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Island emerged from Tan’s annual excursions to Gotland, an island off the east coast of Sweden, the location of the renowned Russian film maker, Andrei Tarkovsky’s last film The Sacrifice. Filmed in black and white, Island is comprised of shots that traverse a stark landscape of trees, horizon and clouds. The slow camera work, coupled with the lack of human presence, creates a sense of unease in the viewer and evokes the feeling that time has been suspended. Voice-over narration recounts a woman’s experience and memories of an unnamed island, and allows the viewer to extrapolate meaning from the austere images presented. With Tarkovsky’s apocalyptic last film as a point of departure, Island represents for Tan an imaginary retreat in search of an appropriate individual response to threat, disruption and danger.
Voice-over spoken by Heathcote Williams
At dawn the light arrives swiftly, pulling open the day. The birds hardly sleep and fill the air with song and chatter. Midsummer in the north she imagined as long, long days of endless dusk. However the morning is doused in white light and she blinks at its brightness. Her thoughts are naked and exposed.
Land’s end. She did not come here all that long ago, but already she’s lost track of time. This island is like a boat – noiselessly she can sail through an ocean of hours, days, weeks. Gaining distance is sometimes the only way to get close to what matters.
Slowly memories surface from time spent on another island. Strolling barefoot down the beach with Zero, the dog, and showing the boys hermit crabs in rock pools. Sleeping naked under mosquito nets. Lazing on the pleasant side of boredom.
The gardener greets her (and practices his English):
“Good morning, ma’am. How are you? Are you alright?
Where are you from? Is it cold there or hot?”
As if dozing off while watching, she remembers the scenes only vaguely. It had a lost, timeless feeling. Disconsolate, desolate and weighted with unspeakable melancholy. It was a film like a dream; too heavy and slipping away, something her memory could not hold onto.
Dreams are supposed to be in black and white. Indeed hers look monochrome. Why is it, she wonders, that dreams so often have a film-like quality. Or is it the other way round?
She once heard of a theory that dreams are not dreamt, but are created upon the very instant of recall. There is some truth in this notion, she thinks: we do not remember dreams, we reconstruct them.
At first the idea of coming here alone amused her, calmed her.
She is well beyond that now. This island is like a prison. Each path, each view, each thought she knows by heart. She can walk and walk but she cannot escape.
Today she can find no peace of mind. Despair puckers at the smooth surface of her days. Feeling very small, feeling very useless. She paces in circles. She will not wait any longer. This place cannot contain her. This place cannot contain her unease. If she walks fast enough, perhaps she can overtake herself. She feels restlessness swelling up relentlessly, leaving her defenseless.
The outside world comes crashing in, sweeping through the place like a tornado. A recurrent nightmare usually called reality. For the most part suffering, death and destruction feature in tragedies too far away for her to really care about. Her tangle is not with imaginary demons but with the sort more ordinary. The big question is how to hope and what to hope for. With luck she will trip herself up and leave the trains of thought which have been trodden bare.
Now the air feels cooler and she thinks: Perhaps this place is becoming my home.
This island is like a magnifying glass: No matter how far she retreats the world at large feels tangibly close. She did not come here to get away.
When she leaves she will fold up this place and put it in her pocket for safekeeping.
Magdalena Malm: Island is a film installation where the footage is shot on the Swedish island of Gotland. The film is recorded on the same location as Andrei Tarkovsky’s last film The Sacrifice. How did the work come about?
Fiona Tan: Once a year I make a trip to Gotland to film for a long term project. This is a five year production which I am lucky to be able to do thanks to the Baltic Art Center in Visby. Last year I drove around to various places on Gotland in my spare time and found myself repeatedly going back to Narshölmen to film and photograph the natural landscape there. I didn’t know at that stage how and what this piece would develop into, but back home in my studio I could steadily write, edit and develop this work further.
MM: You describe Island as a symbolic retreat. Could you develop that?
FT: Trees, grasses, and water suggest a feeling of being away from the world. The piece is filmed in black and white with beautiful camera work. The voice-over, a text which I worked on for a long time and which forms a crucial part of the film, deals with an imaginary retreat. The way I see it Island attempts to address this idea of retreat, of withdrawal from the normal hassles and hectic of daily life and also the installation itself attempts to function as a temporary retreat, a place out of time and removed from normal everyday life. Not as a place to turn one’s back on the world but as a place to rethink one’s relation to and position within it.
MM: Film is a recurring media in your work. And in this piece the narrative from the sound is at the same time connected and disconnected from the image. What is it that interests you with the possibilities of film? And how did you think about it specifically in this work?
FT: I was interested in the function of the voice-over. How the reading of a text can charge, imbibe the images with meaning and gravity. Writing and written or spoken word has regularly played a role in my work, but recently with works like The Changeling (2006) the role of the voice-over and of the voice has been quite central to the work. I am also interested in working with the time aspect in film. I worked this piece to have a certain timelessness and to operate within a very subjective experience of time. But much of the film could almost be called anti-cinematic, it is as if the images are not moving but are still images but not actual film stills. This paradox is also something which continues to intrigue me.
MM: There is a passage in Island where the voice-over talks about sleeping naked under a mosquito net. Thinking of the climate of Gotland, again there is a gap, a feeling of being there and yet being somewhere else. I feel it is as an image of memory, a sort of double projection, where two places at a certain moment can exist simultaneously in our mind. The relationship between memory and film is also touched on in this piece itself. How do you think about this?
FT: Memory and its connection to images in our minds is something I wanted to re-examine in this work. Cinema seems to enjoy a special place in this relationship. Recently I have become increasingly aware of how incorrect memory can be. My memories, so I am learning – of films and of books – can be surprisingly inaccurate. This has led me to become interested in looking at the strange creations my memory then comes up with. Both film and memories can transport you to a different place, a different time. The experience is then like a double projection, of being in two places at once.
MM: Re-seeing The Sacrifice almost 20 years after it was made is a strong experience. It feels perhaps even more acute today. What is your relationship to Tarkovsky? In what way does Island relate to his work?
FT: I guess the fact that The Sacrifice was filmed at Narshölmen functioned like a trigger. It was the reason I initially went there, but when I got there I realised that I hardly remembered any exact scenes or story from the film. I remembered a very particular and gloomy mood and a twilight-like sort of light. When I got home I took the opportunity to review and look more carefully at all of Tarkovsky’s films. Undertaking this personal little film study was something I enjoyed doing. The Sacrifice is a wonderful film but it is also a flawed one, the scenario is unresolved in some areas and I feel it is not Tarkovsky’s best work.
When making Island I moved away from Tarkovsky and concentrated more on my own preoccupations. In terms of contents there is some connection but not very directly. The premise of Sacrifice is that due to atomic warfare the world will end in 24 hours, an apocalyptic feeling that was very prevalent when the film was made in 1984-86. At the moment the predominant feeling appears to also be that we are living in a time of crisis and of great threat even if the idea of what that threat is has shifted. I did want to react to this in Island without being overtly, blatantly political.
Island has a certain physical presence and this can help create a space for reflection.
The installation of Island, just upstairs from the busy street of Birger Jarlsgatan in the centre of Stockholm, will hopefully in itself become an island, a possibility of meeting oneself however briefly.