Ideas of Portraiture
With her innate sense of curiosity, artist and filmmaker Fiona Tan delights in the uncharted directions in which her work takes her, and encourages a similar interactive inquisitiveness from her audiences. Having worked on a range of site-specific projects around the world, Tan has created a diverse oeuvre. She is best known for her intimate cinematic musings, from her ‘film portraits’ of living subjects, to deeply researched explorations of historical archives and narratives.
Interview by Rachael Vance
Currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Oslo, your solo exhibition Geography of Time – the first of a four-part travelling exhibition – offers museum patrons a cross-section of your practice loosely based around ideas of portraiture. Through this lens, the works selected reveal further conceptual lines in your practice: notions of the passing of time, the relationship between image and text, and the cultural construction of identity. Your exhibition includes a wide-ranging mix of older and more recent works. Did you have a lot of freedom with the selection, or was it more of a collaboration with the curator?
It was a conversation. Oslo had some wishes. They have some work of mine in their collection and definitely wanted to include them in the show. Provenance (2008), for example, is in the collection. There’s another work of mine in the exhibition, The Changeling (2006), which is part of the Kunstmuseum Bergen’s collection. Another connection to Oslo is that I have an artwork permanently installed in the parliament close to the museum called Vox Populi Norway (2004). The curator, Eva Klerck Gange, was also talking about a ‘mid-career show’, so it made sense to think about a smaller selection of works over the years without trying to make it a retrospective.
Vox Populi Norway is the very large salon-style hang of over 250 framed photographs taken from the private photo albums of Norwegian families.
In this work I was interested in creating my own archive in a way. Not a scientific archive, or an all-encompassing one, but rather, a huge ‘storage place’ of many, many images that are all special to me.
The work appears very much like a collage, and the pictures tell a story of various unknown people that offers a fascinating glimpse into life in Norway. It almost functions like a mural.
For me, it functions as a storyboard for more than one film. And my impression is that it functions for others like this too. You zoom in on one image, and then your eye travels to the image next to it, or above, or below it, and you make your own associations. It’s quite carefully structured; there are these islands of meaning and categories. The way you flow from one image to the next ends up like a narrative. Vox Populi Norway is actually the first Vox Populi piece I did. I’ve since gone on to do this project in different cities and countries. I thought it would be a nice idea to show the other Vox Populi works in the exhibition in Oslo, since quite a few people know the one in Norway.
Was it difficult to choose from your entire oeuvre?
It happened quite organically. We were centring roughly around ideas of portraiture. However, this shouldn’t be taken too strictly, or as a limitation; it indicated a loose line throughout the exhibition. I found it helpful as a formal consideration for the selection of the works, but beyond that, each work deals with other conceptual issues and other lines in my work – the work I’ve done with archives, or about photography, or about history, and other strands come through at different moments in the show.
Talking about historical archives, Nellie (2013), is a more recent work in the show that tells a historical story. This is something you often do in your work. The film is inspired by the life of Cornelia van Rijn, Rembrandt’s illegitimate daughter, who emigrated to Batavia (present-day Jakarta) at the age of fifteen. There’s little to find about her in history books. You recreated her biography by filming a similarly aged girl with porcelain skin dressed in seventeenth-century clothing inside a building decorated in exotic blue and white wallpaper that alludes to a place in the Far East. What motivated you to hone in on this story specifically?
Nellie came out of a few things. It’s related to another piece in the show, Provenance. They’re presented next to each other. Provenance is a six-part installation of filmed photography. Inspired by seventeenth-century Dutch portraits, these filmed portraits focus on contemporary residents of Amsterdam and provide intimate encounters with the subjects in their homes or places of employment. The piece also aimed to make a connection between film and painting. This was something I did for the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which is also in their collection. For Provenance I conducted some research in their depot and found myself researching lesser-known portrait paintings from the first half of the seventeenth century. I was interested in the lesser-known examples by lesser known painters, unlike the works everybody knows such as pieces by Vermeer and Rembrandt; that’s more the second half of the seventeenth century.
