A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling, a two-person exhibition at the Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art by London-based Singaporean artist Erika Tan (b. 1965, Singapore) and Japanese artist Mio Shirai (b.1962, Kyoto, Japan), that marked the 150th anniversary of formal links between the two countries. 

The artists each spent the summer of 2008 in the others country of residence. The resulting commissioned film, video and photographic installations form part of The British Councils UK-Japan 2008, and the Japan-UK 150, two major festivals marking the anniversary of trade and cultural links between the two countries. The commissioned works subsequently toured to BankART 1929, NYK, Yokohama in 2009. 

A Gift to Those… takes its title from the life story of one of the earliest known explorers, Ibn Battuta. In 1325 the Moroccan Battuta began exploring the limits of the known world and spent 30 years travelling some 75,000 miles, gathering knowledge about cultures and countries other than his own. Battuta dictated the story of his travels to a fellow scholar, which took the title ‘A Gift to Those…’ and also known as simply ‘The Journey’. The two artists followed in such footsteps creating works that combine observation with speculation, whilst examining our ability to comprehend the world through travel, exploration, and cross-cultural comparison. Allusions to the historical and the symbolic recur throughout the exhibition, reflecting back or forth in time to understand the present. 

Erika Tan’s works are presented under the collective heading ‘Made in Japan’. The works explore the expectations that travellers bring; the iconic images associated with Japan; the different assumptions that Japanese culture is based upon; and the physical and psychological mechanisms that allow it to function. Her opening work, ‘The Syntactical Impossibility of Approaching with a Pure Heart’ is an array of reworked and new images of Mount Fuji – arguably the best-known pictorial symbol of Japan. The mountain has been the subject matter for Japanese landscape painters for centuries; it is also one of the most photographed sights in the country. Here, Tan creates an inventory of the different ways it has been portrayed, to ask whether we can see past others’ representations of a place. Are we always tied to seeing the world through our predecessors’ eyes, and to their prior perceptions? How far is it possible, moreover, to fully inhabit a worldview other than our own? Tan originally trained as an anthropologist, and her work asks what we can readily ‘import’ into our own experience from other cultures, what can be slowly assimilated, and what must remain alien.

The Syntactical Impossibility of Approaching with a Pure Heart is a meditation on apriori knowledge, the encounters with the unexpected and the inevitable impossibilities of reconciling representation, experience and expectation. Mount Fuji or Fuji-san comes to play a central role in this work, and the title refers in parts to the mythological tale of the fate of the faithless or unworthy pilgrims. The work consists of 13 video works, several hundred donated drawn images, compiled or composite Mount Fuji’s, and other elements such as topological type puzzles, viewing mechanisms and LED signs.

Made during the 2-month residency the work includes donated drawings, compilations, live footage and animations, 13 video works, donated drawings, digital prints, sculptural objects, wall design, LED signage. 

A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling was co-curated and produced by Keith Whittle and Alistair Robinson, in partnership with BankART 1929, in association with P3 art and environment and The Graduate School of Film and New Media, Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. Subsequent stagings of The Syntactical Impossibility of Approaching with a Pure Heart have been in Lost & Found, Osage Gallery Singapore; There is no Road, LABoral, Gihon, Spain.

The residencies and exhibitions generously supported by The Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation, The Japan Foundation, The Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation, Arts Council England and Japan 150.