Not all of Tan's recent work may be characterized as portraiture. Island (2008) is a 12-minute black-and-white video that surveys the distinctive terrain of Gotland, an island off the eastern coast of Sweden. Projected...展开on a large wall in Vancouver, Island uses prolonged static shots to immerse the viewer in an austere landscape. Utterly flat windswept meadows extend to low horizons, or sometimes meet a silvery band of sea. Bent and gnarled pine trees grow in stark isolation. In some shots a distant lighthouse is visible, but no people are ever seen. Meanwhile, a man's voice describes a female visitor to the island, someone who "did not come here all that long ago, but already has lost track of time." The serenity of Island is disrupted after eight minutes, when the camera suddenly begins to move. As it rushes across a grassy field, aimlessly swerving this way and that, a subjective experience of the landscape emerges, one seemingly fueled by restless anxiety. The narrator confirms as much, describing a despair that afflicts the woman: "This place cannot contain her unease. If she walks fast enough, perhaps she can overtake herself."
Among the works shown in Vancouver, Island may seem anomalous. Its exploration of a barren landscape clearly departs from Tan's typical focus on the real or imagined behaviors of specific individuals. Nearly all of Tan's films and video installations concern a search for identity. Her characters are often engaged in such a quest, and her strategic deployment of still and moving images tends to elicit a similar investigation from her viewers, who are generally inclined to concede that identity often eludes representation. Surely the crisis that lies at the heart of Island speaks to this theme, with its unseen protagonist who becomes profoundly uncomfortable in her circumscribed environment and seeks an escape from its limitations. And although they may engender anguish and confusion, such crises are embraced in much of Tan's work as positive symptoms of a mutable self engaged in continual evolution and adaptation. Indeed, in the closing minutes of Island, the camera stops moving and a measured assessment of the landscape returns. Amid this calm, the narrator describes a change in the woman. "Now the air feels cooler," he states. "She thinks that perhaps this place is becoming her home."