So you were fascinated by these less familiar discoveries in the collection?
Yes and that led me to write a lengthy text, which became a publication also called Provenance, connecting history from 400 years ago with the present day in unexpected ways. During my research I couldn’t get around Rembrandt, and I didn’t mind having to learn more about him. This is when I came across the fact that he had one daughter who survived him. That surprised me, because everybody knows about Titus, his son, but I hadn’t heard anything about his daughter and there are no known portraits of her. I became particularly intrigued by her name. Her full name was Cornelia, and she was actually his fourth daughter. He’d had three daughters before, but they all died as babies. They were all called Cornelia. Child mortality was common at that time and it was a normal thing to reuse a name or to name children after a family member who’d recently died. The thing that really got me going about her, which is the seed for Nellie, is the fact that this girl who seems to be forgotten in the history books, most likely because she was illegitimate, migrated to Indonesia when she was fifteen. That was something few people know about and I became instantly fascinated. She remained in my mind and I started thinking to myself, ‘Wow! Imagine if she could draw as well as her father. What would she have drawn?’, And I wondered, ‘What would her life in Indonesia have been like?’ A few years after completing Provenance I revisited this subject and this time in a different sort of historical setup. Nellie is filmed in a historical building in the centre of Amsterdam, with the distinct textile pattern on the walls.
I notice you even had a specific costume made for your actress in the film.
It was a very interesting process because I’ve never had a costume made before and I didn’t realise how much it entails. I worked with a fantastic dressmaker who was an expert on costumes from the seventeenth century.
That’s a whole other area unto itself.
That’s why I love my job. You end up doing crazy things and getting deep into a subject. This textile design was for me particularly poignant in this context. If you look carefully, you’ll see there are all these exotic, sometimes Asian, sometimes American, flora and fauna depicted on it, but quite incorrectly. There’s a monkey, sweet corn, birds of paradise and parrots. It’s a big mix-up. If you look closely, the monkey is portrayed with rabbit feet – I presume because the draughtsman had never seen a monkey.
It’s a real fruit salad.
Yes a potpourri, tutti frutti! That was also a reason to pretend that this room was in Indonesia. I tried to imagine what her life would be like in Batavia, in a closed-off colony. As a European woman, she wouldn’t have been allowed to go outside on her own. She probably had malaria. She died in her early twenties, giving birth to her third son. So these things informed the piece. It’s a homage to a forgotten woman.
It must have been a fantastic opportunity working in the archives at the Rijksmuseum. You’ve worked a lot with archives in the past.
I started out as a student researching into film archives. I quite often call them my film school: I learnt about film, and how I wanted to film, by looking at old film fragments. For me, it’s an endless source of inspiration, particularly because archives are always in some way incomplete, imperfect and chaotic. There’s always something incorrectly filed away or lost, or objects that escape the archival system. But it’s often those mistakes that are the most interesting, and quite often inspiring.
Your work The Changeling was derived from old photographs. This two-channel digital installation is based on a found album of old school portraits of anonymous Japanese girls extracted from a 1929 yearbook. Each girl wears the same uniform and has almost the same bob haircut. One screen shows a constant stream of almost 200 individual portraits, while the other displays a single static picture that’s accompanied by the voice of an anonymous woman reflecting on her life. This work highlights your interest in storytelling, and the pairing of word and image, and how they can fit together.
But also the fact that words will never replace an image, even though we keep on trying to do that all the time. I find that increasingly interesting and challenging, because there will always be cracks. There will always be a gap. But I think that’s actually really important – that one will never suffice for the other and never replace the other. I’m not quite sure how to talk about it, but this pairing is an attempted form of translation.
How did the development of this work occur?
The Changeling started out because I came across these very small passport photographs in a school album. What actually struck me in particular about these images wasn’t so much that you can see they’re all girls of the same age wearing the same uniform, but that they all have the same haircut. One could speculate that it was a uniform requirement, but I think it was simply the fashion at that time. There’s a photograph of my Australian (Western) grandmother from that era, also in a school uniform, with a very similar haircut. So that started me off on a roll back into my memories of being a girl and being at an all-girls school and having to wear a uniform. I actually went to my grandmother’s school. I suppose that’s quite a personal thing – a daughter’s relationship to her mother or grandmother.
