2 channel HD installation
2 HD projectors, 2 media players, 2 surround amplifiers,
8 surround speakers, 2 white projection screens min. 320 x 222 cm and 480 x 333 cm
Disorient was conceived specially for the presentation in the Dutch Pavilion and points to the strategic geopolitical position held by Venice in the distant past. The starting point for this work is the book, The Travels, recalled 700 years ago by the Venetian merchant Marco Polo. Filmed on location in the Dutch pavilion itself, the voice-over for this encompassing installation is comprised solely of quotes taken from Marco Polo’s book. Disorient builds a bridge across centuries and raises critical questions about contemporary globalism and its origins.
Fiona Tan has involved herself with Venice before – albeit indirectly – by referring in Facing Forward (1999) to Italo Calvino’s texts that imagine Marco Polo’s conversations with Kublai Kahn. Disorient juxtaposes time and place, fiction and reality. Tan writes: ‘The young Marco intrigues but also irritates me. He embodies in several ways the ideal traveller – neither colonialist, warrior nor politician, he has no goal, no final destination. I am straining to see and imagine the future beyond the restrictive dichotomy of East and West. And thus a lost and much altered historical document is my contemporary companion. Venice is – literally and figuratively speaking – my point of departure and return, and this merchant of Venice is my unlikely guide.’
Screen 1 was filmed on location in the Dutch Pavilion, Venice
Let me begin with Armenia. It is a land of many villages and towns, amply stocked with the means of life. It also affords good sport with all sorts of wild game, both beast and fowl. The climate however is far from healthy; it is, in fact, extremely enervating.
The Georgians are a handsome race of doughty warriors. They are Christians and observe the rule of the Greek church. Near the Georgian border there is a spring from which gushes a stream of oil, in such abundance that a hundred ships may load there at once. This oil is not good to eat; but it is good for burning and as a salve for men and camels affected with itch or scab.
The country looks out over two seas. In this province is a fine city of great size named Tiflis. Silk and many other fabrics are woven here. Let us now turn to the lands lying south and east of it. In the mountains of this kingdom live the people called Kurds; some of them are Christians, others are Saracens who worship Mahomet. They are lusty fighters and lawless men, very fond of robbing merchants.
When my father and my uncle had crossed this desert, they came to a large and splendid city called Bukhara. The province also was called Bukhara, and its ruler’s name was Barak. It was the finest city in all of Persia.
It is in Baghdad that most of the pearls are pierced that are imported from India. Here too are woven many fabrics, very richly decorated with beasts and birds. It is a great centre for the study of the law of Mahomet and of necromancy, natural science, astronomy, geomancy, and physiognomy. It is the largest and most splendid city in all these parts.
After two days’ ride the traveller reaches the Ocean. Here on the coast stands a city called Hormuz, which has an excellent harbor. It is a great centre of commerce. Its king is named Ruemedan Ahmad. The climate is torrid, owing to the heat of the sun, and unhealthy. If a merchant dies here, the king confiscates all his possessions.
Kuh-banan is a large city. Its inhabitants worship Mahomet. There is iron and steel and ondanique in plenty, and they make large steel mirrors of excellent quality.
Balkh is a splendid city of great size. It used to be much greater and more splendid; but the Tartars and other invaders have sacked and ravaged it.
Leaving this city, the traveller proceeds for three days towards the east-northeast, finding fine country all the way, thickly peopled and rich in fruits, grain, and vines. The inhabitants are an ill-conditioned and murderous folk.
Badakhshan is a country whose inhabitants worship Mahomet and have a language of their own. The people here are good archers and keen huntsmen and most of them wear costumes of skin, because they are very short of cloth. Ten days’ journey south of Badakhshan is a country called Pashai. The inhabitants, who have brown skins and speak a language of their own, are idolaters. The climate is very hot. The stock diet is flesh and rice.
The people of Kashmir are also idolaters, speaking a language of their own. Their knowledge of devilish enchantments is something marvelous. They make their idols speak. They change the weather by enchantment and bring on thick darkness.
When the traveller leaves this place, he goes three days’ journey towards the northeast, through mountains all the time, climbing so high that this is said to be the highest place in the world. This country is called Belor. The inhabitants live very high up in the mountains. They are idolaters and utter savages, living entirely by the chase and dressed in the skin of beasts. They are out and out bad.
Khotan is a province eight days’ journey in extent, which is subject to the Great Khan. The inhabitants all worship Mahomet. It is amply stocked with the means of life. Cotton grows here in plenty. It has vineyards, estates, and orchards in plenty. The people live by trade and industry; they are not at all warlike.
I will tell you next of another province of Turkestan, lying east-northeast, which is called Charchan. There are rivers producing jasper and chalcedony, which is exported for sale in Cathay and bring in a good profit; for they are plentiful and of good quality.
When the traveller has ridden for these thirty days of which I have spoken across the desert, he reaches a city called Sa-chau, lying towards the east-northeast, which is subject to the Great Khan. They do not live by trade, but on the profit of the grain, which they harvest from the soil.
