By Tim Shufelt
Dozens of Berliners stare tentatively into the camera, unsure what’s expected of them. One after another — baker, carpenter, candle maker — shuffle their feet, stifle laughter and glance away as if looking for instructions.
Renowned video installation artist Fiona Tan says something very interesting happens when she films people this way, rather than simply taking a picture. “I’m still trying to figure out exactly what is going on when I do that,” Tan said of her piece Countenance, that screened at Ryerson’s Kodak Lecture Series.
“If you engage with the work, it’s almost like it’s rude to look away. You’ve got people working for you.” The diminutive, soft-spoken artist drew hundreds of Ryerson students, gallery curators and Toronto art aficionados to the George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre last Friday to the screening of her acclaimed work.
Ryerson new media instructor Kathleen Pirrie-Adams introduced Tan, who is recognized on the international art circuit and has been featured in more than 50 exhibitions worldwide. She said Tan’s preoccupations include “the uncertainties that shadow all psychologies, identities and systems of classification.”
It’s not surprising that Tan is preoccupied with identity. She was born in Indonesia in 1966 to a Chinese father and an Australian mother. The family eventually moved to Australia, followed shortly by stints in Germany and Holland. Tan became fluent in several languages, but said there was a time when she didn’t know which language to think in. “That’s very confronting to your sense of self,” said Tan, who was barely visible to the audience behind the giant lectern.
“And this comes back in my work again and again… I use these images to find mirrors that tell me something about myself.” Tan says Countenance is partly an exploration of individual identity. As a newcomer to Berlin, she perceived differences between East and West Berliners.
She then studied the work of famous German photographer August Sander. Beginning in the early 1900s, Sander took hundreds of portraits, classifying them by social “type.” Tan herself became curious how her own version might compare to Sander’s. “Eighty years on, would a butcher still look like a butcher?” she asked. Thus her technique of filming the portraits was inspired by her earlier work with archived documentary footage from colonial expeditions.
“It was like the film crews didn’t realize that they were actually working with a moving image, because they would ask someone to stand in front of the camera, and then that was it. And nobody knew what to do,” she said. “I find that to be a very telling, very meaningful moment.” As Tan sifted through archives, she found that much of the footage was poorly documented. “So it’s very rich and often wonderful material, but you know almost nothing about it.”
Still, as she moved on to shooting her own material, she would sometimes maintain a similar ignorance of her subjects. Her piece Saint Sebastian focuses on the Toshiya ceremony, a coming-of-age archery competition at a temple in Kyoto, Japan. During her talk, Tan admitted she learned little about the ceremony itself, or Japanese culture in general, and her images “are meant for my eyes, which basically means Western eyes.”
“Maybe in 50 years’ time, people will say I’m this terrible colonial artist,” she said. But for now, students are enjoying her work. “I think she’s fantastic. I love (Countenance),” said Kate Tarini, a second-year photography student at Ryerson. “In that one second that someone poses for you, they reveal a lot.”
Fiona Tan’s work is also being exhibited at the Art Gallery of York University’s new galleries until March 26.