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Portrait of Fiona Tan
Portrait of Fiona Tan

Fiona Tan interview

The Amsterdam-based artist talks about her two London shows

Written by
Freire Barnes

The Amsterdam-based artist known for her immersive film installations talks to Time Out about her two London shows: ‘Inventory’, which takes inspiration from the eclectic Sir John Soane’s Museum, and ‘Ghost Dwellings’, an installation which focuses on natural and economic disasters in Detroit, Cork and Japan. 

You don’t live in London, so what attracted you to Sir John Soane’s Museum?‘I noticed that when I was preparing for a show in Rome I kept thinking about Soane’s. I had been doing a lot of research into collections and considering how long we’ve had public museums, and his place is very much a starting point to think about that. And of course, it’s fantastic.’

What aspects of the museum did you want to focus on?
‘I focused on the areas (where) he hung what he called his “marbles”: all the architectural fragments and things he collected from ancient Rome and Greece. I’m not interested in trying to replicate the museum. Why should I? It’s a unique place and everyone should go – and everyone does, I think. Instead, I was very interested in the idea of the original and the copy, because there are a lot of plaster casts on display. It got me thinking about the medium.’

Is that why you chose to shoot the film on six different formats?
‘Basically I decided to choose not to choose. Usually when I’m preparing a piece I make tests with different cameras and I thought maybe it’s interesting to bring that to the forefront in ‘Inventory’ – the fact that there are all these mediums available at the crossroads between the digital and analogue. This is quite technically nerdy but I became interested in comparing, although it didn’t work out like that as I liked them all, in some ways. It became an inventory of audio-visual possibilities from the last 50 years.’ 

Where does your fascination with collecting and classification come from?
‘For me, it comes out of working as an artist and asking these really basic questions: “What is an image?”; “What is photography?”; “What is film?”. Then it was me noticing that my work is being collected and starting to think: “What does that mean?” and “How does a collection come about?” It’s trying to figure out what I’m doing and where my work is going by asking these stupid questions, if you like, that are incredibly difficult to answer but will keep me busy for the rest of my life.’ 

What’s the inspiration for ‘Ghost Dwellings’?
‘Historians and philosophers say we’re at the end of era, so the conceptual starting point has been thinking about where we are at since the crash of 2008. I could never get a handle on why we’re all so gloomy, thinking everything is going so wrong, when I live in one of the wealthiest countries on earth, the Netherlands. Obviously there are people that have lost their jobs but when you compare it to other poverty, it’s quite a different ball game. The idea of a rolling catastrophe made sense to me. What started off as a mortgage crisis that snowballed into a financial crisis, quickly became a political crisis in Europe, making it a social crisis and then a philosophical crisis. It doesn’t feel all that much different to a natural disaster. I’m just trying to understand that and give it space in my work.’

You filmed in locations that have suffered tragedies: how did you balance your personal response with an unbiased opinion?
‘Is there ever an unbiased aspect? I wouldn’t know. There were some very clear decisions that I made: I didn’t want people to feel as if I was feeding off their tragedy. Going to film in Japan felt like one huge gamble as it was quite difficult to get actual information. I thought maybe the radioactive disaster had all been cleaned up and I’d have nothing to film, so I was actually surprised at how much there was. In Detroit I hoped to film what I had read about – regeneration, artists coming in and “it’s all going to be great”. I desperately tried to find that, but it’s not the Detroit I saw.’

Do you think artists have a responsibility to record the world around them with an eye to history?
‘Good question. I think we probably end up doing it whether we want to or not. You’re always part of your times whether you realise it or not and you’re always going to be responding to what’s going on around you.’

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