The province lies between two deserts. The inhabitants are all idolaters and speak a language of their own. They are a very gay folk, who give no thought to anything but making music, singing and dancing, and reading and writing according to their own usage, and taking great delight in the pleasures of the body.
Along this road lies a city called Sinju. There are many wild cattle here, as big as elephants and very handsome in appearance. This country produces the best and finest musk in the world.
If we leave this province and city and go on our way for three days, we shall find a city called Chagan-nor where there is a large palace belonging to the Great Khan. He enjoys staying in this palace because there are lakes and rivers here in plenty, well stocked with swans.
As I have already said, the people of Cathay are all idolaters. Every man has in his house an image hanging on his chamber wall which represents the High God of Heaven. They surpass other nations in the excellence of their manners and their knowledge of many subjects, since they devote much time to their study and to the acquisition of knowledge. But they have no regard for the welfare of their souls, caring only for the nurture of their bodies and for their own happiness.
The neighborhood produces silk in plenty, besides ginger, galingale, spikenard, and many other spices that never find their way to our part of the world. After leaving Ho-ching-fu the traveller rides westward for eight days, through a country full of towns and thriving commercial and industrial cities and fruitful gardens and fields. I must add that it is also full of mulberry trees, whose leaves are the food of the silkworms.
On leaving Ch’eng-tu-fu the traveller rides for five days through plain and valley, passing villages and hamlets in plenty. The people here live on the yield of the earth. The country is infested with lions, bears, and other wild beasts. There is some local industry, in the weaving of fie sendal and other fabrics.
The province of Tibet is terribly devastated, for it was ravaged in a campaign by Mongu Khan. There are many towns and villages and hamlets lying ruined and desolate.
The natives are idolaters and out-and-out bad. They deem it no sin to rob and maltreat, and are the greatest rogues and the greatest robbers in the world. The natives have no coinage and do not use Khan’s paper currency; but for money they use salt. There is also great abundance of cinnamon. In this province coral fetches a high price, for it is hung round the necks of women and idols with great joy.
There are vast numbers here of the beasts that produce musk, and hunters catch them and take great quantities. There are plenty of good fish, which are caught in the same lake that produces the pearls. The province is also a great source of cloves.
After leaving the river, the traveller continues westwards for five days, through a country with numerous cities and towns which breeds excellent horses. They speak a language of their own, which is very difficult to understand. The natives eat rice, and also make it into a drink with spices, which is very fine and clear and makes a man drunk like wine.
In this province gold dust is found in the rivers, and gold in bigger nuggets in the lakes and mountains. Here too the cowries of which I have spoken are used for money. In this province live huge snakes and serpents of such a size that no one could help being amazed even to hear them. They are loathsome creatures to behold.
All the natives, women as well as men, especially those who are bent on evil courses, carry poison about with them. The natives here eat all sorts of meat, both cooked and raw.
Let us now pass on to talk of another province, whose name is Bengal. This also lies towards the south on the confines of India. The people live on meat, milk and rice. They have cotton in plenty. They are great traders, exporting spikenard, galingale, ginger, sugar, and many other precious spices.
For three days’ journey from Changan the traveller passes through a fine country full of thriving towns and villages, living by commerce and industry. Then he reaches the finest and most splendid city of Kinsai, whose name means ‘City of Heaven’. On one side is a lake of fresh water, very clear. On the other is a huge river, which entering by many channels, diffused throughout the city, carries away all its filth and then flows into the lake, from which it flows out towards the ocean.
The natives of Kinsai are men of peace, through being so cosseted and pampered by their kings, who were of the same temper. They have no skill in the handling of arms and do not keep any in their houses. The people of Kinsai are idolaters, subject to the Great Kahn and using paper money. Men as well as women are fair skinned and good-looking. Most of them wear silk all the time since it is produced in great abundance in all the surrounding territory. They eat all sorts of flesh, including that of dogs and other brute beasts and animals of every kind which Christians would not touch for anything in the world.
There is an abundance of game here, both beast and bird, besides lions of great size and ferocity. The women here are very good looking.
Towards the end of the three days, with fifteen miles still to go, the traveller reaches a city called Unken, in which is produced a vast quantity of sugar.
Let me tell you further that in this province of Zaiton, in a city called Tinju, they make bowls of porcelain, large and small, of incomparable beauty. They are made nowhere else except in this city, and from here they are exported all over the world.
I will tell you of many islands that lie towards the east in this Ocean at which we have now arrived. We shall begin with an island that is called Japan. Japan is an island far out at sea to the eastward, some 1,500 miles from the mainland. It is a very big island. The people are fair complexioned, good-looking, and well mannered. They have gold in great abundance, because it is found there in measureless quantities. They have pearls in abundance, red in colour, very beautiful, large and round. They are worth as much as the white ones, and indeed more.
