Born in 1966 in (République d'Indonésie)
Lives and works in (Netherlands )
Video artist and photographer Fiona Tan was born in Indonesia to a Chinese father and an Australian-Scotch mother. After the family fled the dictatorial Suharto regime, she grew up in Australia and then went to Europe to study, first in Germany, at the Fachhochschule in Hamburg, and then in The Netherlands, at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie and the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunst. Her work soon came to focus on the postcolonial situation through the use of images from ethnographic archives. In each of these works, May You Live in Interesting Times (1997), Smoke Screen (1997), Facing Forward (1997), Cradle (1998) and Tuareg (2000), Tan gives new life to images from documentary films shot during the colonial era, most often those made by the Dutch in the 1930s. In them, she examines the relationship between observer and observed as well as the nature of the glances exchanged between the subject observed and the camera, which is generally held by the white Western ethnographer.
Her work is tied to her personal history. Born in a Dutch colony and living in The Netherlands for many years, she confronts the colonial past of her adopted country with the history of her own family, which is a veritable symbol of the Chinese diaspora. The use of archival films offers both the possibility of reflecting on the objectivity/subjectivity dialectic of the colonial photographers and that of engaging a critical discourse by developing these images in a new context. As she explains in Scenario, 'Usually the technique of found footage film is described in destructive terms: demontage, cut-up. First something must be destroyed before something new can take its place. The recycling of film fragments or photos breathes new life into the images; they are liberated from the harness of their original context. Recycling makes it possible to see images in a new way. Recycling creates new images.'
Tan has also worked considerably on what she calls the 'photographic moments' – screenshots of archival films which are like photographic shot. From a historical standpoint, these 'photographic moments' are situated at the beginnings of cinema: the persons filmed look at the camera and pose for a few seconds, like a photograph. In a text on Facing Forward (1999), she writes: 'The images in Facing Forward stem entirely from early silent archival film footage categorized as colonial documentary footage shot in foreign and exotic countries for a Western audience. I have selected one particular sort of scene from a myriad of films. I call these scenes photographic moments. Quite simply, they consist of the countless times that – as if for a photograph – people pose in front of the film camera. I find these moments poignant and endearing: a filmed photograph stretches time and in those often uncomfortable moments a lot happens: The viewer can see the embarrassment, the bewilderment and anger, or the curiosity and shyness due to the confrontation with the camera. A viewer also has time to reflect upon all these anonymous people arranged before him. It also highlights the transition between two media: photography and film. They are particularly revealing moments. Moments of meeting, not just a meeting of individuals but of cultures, ideas and times. Moments, which I think are important to review now.'
Tan's interest in ethnology and the observation of cultures is also evident in the video installation Saint Sebastian (2001). It deals with a Japanese initiation rite for young girls, who have to prove their dexterity with archery while dressed in their finest kimonos. Tan's camera never shows the targets but only the tense expressions of the girls' faces.
Another work from this period, Countenance, made during a residency in Berlin in 2001-2002, was shown at Dokumenta 11 in Kassel. It was inspired by the vast 'ethnologico-photographic' project of early twentieth-century photographer August Sander, Menschen des 20.Jahrhunderts (People of the twentieth century), which was aimed at making portraits of hundreds of people from different professions in order to classify them by sociological groups and thus create an immense typological fresco of the society of the time. In response to Sander's project, Tan made portraits of 220 people from the former East Berlin, who posed for several seconds in front of her camera to make her 'photographic moments'. Following a similar principle, she made portraits of hundreds of inmates and guards in American prisons for Correction, a work which she presented in 2004 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
Through their editing and exhibition set-ups, Tan's works produce a cyclical time where past and present are confronted and joined together in a single movement. Whether she uses archival images or her own sequences, Tan continuously explores the issue of identity and draws the visitor into her own questions: 'What am I looking at?', 'Who am I to be looking in this way?', and ultimately, 'How would that other person look at me in turn?'
Translation: Miriam Rosen