Belgium, and the Netherlands:

“The viewer glimpses an older and younger woman engaged in intimate moments: feeling the caress of a lover, walking in nature, bathing, and dressing. These simple acts depict the lives of two women, or perhaps of the same woman at different times. [They alternate] with dramatic footage of flowing water—evoking the passage of time and the powerful rush of memories….”

A verbal description doesn’t do justice to this work, although it hints at why my sister-in-law and I gaped at each other when we stumbled back into the light, speechless, grasping for words, for all that we felt.

The art-curator prose doesn’t convey the power of the opening images of an older woman asleep, her mouth a bright scar of magenta lipstick; or the closing images on the split screens: two women, seen from behind, retreating down a forested path, then engulfed by the roaring green edge of a waterfall.

One of the reasons I like the following YouTube clip of Tan’s work at the “Dutch Pavillion” of the 2009 Venice Biennale is that it shows the watchers in the gallery. Rise and Fall is the first of Tan’s installations depicted here:



But powerful as such work is as an aesthetic experience, it’s my argument with Tan’s vision that makes me appreciate it more. Watching her split-screen film made me grapple with what it means. I reveled in its sophisticated beauty, in its silvery green palette, yet disagreed with its most obvious message.

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