From Chamba a traveler who sails south-south-east for 1,500 miles comes to a very large island called Java. According to the testimony of good seamen who know it well, this is the biggest island in the world. The people are idolaters ruled by a powerful monarch and paying no tribute to anyone on earth. It is a very rich island, producing pepper, nutmegs, spikenard, galingale, cubebs, and cloves, and all the precious spices that can be found in the world. It is visited by great numbers of ships and merchants who buy a great range of merchandise, reaping handsome profits and rich returns. The quantity of treasure in the island is beyond all computation.
After sailing southwards for 500 miles, the traveller reaches the island of Bintan, which is a very savage place. The forests are all of sweet-smelling wood of great utility.
And now I will begin with the kingdom of Ferlec. The people of the mountains live like beasts. For I assure you that they eat human flesh and every other sort of flesh, clean or unclean.
On leaving Ferlec the traveller enters Basman, which is a separate kingdom with a language of its own. The people of Basman are without a law, except such as prevails among brute beasts. They have wild elephants and plenty of unicorns, which are scarcely smaller than elephants. They have the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant’s. They have a single large, black horn in the middle of the forehead.
The next kingdom, situated in the same island, is called Sumatra. In this kingdom I myself, Marco Polo, spent five months, waiting for weather that would permit us to continue our voyage. Here again the Pole Star is never visible nor yet the stars of the Plough, either much or little. The people are idolaters and savages. They have a wealthy and powerful king and also profess allegiance to the Great Khan. The fish here are the best in the world.
Andaman is a very big island. The people have no king. They are idolaters and live like wild beasts. You may take it for a fact that all the men of this island have heads like dogs and teeth and eyes like dogs; for I assure you that the whole aspect of their faces is that of big mastiffs. They have an abundance of spices of every kind. They also have coconuts, apples of paradise, and many other fruit different from ours.
On leaving the island of Andaman and sailing for 1,000 miles a little south of west, the traveller reaches Ceylon, which is undoubtedly the finest island of its size in all the world. The people are idolaters. They have no grain other than rice. They have sesame, from which they make oil. The island also produces sapphires, topazes, amethysts, garnets, and many other precious stones.
When the traveller leaves Ceylon and sails westwards for about sixty miles, he arrives in the great province of Maabar, which is called Greater India. I must tell you that in all this province of Maabar there is no master tailor or dressmaker to cut or stitch cloth, because the people go stark naked all the year round. And you must know that that in eating they use only the right hand; they would never touch food with their left.
You must know that this country produces Quilon brazil which is very good. Also pepper in great abundance in all the fields and woods. There is also plenty of good indigo, which is produced from a herb.
We shall go on to speak of Gujarat. The manufactures of this kingdom include great quantities of leather goods, that is, the tanned hides of goats and buffalo, wild ox and unicorn and many other beasts. As there is nothing else worth mentioning in the island, we shall pass on to Madagascar.
Madagascar is an island lying about 1,000 miles south of Socotra. You must know that this island is one of the biggest and best in the whole world. And I assure you that not so many elephant tusks are sold in all the rest of the world put together as in this island and that of Zanzibar. They have plenty of ambergris, because whales abound in these seas, and also cachalots.
Let us go on now to tell of a large city which forms part of the province of Aden but has a petty ruler of its own. This province produces great quantities of excellent white incense, and also dates in great abundance.
We shall go on to speak of Dhofar. Dhofar is a fine city of great size and splendour lying about 500 miles north-west of Shihr. Many good Arab steeds, and horses from other lands as well, are brought here, and the merchants make a handsome profit on them.
Abridged excerpts from Marco Polo’s The Travels, spoken by Michael Maloney
Cast & Crew
Cast – Marco Polo
Voice-over spoken by
excerpts from Marco Polo’s ‘The Travels’, 1298/9
Concept and Direction
Director of Photography
Vincent de Pater
Mario Steenbergen, Fiona Tan
Steven van Beek
Oscar van Rijn
Art Direction Administration
Camilla Robinson, Nina Yuen
Gerard Nijssen, Marty de Jong, Fiona Tan
AP, Nova, NOS Journaal, VPRO, IKON, RVU, Beeld en Geluid, Hilversum, Nederlands Filmmuseum/Eye Film Instituut Nederland
Floor Onrust, Sanna Fabery deJonge,
Family Affair Films
Production Assistant, Venice
Camera Rentals, Amsterdam
Rental & More, Venice
With thanks to
Rob Birza, Marente Bloemheuvel, Saskia Bos, Danniel Danniel, Dag Erik Elgin, Goert Giltay, Joost de Haas, Kees Hin, Marita Jonsson, Johan Pousette, Ine Legerstee and Rob Docter (Stichting Rietveld Paviljoen), Joep Munstermann and Robert Clarijs (Anything is possible), Ronny Temme (Nederlands Filmmuseum), Tom Kleijn (Nova), Wouter Zwart (Nos Journaal)
Commissioned by the Mondriaan Foundation for the Dutch Pavilion, 53rd Venice Biennale
Funded by the Mondriaan Foundation and Frith Street Gallery, London
© Fiona Tan, 2009