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.
The older woman in this work appears meditative, slowed down, sad. Meditation on life’s passing comes to us all, but where is the rage at the dying light? Not just fist-shaking anger, or even passion as teenagers or Hollywood producers define it, but the stubborn will to live?
It’s not just a sigh of endurance. It’s stubborn, that will. It’s cranky; it can be humorous or caustic. That will is the life force, and it isn’t necessarily calm, a fading away into silver-green-gray. I know this from my father’s wobbling descent into Parkinson’s Disease; I know it from my mother-in-law’s last days.
Later, I flipped through the exhibition book for Rise and Fall, produced for the Vancouver Art Gallery earlier this year. The book notes that Tan nods to seventeenth-century Dutch painters, that the vertical aspect of the screens implies a “portrait in time and space” or a “keyhole.”
Originally, Tan was going to include a voiceover, something she wisely decided to leave out. But this voiceover is excerpted in the book, and makes her vision of “the girl she was back then” and “the woman the girl became” explicit:
“She would like to repeat in her head her favourite scenes…
“For her, a memory is a fold in the fabric of time.
Forgetfulness leaves gaps, picks holes in the picture.
Holes, nonetheless, that she can look through.”
The split screens called forth other works of art for me, too. But before I knew that Tan now lives in the Netherlands (she was born in Indonesia) or read the lines of her proposed voiceover, Rise and Fall reminded me of Tiffany windows. Some of the shots of the women sitting in a garden under a tree, the green leaves so perfectly etched, evoked the lost utopia of a Tiffany scene.
A Tiffany window includes all the curlicues and stylization viewers bring to the glass they’re gazing through. You could call it an artful vision of how we long for another’s life to be, especially a parent’s life.
As my feisty, funny mother-in-law might have told you, we knew her and yet we didn’t know her. We interpreted her life our way, but she experienced the world beyond the narrow frames of her family members.
That’s why art matters. It broadens our view beyond what we ourselves expect or want or need. I love Rise and Fall because it makes me argue with the artist and the nature of memory. Life is most fully lived when we’re arguing with its meaning, it seems to me, when we’re engaged by what we see.
Right up to the end, my mother-in-law was an arguer. And as I rode hell for leather down a bike trail yesterday, Fiona Tan had me raging at my mother-in-law for leaving us. Tan’s art had me conjure more than gray nothingness.
If that film installation had been mine, I would have included tens of thousands of screens. Some would show the same shot; others would split quotidian events into moments or years. I’d show more than two women slowly ambling down a country lane. There would be a little boy running. There would be an eighty-year-old crying in pain that could be ecstasy, but she’d be running, too. She’d be determined. She’d be running the roads of her childhood farm in Wisconsin, then of big-city Detroit. She’d be racing the halls of every art museum she’d ever loved, in sensible shoes or a wheelchair.
There would be carnival light, scarlet, orange, saffron, indigo. There would be Mediterranean light, the light of Fra Angelico, gilt and turquoise, glancing off the Arno in Florence, where we’d once stayed near the Ponte Vecchio.
There would be air roaring in my ears as I pump my legs, and the bike trail recedes beneath me. There would be a sixty-year-old rollerblader flying past, complete with black glasses, his arms beating the air like wings. There would be autumn yellows and browns and greens hurtling by, but we wouldn’t fade.
None of us would.
For more information about Fiona Tan and images from Rise and Fall: