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Tanya Syed
In viewing Tanya Syed's second film, Salamander (1994), it is hard not to think of the 19th century figure of the Flaneur, the emblematic figure of the modern metropolis, whose movement through its urban spaces has left an image of the urban scene.

Though this is a figure at first imagined in the texts of the poet Baudelaire and critic Walter Benjamin, it is one which is responsible, still, for a sense of the city as an environment: from the spaces of the 19th century's new arcades and boulevards, to new ways of looking and an expanded range of social scenes. Here, a leisured man could wander freely through the crowd, observing the public spectacle and the displays of the commercial world. Amongst the objects of his gaze were women, described not as viewers of the environment, but as images in his cultured imagination.

In Salamander there is an echo of the physical movement of this figure through the city; but Syed's 'Flaneuse' is invested with a different, more democratic, or more consciously female, gaze. Her figure explores the urban environment directly, but in doing so evokes the presence of a multitude of viewers. The gaze is partial and transitory, encompassing a complex of perspectives. The Flaneur's freedom of movement through the city continues; but there is no longer the privileging of a particular cultural viewpoint, or of the images that define and express such a vision.

But Syed's work also questions another field of images related to this earlier singular perspective: the framing of nature in 18th century 'landscape painting'. Here the 'picturesque' - the landscape framed through the artist's vision - was seen as the true image of nature, leaving all outside the frame chaotic and unformed. In the same way, the Flaneur's gaze saw women too as image: not as active viewers of the landscape but as formed in the image he the viewer gave them: both nature and woman framed as 'the seen' to the eye that conceived these scenes.

In various ways, Syed's films contest this frame around the image, in relation both to the landscape and to the figure viewed. Her films propose alternatives both to these earlier images and to the viewer's fixed perspective, evoking the complexity of the contemporary environment with the complexity and contingency of contemporary vision.

This shift is achieved through what Syed does with the body in her films, as she evokes the slippages of race and gender that inform her mixed-race background, and the cultural complexity she perceives. In her own body, as Flaneur, she evokes the presence of historically unacknowledged or made-invisible figures: a multitude of viewers; women; other-cultured, other-gendered figures. These now, through her control of the camera frame, exceed a controlling gaze. At the same time her films create a more profoundly expanded view both of the urban landscape and of nature, allowing the environment to exceed, and through diverse sensory impressions to question, the limits of this earlier framing vision.

So while it seems that Syed's concerns in her films are of a different order entirely - concerns with performance, identity, choreography and rhythm - it is the play of visual memory - the evocation of urban spaces through the movement of the figure - that creates an echo in her work, and the sense of the landscape, and of the body, as a space of negotiation.

Still from Salamander by Tanya Syed, 1994
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