I decided to use these photographs in particular and choose one per language. I wanted to experiment in terms of how I could push an image just with words, and to see what would happen if you spent just ten minutes looking at one image and listening to a text. Could I change the way you perceive the image by pushing it back and forth in various ways? I wrote the text for the work. That took ages, until I finally felt it had a shape and was right. I find writing fascinating and really rewarding, but tortuous. Then began a really interesting collaboration with various actresses in various languages. So the other part of this piece is a sort of slow morph. Each time the piece is shown in a different country, I make a new version of it. The text that you hear is a translation from the version immediately prior. When you work with actors, they quite often make very small adjustments to texts, either because they make a slip up, or they ask ‘Can I say that sentence like this because it feels better to me?’ And that’s all part of the process. So the text will change a little bit and then I get that slight change translated and through that translation it changes again. It’s now been translated into nine languages.
So it’s constantly evolving.
Yes it constantly changes ever so slightly, and I like that. I like the idea of a work not being fixed or finite, but gently travelling through time and languages.
You have two components that make up the work. How did you arrive at this installation?
For me, it’s quite simple – the juxtaposition of a multitude against a single image. In the exhibition, the work is set up so that what you first see when you go into the space is a monitor showing a different girl every four seconds, akin to a slideshow. In this way, it both references and critiques that facetious cliché ‘All Asians look alike’. Then one girl is singled out on the opposite wall. So when you turn around and sit down and you start engaging with the text you’re hearing, you can build up a relationship with the image of one girl only.
I guess I connected with this piece in a universal way, as it conjured up my own feelings and memories of growing up and being at school.
I think that’s a very common thing and for anyone remembering when they were a teenager, there will be that time when they were trying to figure out who they are. A photograph of yourself during this time, or an image that has to do with your relationship with your mother or your grandmother is often quite important.
I was fascinated to find out that your work Diptych (2006–11) was filmed over such a long period. It’s made up of four synchronised silent colour projections of vertical portraits. On the Swedish island of Gotland, you consistently shot fifteen pairs of identical twins in exactly the same camera position in the same location every year.
I wanted to engage in a longer-term piece. I used to talk about it like a garden that was left to grow. That’s what I wanted and I wasn’t sure what I was going to get, but the length of the project was an integral part of the piece – together with my fascination with twins. In this work this interest is primarily visual. This piece, for me, is accumulative. It’s a work that requires time to engage with and allow the images to flow over you. What you’re watching is time passing, or not passing, depending on how you want to look at it. What struck me, surprisingly enough, after accumulating this five years’ worth of material was how much stayed the same. Every year when I returned to the island I went to great lengths to try and film exactly the same shot again. The only thing that would be different was that the person was a year older. Quite often, you see exactly the same house or window behind them and there’s maybe a bit more paint peeling off, but otherwise everything else is fairly stable and constant. That surprised me. I was thinking it would all be about change, but actually it’s about what stays.
You’ve synchronised the projections in a specific way in the exhibition.
It’s an installation of two identical mirrored rooms, and in each room there are two screens hanging. The projections are synchronised across both rooms, so when you’re standing in the room to the right watching a girl, her sister is being projected at the same time in the left-hand room, but you can’t see them at the same time. I deliberately wanted to frustrate the viewer and not put the twins together, but leave them apart as individuals. So when you’re looking at two screens, you’re always looking at two shots of the same person. They become twins with themselves, with one, two or three years in between. So it becomes a game of looking and comparing across time with the two screens. In this way, Diptych presents a very focused type of voyeurism. I’ve done quite a few works over the years where I film people in a photographic way – where they’re not doing anything and are sometimes quite uncomfortable with the camera. It allows you to engage with someone’s appearance in a way that you don’t in real life, because you never stare into someone’s face like that.
