colour, stereo, loop duration 22 min. 40 sec.
safety master, video projector, media player, amplifier, stereo speakers, dimensions variable
Depot, so named to reflect Tan’s ongoing interest in public and private collections of objects, is a film installation incorporating footage filmed in the depots of natural history museums in Leiden and Berlin. The amassing of specimens in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is the basis for most natural history museums. However, ‘natural history’ remains a curious term, an oxymoron. This term encapsulates the troubled complexities of mankind’s relationship to the natural world. Ironically, when it comes to collecting for these institutions, one must first kill and render lifeless that which one wishes to preserve. This recent commission builds upon several of Tan’s recent works that expose collections and archives, calling into question the ways in which they are used to represent and interpret history and mankind’s place in the world.
Voice-over spoken by Andrew Bennett
The work was commissioned by the BALTIC, Gateshead
He enters the storage room.
In the corner he finds a notebook. He opens it to the first page:
Sea star, sea lily, sea biscuit, sea cucumber.
Sea horse, sea lion, sea unicorn, sea cow, sea dragon.
Sea Urchin. Like blind old warriors they slowly and patiently transgress the ocean floor.
As a child he once accidentally stood on one. Just like a hedgehog’s, the spines were sharp as needles. But they were also brittle and snapped off after lodging themselves underneath the skin.
Glass. He realises that he sees the world through glass. Grimy and mottled and tinted windows. The glass of his reading glasses. The looking glass. The magnifying glass. The lense of the camera. These jars and vials.
The Ancient Greeks called the paper nautilus the sailor of the sea. The female nautilus secretes and shapes a paper thin shell – a fragile egg case in which she also resides.
The shells are fragile as glass, but he once found a whole one, perfect and glistening white, larger than his own hand.
His dreams as a child were always at sea. A nighttime journey, the moon reflecting across black ripples. He could swim through air. Underwater he could breathe.
There is something ancient and alien about horseshoe crabs.
For the Japanese they are reborn samurai warriors who sacrificed their lives in battle.
He finds himself surrounded by these sad messages in bottles, which he tries to read and interpret. Like photographs, they speak first of death and only after that, of what they once were.
He remembers the comical image of encountering his father underwater, who, being shortsighted, always wore glasses. His father had attached an old pair of thick rimmed spectacles to the inside of his snorkeling mask with a suction cup, giving him the appearance of an underwater professor.
He wonders about the function of dreams.
Does a fish or an octopus dream?
Memory and dreams are closely related. Can an octopus remember?
He turns the page and reads:
‘We do not remember, we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten.’
In the summer he loved most of all to swim in the sea – snorkeling at low tide, down by the reef at the edge of the bay. Sun on his back, shallow warm water supporting his body, the sound of his own breathing.
Once he got his legs caught up in the metres long kelp which grew like a forest beyond the edge of the reef. The waves crashed onto the sharp reef edge; he thought he would drown. Like tentacles the strands of kelp wrapped around his feet and pulled ever tighter.
For some reason this specimen reminds him of unicorns. The horn of a unicorn was worth more than gold. But such a horn was in fact the tusk of a narwhal, the unicorn of the sea. In powdered form the tusk was prized as an antidote for poison and indeed for melancholy.
In his childhood memories everything stays the same. But as a grown man, he returned after many years only to find the same reef from his childhood stripped bare and barren. Haunted and deserted like a graveyard. Sadly, he remembers the story of a Russian guide during the Second World War, who would give tours through the empty galleries of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, offering complete descriptions of paintings which were no longer there.
He reads again from the notebook. To his great surprise it is here that he finds immortality. Jellyfish have roamed the seas for at least 500 million years, but there is more than that. One species is thought to escape death. They are able to grow backwards to infancy, transforming themselves from medusa back to a polyp.
Natural history came of age in the nineteenth century – the golden era of exploration and expedition; a time when maps lost all their blank spaces. Time and space expanded. And, together with all that forward-thinking swelled the insatiable desire to amass, to collect, to catalogue and collate; to measure and to circumscribe, to describe, to own, to conquer.
‘Memories must make do with their delirium, with their drift.’
On the last page he finds a note written in haste:
It is time to abandon hope of a better past.
Long forgotten, a picture resurfaces. He remembers now the ferry crossing, sitting on deck in the wind and sun and looking out across the bay. Blowers they were called – white fountains of water shooting up across the calm waters of the bay – a regular occurence that no-one paid much attention too. Only now he realises, that this must have been whales, spouting as they came up for air.