"Paradise Lost": Nanyang Technological University Centre for Contemporary Art

By Sutton, Kate | Artforum International, April 2014 | Go to article overview

"Paradise Lost": Nanyang Technological University Centre for Contemporary Art


Sutton, Kate, Artforum International


"I believe it was God's will that we should come back, so that men might know the things that are in the world," Marco Polo claims in the preface to The Description of the World, a chronicle of his journey through Persia and the Caucasus to China. Whether or not the Venetian merchant ever uttered these words--or, for that matter, even ever set foot in China--can no longer be known. His tales were first transcribed in prison by Polo's cell mate, the romance writer Rustichello of Pisa. These original manuscripts would soon disappear, but tales of Polo's adventures would circulate throughout Europe in rough translations, further removing the reports from their source. In Italian, Polo's account--while wildly popular--was known as Il Mi/lone, purportedly because it consisted of a million lies. Fact or fiction, stories of his travels would inspire lurid visions of "the Orient" for centuries to come, advertising the East as the ultimate other. "Paradise Lost," curated by Ute Meta Bauer with Anca Rujoiu, channeled these visions through an elegant juxtaposition of three works by artists who have each undertaken their own travels "so that men might know."

Fiona Tan, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and Zarina Bhirnji were all born in Asia, yet raised and educated in Europe or the United States. A sense of dislocation drives their individual quests to understand the East as more than the sum of its fictions, even as their personal histories are irrevocably marked by the collective narratives of colonial history and involuntary exodus.

Tan uses The Travels of Marco Polo as the point of departure for Disorient, 2009, a two-channel HD video installation set to a reading of excerpts of the explorer's tales. Commissioned for the 2009 Venice Biennale, the video was shot on location in the Dutch Pavilion, which Tan reimagined as a kind of one-stop Oriental fetish shop, stocked with souvenir trinkets and baubles. On one screen, the camera pans slowly across this collection, while on the second, archival footage of Asia is looped, presented through the lenses of global news outlets, whose product is as much an aesthetic construction as the red-fringed lanterns and gold-plated paperweight Buddhas lining the shelves on the other screen.

Trinh's Surname Viet Given Name Nam, 1989, derives from a similar distrust in the documentary format and the supposedly unquestionable authority it presumes. …

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