I want to discuss your work A Lapse of Memory (2007), which was also exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2009. It ties a lot of your interests together in one film. I consider it to be a monumental work.
It certainly feels like a pivotal piece in that sense.
Here the role of memory and forgetting in the construction of cultural heritage are tackled via an ageing Anglo-Saxon male protagonist suffering from dementia. The actor’s identity is muddled, just like his orchestrated, incoherent journey through countless rooms in an oriental-inspired interior, which the viewer follows, along with the narrator. Exotic motifs set the stage for an exploration of Eastern and Western paradigms.
There was a journalist in Oslo who asked me whether it was a ‘memory palace’. With all the varied individual rooms linking to each other, they wanted to know if this place really existed. The interesting thing is, it does exist. It was filmed at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, which is this amazing 200-year-old chinoiserie building. Actually, the building was the motivation for me to make this work. From the moment of seeing it for the first time, I invented a character who was living inside the building. I realised later that he became a personification of the building, if you like. I think I said in the voiceover that he feels more real to me than the rooms that he occupies, which is an interesting reversal because I was trying to deal with it filmically. A Lapse of Memory felt like something I had to do. It was dealing with many of ideas from works that I’d done before and that I’d become known by, so somehow it was a finishing off of a line of thought.
How pivotal was the choice of actor in this piece?
It was the first time I’d ever worked with an actor in front of a camera and so casting an actor was a new thing for me. Since then, I’ve completed a feature film and I’m now more familiar with it. In the beginning, I thought, given that the character I was imagining was in many ways a vagabond, a homeless person, that maybe I should find a real person on the street. But quite soon I realised that if I did that I was going to get myself into a lot of trouble. Firstly, the people who look after the pavilion were incredibly nervous, and secondly, I was also thinking that I wouldn’t be able to control him, whereas what I needed was someone who’d listen to my directions. I did spend quite a lot of time looking for the right sort of person. Obviously, it had to be an older, male actor, someone who looked as if he’d come from a good background and fallen on hard times. I kept coming back to Johan Leysen, who’s a great Belgian actor who lives and works in France. He was a joy to work with and a lovely person.
You’ve often used the human voice as a commentary for your works. How powerful is the human voice in commanding a range of emotions?
For me, there’s always a difference between whether a text is written or heard. On a phenomenological level, just as we as human beings respond first and foremost to the human face, we respond in a similar way to the human voice. Obviously, not all my works have sound or a voiceover, but I do like voiceover and it’s something I continually find myself coming back to in order to explore its possibilities. In the film world, it’s something you only do if you have a problem that needs fixing. It’s like a bandaid or a solution. But I find myself really drawn to films where the voiceover has been used in interesting ways. The word ‘voiceover’ is maybe not a good word – it should be ‘voice-under’, because voiceover implies this idea that there’s this voice speaking to you from above who knows everything, like God. That’s the problem with commentary. Whereas what I always try to do with the texts I write, and the way I use spoken text, is to try to point at and suggest ideas, feelings and thoughts but not name them, in this way offering parallel images and narratives. I try to leave gaps and open things up in between words and in the space between word and image.
So not as an accompaniment per se, but attempting to place the spoken word on a more equal level?
For me, I think about it more like two autonomous things that run in parallel or in sync with each other, but don’t cancel each other out.
You mentioned the film world just now. I wonder how you posit yourself – as a filmmaker or an artist, or both?
I’m about to enter into a new chapter because I’ve just completed a feature-length film for cinema that’s coming out early next year called History’s Future. So maybe you should ask me next year where I see myself! Right now, I see myself as an artist who works with film and photography. For me, the feature film is a site-specific project, in that I’m making it specifically for the situation of cinema. By that I mean the whole ritual and situation of buying a ticket at a certain time, going into a dark space and sitting in comfortable seats where you expect to have something put in front of you on a large screen projector for ninety minutes. That’s a different situation from the spatial, sculptural installations that I usually make for exhibitions.
Geography of Time is at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Oslo, until 31 January 2016. It will then travel to Mudam, Luxembourg, MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt am Main, and Tel Aviv Museum of Art.