Themes of identity and memory are central to the works of visual artist Fiona Tan

Amsterdam-based Fiona Tan’s first retrospective, With the other hand, at the Museum der Moderne Salzburg and Kunsthalle Krems, spans her output across the past 20 years.

by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : Jun 20, 2021

When an artist declares, “I write a lot of notes”, it obliquely hints at the labyrinth of the networks that her work is defined with. Watching the works – photography, film and video art installations - of the Amsterdam-based visual artist and filmmaker, Fiona Tan, indeed demands a moment to pause to unravel the pattern of light and shadow and walk through the history and memory that inform her practice. So, when Tan gave a peek into a personal exercise of ‘making notes’ as one of the means to develop an artistic project to Eva Sangiorgi in a conversation called Among Fiction and Reality, the certainty of mapping the journey through space and time of the work seems inescapable. Encapsulating the same is Tan’s first mid-career retrospective entitled, With the other hand. The exhibition spanning her output across the past 20 years, was divided into two virtually concurrent exhibitions at the two institutions: Museum der Moderne Salzburg and Kunsthalle Krems.

Still from News from the Near Future | Fiona Tan| STIRworld
A still from News from the Near Future Image: Courtesy of Fiona Tan, Frith Street Gallery, London, Peter Freeman Inc., New York, Wako Works of Art, Tokyo

The title of the exhibition is a reference to the entry in Franz Kafka’s diary, which exemplifies the perceptive outsider who cannot bear the journey called life, but turns to be an ardent chronicler of his time. Tan further adds in the conversation with Sangiorgi, which is published along with essays by Ruth Horak, Thorsten Sadowsky, Nina Schedlmayer in the exhibition catalogue, “It reminds me of the English expression ‘but on the other hand’. As I am working in two venues and in two cities at once, it’s like pointing to two realities or different points of view at the same time”. According to the curators of the exhibition at the Museum der Moderne, Thorsten Sadowsky and Marijana Schneider, the presentation, “offers a comprehensive insight into central themes and concepts that anchor Fiona Tan’s thinking and art: alterity and identity, remembering and forgetting, the aesthetics of travel, the relationship between humanity and nature, documentation and fiction, and the interactions between photographic and film images”.

Disorient| Fiona Tan| STIRworld
Disorient by Fiona Tan Image: Courtesy of Fiona Tan, Frith Street Gallery, London, Peter Freeman Inc., New York, Wako Works of Art, Tokyo

Tan was born in Indonesia to Sino-Australian parents, grew up in Australia and now lives in the Netherlands. The diversity spanned across continents compounded with rich memories and her interests in literature and history add to the visual language of the works. Tan deals with the subject of orient and occident in the installation Disorient, which first premiered in the Dutch Pavilion at the 2009 Venice Biennale. A critique of the European perspective on cultures from the other part of the globe engages with the series of archival footages. The sound is integral to the video that “opens the images up” to borrow the artist's words. For Tan sound is an “underestimated and underappreciated aspect of working with audiovisual means”. 

Ascent | Fiona Tan| STIRworld
Ascent by Fiona Tan Image: Courtesy of Fiona Tan, Frith Street Gallery, London, Peter Freeman Inc., New York, Wako Works of Art, Tokyo

The images in the exhibition News from the Near Future, Brendan’s Isle, Leviathan, and Depot highlight the iconography of the sea and mountains synonymous with Tan’s oeuvre. But it is the ambitious project Ascent about Mount Fuji, first showcased at a solo exhibition in a museum in Japan, the Izu Photo Museum, that resonates with the viewers for the longest time. A selection of the work from this series is displayed at the Museum der Moderne. 

For her show at Izu Photo Museum, the artist was keen to work with photographs of Mount Fuji by the amateur photographers from Japan. Like every nation has a famous landmark that speaks of identity and culture, Mount Fuji is close to the people of Japan. From a collection of close to 4000 images of Mount Fuji, shared by the public on a website launched for the project, Tan meticulously selected and organised images into categories of clouds, mountains, flowers, et al. "I was really starting to understand what the mountain means for me, for people, what our relationship is to landscape, to mountains, to nature”. The result was a video projection made out of still and moving images to interweave narrative that complicates the distinction between photography and film. Tan describes the story of the Ascent as a, “resounding (one) with the climb to the top of the mountain, alternates between narration and history, from western imperialism to modern tourism, from the early days of photography to the present day”.

From the series Ascent | Fiona Tan| STIRworld
From the series Ascent Image: Courtesy of Fiona Tan, Frith Street Gallery, London, Peter Freeman Inc., New York, Wako Works of Art, Tokyo

For the film Gray Glass, commissioned for the exhibition at the Museum der Moderne Salzburg, Tan shot material in the Alps around Salzburg - on the glaciers at Hoher Sonnblick and in the Eisriesenwelt cave system in Werfen. The movement of Romanticism that shaped the western idea of landscape and nature inspires the series. Named after the English poet, Thomas Gray, the artist of this period used a ‘Gray Glass’, a pocket-size black mirror. The dark surface of the mirror could minimise the colour range in order to render the landscape as an image easier. The black-and-white footage by Tan captures the dense pattern of mountains and snowladen land to create the mirror-effect that blurs the lines of difference between fiction and reality.  

Leviathan | Fiona Tan| STIRworld
Leviathan Image: Courtesy of Fiona Tan, Frith Street Gallery, London, Peter Freeman Inc., New York, Wako Works of Art, Tokyo

The visual imagery of both still and moving images for Tan is not meant to usurp the reality, but it translates to be the beginning of a relationship based on egalitarianism between the artist and her viewers. It is this exercise of turning the points of separators obsolete that set the works by Tan into motion – exude intuitive empathy – for the viewers. 

Gray Glass| Fiona Tan| STIRworld
Gray Glass Image: Courtesy of Fiona Tan, Frith Street Gallery, London, Peter Freeman Inc., New York, Wako Works of Art, Tokyo

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