Personal narratives and collective memories interweave in Fiona Tan’s mesmerising visual journeys.
In her major exhibitions in the United Kingdom and Norway, Fiona Tan explores natural history and the history of whaling, man’s fascination with spectacle, his obsession with collecting and the very nature of memory and identity.
Underwater creatures preserved in jars, legendary giant whales, museum collections of antiquities and curiosities, and photo albums of ordinary people from Tokyo, Sydney and London are only a few of the subjects occurring in Fiona Tan’s oeuvre.
Her curiosity for the diverse perspectives of the world, and its different memories and recorded histories is a reflection of her own mixed origins. Tan was born in Pekan Baru, Indonesia, in 1966, from a Chinese father and an Australian mother. After a short spell in Indonesia, the family moved to Australia, where Tan spent all her youth, before settling in her now permanent home, Amsterdam.
The photographer, video artist and filmmaker’s work is now being exhibited in “Depot” at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, UK, until 1 November 2015, as well as in the travelling exhibition “Fiona Tan. Geography of Time” at Nasjonalmuseet (The National Museum) in Oslo, Norway, until 31 January 2016, after which it will move to Mudam Luxembourg, MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main and Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
Tan works within “the contested territory of representation”, as Frith Street Gallery writes in her profile, which is “how we represent ourselves and the mechanisms that determine how we interpret the representation of others”. Working with photography and moving image, whether made by herself or by others or a combination of both, Tan bases her practice on a thorough research process, as well as the use of the archive and other methods of classification.
Tan explores history and time and our place within them. She skillfully weaves stories that waver between wondrous imagined myth and historical reality. In an interview with Art It Asia, Tan talks about her practice and where she situates herself:
I sometimes feel I’m stuck in a similar pigeonhole of post-colonial, multicultural identity. I can’t deny it. I did make that sort of work and sometimes still do. It’s part of me, coming from my autobiographical background, and every now and then I do rethink the relations between East and West, but it’s too limiting to only think or talk about my work on that basis. I’ve been pushing quite hard to say, Yes, that’s there, but I’m also thinking about time, about archives, history [and] many other things.
Depot: memories of a giant whale
The ocean and its creatures have more than once appeared in Tan’s work. Spending a long time in Australia, near the sea, and being introduced to the richness of marine life by her scientist parents, Tan developed an initial desire to become a marine biologist. That ambition has transformed into an artist’s search for the secrets of the underwater world and our perception of it.
The Baltic’s former grain silos gallery hosts Tan’s latest commission for the museum, Depot, the central piece of the exhibition, which draws from Newcastle’s history as a major whaling port between 1752 and 1849. The work takes inspiration from the tales of a blue whale sighted off the Belgian coast in 1827, whose preserved skeleton reached London in 1831, and by the more recent and well-known story of Jonah the Giant Whale that toured Europe in the 1950s.
The giant, 76-foot-long lorry in the gallery is a modern day reproduction of the truck that travelled England transporting the preserved 70-foot carcass of Jonah, one of the three whales – along with Hercules and Goliath – that were captured and killed in Trondheim, Norway, in 1952, and then toured around Europe along different routes.
The lorry, on which reads in giant characters “THE GIANT WHALE “JONAH”” and “CAUTION 76 FEET LONG JONAH the WHALE”, does not contain a giant whale, as Tan explains to The Guardian:
I want to hunt the whale in a different way, so that I don’t catch it. I always want it to escape.
Like a cabinet of curiosities, the lorry instead plays host to Tan’s installation recalling a museum gallery, with a narwhal tusk and 19th century glass replicas of sea creatures made by Leopold & Rudolf Blaschka for natural history museums all enclosed in glass display cases. At the back of the truck is a video in which a man’s monologue about his lifelong passion for the sea and its creatures accompanies images of the latter suspended in formaldehyde in specimen jars placed in natural history museums, including one in Berlin and the Rijksmuseum of Natural History in Leiden, the Netherlands.
In the voice-over to Depot, Tan’s character says about natural history, man’s relationship to the natural world and the obsession for collecting:
Natural history came of age in the nineteenth century – the golden era of exploration and expedition; a time when maps lost all their blank spaces. Time and space expanded. And together with all that forward-thinking swelled the insatiable desire to amass, to collect, to catalogue and collate; to measure and to circumscribe, to describe, to own, to conquer.
In the same gallery, Leviathan (2015), a new monumental video projection, is timed to coincide with the turn of the tide of the River Tyne, and is taken from archival film footage of whales being skinned. Tan’s dystopian re-interpretation of the Jonah’s tale reflects on how our perception of whales has changed throughout history. Tan tells The Guardian that “When Melville was writing Moby Dick, whales were still monsters. They were the leviathan – a dark, unknown, devilish power.”
