Untold Stories
Fiona Tan’s search for traces

She uncovers things that others overlook: Fiona Tan combs through pictures and biographies that give us a different way of looking at history and identity. The MMK in Frankfurt is devoting a large survey show to her work. Sarah Khan visited the artist in her Amsterdam studio.
At first, Fiona Tan looks irritated by the fact that the visitor has just walked into her Amsterdam studio without ringing the doorbell. But then she makes us a cup of Lady Grey tea. That helps, as it is pouring outside. Compared to the size of her works, Tan’s studio, located in the rear courtyard of a craftsmen’s building, seems small. It is the opposite of an art factory. Our discussion begins in the tight space between the kitchen counter and a work table. Over the years, Tan, born in 1966, has managed to create an entirely new genre with her photos and films, or as film scholar Thomas Elsaesser labels the work, “filmed photography.” The work operates on the border between documentation and fiction, collective memory and individual biography. She began investigating the construction of postcolonial and global identities back in the 1990s, working with archive material reassembled with found photos.

Initially, that archive material consisted mainly of historical films by European ethnographers documenting “exotic” non-Western cultures. Yet Tan quickly expanded her means in order to represent people, cultures, and the passage of time in a new light. Such as in her series Vox Populi, which she began in 2004, and which is also represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection. In the work, she portrays the populations of entire cities from various continents. For the project, she sifts through untold numbers of family photo albums from Japanese, Swiss, Norwegians, and Australians, eventually extracting typical memories, poses, and everyday scenes. She then arranges a broad selection of individual photos on the wall. Tan’s works always reflect the cultural conventions and distinctions that people use when talking about themselves and reminiscing, yet the works do so in a way that is sensitive and charming rather than didactic.

In 2009, she was selected to install her work in the Dutch Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Her video installation Disorient, which dealt with the Venetian Marco Polo, became a crowd favorite: One saw a filmed storehouse full of Asian-seeming objects, and the soundtrack featured Marco Polo’s travel diary, in which he informed his Venetian trading partners about his years in Asia with cool reserve. Tan had in fact set up the cabinet of wonders in the pavilion. However, there was not a trace of the presentation to be seen when the exhibition opened, only her video installation, showing the Chinoiserie objects once again being removed from the building after the shoot.

Tan’s poetic and cool pictorial language, her reduced installations and photographic arrangements, are loved by curators because they are at once discursive and incredibly aesthetic, making them compatible with the context of the museum. With Geography of Time, the MMK in Frankfurt is now showing the most comprehensive show of the artist’s work to date. She says that she regrets I even came to Amsterdam, saying it would have been better if I had gone to Luxembourg to see the show that will soon travel to Frankfurt instead of flying. Not the best way to get to know her work. Her aversion to the interview, it turns out, has to do with certain experiences from the past. Born in Pekanbaru, Indonesia in 1966 as the daughter of a Chinese father and an Australian mother, Tan spent her childhood in Melbourne and then moved to Amsterdam as an adult. She still lives and works there today. In art texts, her origins and her life in the Netherlands are often thematized in a way that irritates her: “I guess they feel like they pigeonholed and neatly labelled my work in this way, but I feel that this has stopped them looking at my work in an open, freeway, so that upsets me.”

When the national ties that Fiona Tan was born with are listed, and eventually give rise to the compliment that she is a “global citizen,” it sounds like a linguistic incantation—or a protective spell. It places the artist on a pedestal, lends her an aura of astonishing otherness, and intercultural competence. “In America just about everybody comes from somewhere else or has a mixed background, I am surprised that in Europe it’s still a topic,” says Tan.

A conversation begins about the way she works, her obsessive research, and what it means for her to deal with archives and inventories. One of Tan’s talents is to find things that others have overlooked—whether for lack of sensitivity or because they have no place for them, neither in their thoughts, nor their institutions. While researching Dutch seventeenth-century painting in the depot of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum for her film Provenance (2009), there was no way to avoid the painting god and Dutch national hero Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669). It was then that she came across the fate of Cornelia van Rijn, the sole surviving illegitimate daughter of Rembrandt and his now legendary housekeeper Hendrikje Stoffels. Hendrikje had a sixth sense for difficult financial situations and saved Rembrandt from bankruptcy, still she was not allowed to marry him, and was therefore labelled a whore by the church.

Following the death of both Rembrandt and Hendrikje, daughter Nellie (her historically documented nickname, and the title of Tan’s video work) married, and in 1671 sailed to Batavia, today Jakarta, Indonesia, with her husband. She died of complications arising from giving birth to their third child, at the age of 30. There is hardly a trace of this woman, yet in the hands of Tan, who herself lives in a complex relationship between ex-colony and ex-colonialist, this sparse material becomes a grand treasure. Tan draws our attention to mental blackout that remains painful to this day.

