Saint Sebastian is a two-channel colour video installation comprising footage of young Japanese women participating in an archery competition. The footage is shown on a white, double-sided projection screen that measures 253 x 450 cm and is hung in the middle of the gallery space. The two films are projected onto either side of the screen and play simultaneously. One video comprises close-up shots that present the archers from behind and from either side. Some of these shots show the women lining up and firing their arrows, while others zoom in to focus on details of their bodies and dress, including their ears, necks and the colourful pins and flowers that decorate their hair. In this film, the archers’ silent concentration contrasts with the sound of a crowd of spectators that is played through speakers that are placed near to the screen. The video projected onto the other side of the screen shows close-up and usually partial shots of the women’s faces as they stretch their bows, fire their arrows and prepare to shoot again. In this video the close-range filming of the women’s faces means that viewers cannot see the archers’ targets, so that it remains unclear whether or not the shots are successful. The women generally do not show strong facial expressions but they frequently look down while readying their bows, and this often gives them a melancholic appearance. This impression is accentuated by the atmospheric electronic music that plays on this side of the screen.
The Australian artist Fiona Tan shot the two films on location in Kyoto, Japan, in 2001. They were filmed during the annual Toshiya ceremony, a coming-of-age ritual that has been held in Kyoto’s Sanjûsangen-dô Buddhist temple for more than four hundred years. Every January young men and women come to Kyoto from across Japan to take part in the ceremony, one element of which is a major tournament of kyudo, which the curator Gregor Muir has described as ‘a Japanese style of archery which is not so much about hitting a target, as an exercise in fluidity and smoothness’ (Muir in Tate Modern 2004, p.44). Saint Sebastian was inspired by Tan’s first visit to Japan in 2000 when, during a trip to the Sanjûsangen-dô temple, she found a postcard showing young women practising kyudo. After intensively researching the sport, which had scarcely been documented before, Tan and a small film crew were granted permission to film at the temple during Toshiya. The artist was particularly interested in what she saw as kyudo’s strange combination of themes, ideas and roles, which include ‘traditional ritual and modern day Japanese women, religious practice and military inheritance, youth and cultural history’ (quoted in De Pont Foundation for Contemporary Art 2003, p.49).
The title of the work refers to the Christian patron saint of archers and soldiers. The martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, which involved the saint being tied to a stake and shot at with arrows, is a common subject in the history of European painting. In titling her film Saint Sebastian Tan introduces notions of cultural difference, since archery takes on very different associations in kyudo and in the Buddhist context of the Sanjûsangen-dô temple. Tan has outlined the symbolism of archery in the Buddhist faith as follows:
There is a Confucian belief that through a person’s archery their true character could be determined. The sound of the string being plucked is supposed to strike fear in evil spirits’ hearts, and the sound of a master-archer shooting is supposed to bring spiritual enlightenment.
(Quoted in De Pont Foundation for Contemporary Art 2003, p.50.)
Furthermore, Tan has explained that the practice of archery, as well as forming the subject of the film, is itself analogous to filmmaking. In 2003 she drew a comparison between the two through the importance of distance and accuracy:
The art of archery and the art of art. The target is so far away that it seems irrelevant. My tools are the camera and the editing table ... A true shot in kyudo is not just one that hits the centre of the target, but one where the arrow can be said to exist in the target before its release.
(Quoted in De Pont Foundation for Contemporary Art 2003, p.53.)
Tan was born in Indonesia, grew up in Australia and has lived in Europe since the age of eighteen. Her work engages critically with documentary cinema and photography, especially in relation to the representation of different cultures. In the years leading up to the creation of Saint Sebastian Tan made two full-length documentary films, May you live in interesting times 1997 and Kingdom of Shadows 2000 (both on general release). Like Saint Sebastian, these films document practices from various cultures and draw on the history of ethnographic and anthropological cinema.
In Saint Sebastian the lack of narration – a technique used in the documentary genre cinéma vérité to suggest that the audience is seeing an unmediated view of the subject – contrasts with the method of cutting between different, often obscured shots and the use of highly evocative music. Each of these techniques draws attention to the artist’s mediation of the women’s appearance and activities. Tan has acknowledged this mediation, stating in 2001 that ‘as an outsider to this culture my touristic gaze cannot be avoided; if anything it will become a part of the piece’ (quoted in De Pont Foundation for Contemporary Art 2003, p.51). Curator Els Hoek has argued that while Tan’s film ‘has unmasked the shameless gaze of the traveller – not to mention the rude manners of the colonialist’, the tender intimacy of the close-up shots in Saint Sebastian equally ‘proves that the mechanical eye can also be in love, be involved with the people whom it registers’ (Hoek in De Pont Foundation for Contemporary Art 2003, p.30).
Akte 1, exhibition catalogue, De Pont Foundation for Contemporary Art, Tilburg 2003, pp.29, 49–53, reproduced pp.54–61.
Time Zones: Recent Film and Video, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2004, pp.44–5, reproduced pp.101–3.
‘Fiona Tan: Artist’s Talk’, 18 November 2004, http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/video/fiona-tan-artists-talk, accessed 30 May 2014.
Supported by Christie’s.