In the accompanying exhibition catalogue, Tan writes about the Leviathan:
For me, the word Leviathan illustrates the paradigm shift in our perception both of nature and of humanity. Whereas the whale was once synonymous with the Leviathan, it is now seen as innocent, gentle, intelligent and above all, as an endangered and threatened creature.
The Baltic exhibition also features two of Tan’s older works that explore the notion of collections, and express the artist’s preoccupation with time, memory, place and globalism.
Inventory (2012) was filmed in Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, and is an intimate exploration of the celebrated architect’s personal neoclassical collection and its unique public museum. The contents of the collection appear on multiple screens; artefacts like marble busts, funeral monuments and death masks are all filmed in different formats, including Super 8, 16mm and 35mm film, analogue, digital and high-definition video.
The diverse visualisations of these monuments and ruins of the past alter their appearance. In the interview with Art It Asia, Tan explained about the work:
[…] in his collection Soane displayed originals next to poor plaster casts, which are essentially duplicates or copies, anticipating the digital copies of today. I filmed the collection using six different media, which are presented all at the same time. […] the piece is a reflection on the limitations and the possibilities of the medium itself, but beyond that it’s also an in-depth reflection on questions of what is a museum, where does a museum come from, and why do people collect?
Disorient (2009) was first presented in the Dutch Pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009. Two films screened on opposite walls on a continuous loop blur the boundaries between reality and fantasy in the history of the trade route between Venice and Asia. The voice-over, composed of quotes from Marco Polo’s 700-year-old account The Travels describing the wonders seen along the Silk Route, contrasts with the images of contemporary Asia in an anachronistic depiction of a legendary journey. On the other screen run images of an Orientalist museum collection.
In an interview with re-title, Tan explains how this work continued on her exploration of ideas surrounding “the tenuous relationship between sight, memory and knowledge, the unreliability of visual memories”. She goes on to say:
I am still exploring these ideas in this new work, as I continue to experiment and develop a filmic language that could perhaps be described as simultaneously constructing and deconstructing […]. I am interested in the juxtaposition of word and image, in conflicting and contradictory relationships between the two and between fact and fiction, in the displacement of text and image. I am also interested in the slipperiness of truth or truths and the many versions of Marco’s account. I have always tried to imagine what the world would look like without this dominating paradigm of East and West (which all too often implies East versus West), without the traditional dichotomies of dialectical thought.
Memory and identity explored
Oslo’s Nasjonalmuseet features a collection of Tan’s works that explore notions of memory and identity and their transformation across time and space, including among them The Changeling (2006), Diptych (2006–11) and Provenance (2010). Many of Tan’s works explore the movement between East and West through duplicitous and hybrid identities, imagined and real – as if reconnecting with her own origins, belonging to both worlds and none at the same time.
The most recent work on show is Nellie (2013), which focuses on Corneila van Rijn, Rembrandt’s illegitimate daughter and presents an intimate portrait of her lonely and secluded young life. Her story links to Tan’s own: while Tan’s life brought her from Indonesia to Amsterdam, at age 16 Corneila emigrated from Amsterdam to Batavia (present-day Jakarta).
From the series of photographic installations Vox Populi, the London (2012), Tokyo (2007) and Sydney (2006) versions are on show at the museum, while Vox Populi Norway (2004) is exhibited at the Storting, the Norwegian parliament. For the series, Tan collected hundreds of photos from private archives and family albums, mostly portraying people. Each city segment presents a wide cross-section of life, ranging from mundane, to celebratory and everyday, ordinary images, which anyone can identify with, albeit in different ways due to diverse traditions, customs, collective memories and imaginary.
A Lapse of Memory (2007) is Tan’s first attempt to direct a live performer in her work. Tan portrays an old, confused Caucasian man whose identity hovers between the West as Henry and the East as Eng Lee, as the voice over reveals. The film is set in the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, built for King George IV at the turn of the 19th century, which extravagantly manifests the West’s fascination with the East. The man, who suffers from senile dementia, lives his daily life in the halls of the Pavilion, in an exploration of “cultural hybridity and postcolonial identity” that was a typical characteristic of Tan’s earlier work.
The film also incorporates a strong element of nostalgia for something that vaguely escapes the mind – leaving one longing for something between reality and dream. Tan tells re-title:
A Lapse of Memory was born out of a chance encounter with a highly unusual building – the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. As one of the finest examples of eastern-style architecture in the West, this building and its interior are a wonderful homage to fantasy. It was an unexpected feeling – I felt that I just had to do something with that place. My own hybrid background straddling East and West and my personal questions relating to ‘Chineseness’ were for me personally linked to that building. […] It was only after I completed the piece that I could see that in some ways the character I created to inhabit this empty building was not only a certain personification of the building itself, but also had links with me personally.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
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