In a video loop, we see Nellie in a historical room in Amsterdam. The pattern of the beige-blue wallpaper, her dress, and the sofa are one and the same, all covered with exotic plants, monkeys, and birds—a colonial indulgence. The girl seems to suffocate in this ornamental prison, takes up the classic pose of old master portrait painting, paces back and forth like an animal. The entire time we hear sounds from the jungle, mating calls, yet we see no outside. A knob and a crack in the decorated wall suggest a closet.

It was in this wall closet that Tan installed the video for its premier. The room is in the Museum Van Loon which documents bourgeois domestic life in the Dutch “Golden Age.” The museum is situated in the former home and office of the Van Loon family, which profited by financing trade with Batavia. The house, whose first resident was none other than Rembrandt’s pupil Ferdinand Bol, served as a location for Tan’s piece. It was here that she staged Nellie’s “in-between existence,” in which she could only stare out the window, write letters, or sink into feverish dreams. In one scene, Tan quotes Jan Vermeer’s famous 1657 painting Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window. It was painted when Nellie was just a small child. In Tan’s video it is less an art historical quote than a piece of socio-historical information. Nellie’s prison is real: “In Batavia,” says Tan, “she probably suffered from malaria. She would never have been able to go outside on her own, to go to the market or see her surroundings.”

Tan says this with certainty and sorrow, as if she herself had been there. Rembrandt’s illegitimate daughter was caught up in the economic and cultural constraints of Amsterdam, as well as Batavia. With her filmic monument, Tan touches on a historical wound. With “Nellie,” she created a masterful appreciation rather than a warning or a thorough narration. There is no doubt that Nellie’s famous father would have been deeply moved by the code of Tan’s imagery.

Yet how does Tan approach themes playing out in her own time? “When you deal with current affairs like 9/11 or the refugee crisis,” she answers, “these are urgent current affairs issues. But when you make art about it, you need to beware that the result does not become outdated very fast. But I am interested in these issues and so in the less direct way my work does deal with it.”

Her room-filling model train installation 1 to 87 from 2014 shows a miniaturized Tan cosmos. Initially, it suggests a typical railroader’s idyll. A train snakes its way from one spruced up station to the next, passing through tidy valleys and picturesque meadows. But her model railway is a hidden object game of upheavals, showing a landscape in crisis: injured nature, failed projects, violence and a renewed outbreak of uncertainty, demolition and new construction. Tan also hides her own artworks within the installation: We see a beaten man lying on the ground— this scene is the basis for her feature film History’s Future (2016), which will be shown in the Frankfurt Film Museum parallel to the exhibition at MMK. In it, a man, played by Mark O'Halloran, is the victim of violence. He looses his memory and travels through Europe. While traveling, he recounts all possible variations of a fictive past which he cannot remember. I one scene he meets an old friend who asks him, of all people: “Have I changed much?”

A joke, but one that reveals Tan’s emphatic relationship to the classic philosophical questions, “Who am I?”, and “Where am I going?” And it also shows what happens when questions of place are jettisoned. Tan filmed in eleven cities—Amsterdam, Barcelona, Paris, Dublin, Athens, Berlin, Leipzig, London, Lisbon, Paris, and Brussels—with twenty different cameras. She is a speeding traveller. Yet every flight mile traveled that has to do with her representation rather than directly with her work is something that deeply disturbs her: “The problem with the art world is, it’s very personality driven,” she complains.
In 2009, she stopped flying altogether. When the eruption of that Icelandic volcano with the unpronounceable name caused her flight to be cancelled, she used it as an impetus to reduce her ecological footprint. She offered to create audio guides for museums if they would forego her presence at exhibition openings. “I wanted to change the art world, but unfortunately nobody took up the offer,” she says.

Finally, the somewhat subversive issue of why she stages archives and inventories in an almost fetish-like fashion comes up. Is she not indulging in a rather bourgeois aesthetic? One could conduct a diagnosis of this fact with the video Rise and Fall, which uses two neat and very bourgeois ladies in a country house setting to illustrate the drama of passing time. “What would be the opposite?” Tan asks in return. “Performances with lots of mess, pornography, loud rock music, probably somewhere some ketchup? But isn’t that now mainstream, and therefore predictable and prescriptive. Isn’t it more interesting to make work which is affirming and denying at the same time?”

She hopes that in this way her work can achieve a certain subversive effect. But perhaps her childhood as the daughter of two parents working in the natural sciences had an even greater influence on her aesthetic preferences. Her father was a geologist, her mother a geneticist—incidentally, researching twins, a subject that Tan dedicated her long term film project Diptych to. “As a child in Melbourne I loved going to the museum. I went to all of them,” she says. In bidding farewell, she gives her visitors a quote from painter Francis Bacon: “You can be part of a tradition, but that doesn’t make you a traditionalist.”

Fiona Tan. Geography of Time
16 September 2016 — 15 January 2017 
MMK 1, Frankfurt a. M.