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Fiona Tan: The Professional Foreigner
“Behind the visible surface”: An interview with Anni Leppälä
A Visit With Ebtisam Abdulaziz
A conversation with Anna Molska
The photographer Annegret Soltau
Yto Barrada Deutsche Bank’s „Artist of the Year“ 2011

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Fiona Tan
The Professional Foreigner


The melancholy of uprooting—Fiona Tan’s interest in individual and collective identities in a globalized world is based on her personal history, among other things. She was born in Indonesia, grew up in Australia, studied in Europe, and today lives in the Netherlands. One floor of the Deutsche Bank’s headquarters in Frankfurt will be dedicated to Tan’s photos and works on paper. Dominikus Müller introduces the artist.


The film shows a house with an opulent interior, with a flair that is sometimes English, sometimes Indian, and then again Chinese. Orient and occident are endlessly layered, almost beyond recognition. The passage of time has obviously harmed the tapestries, drapes, and wallpaper. The house resembles a slowly decaying monument, a world interiority of memory. And in the midst of it all is an old man, dressed in a kind of ragged bathrobe. His name is Henry, at least according to the voice over.

Henry is sleeping on the floor, he gets up, uses his fists to warm up his muscles and practices a round of Tai Chi. Later he conducts a lonely tea ceremony. Then we watch him in the corner room all by himself, or walking forlornly through the pavilion’s endless maze of hallways, on whose walls Chinese figures and fairy tale creatures are repeated again and again. After nightfall he hangs a string of lanterns in the hallway, as if he was planning to swing home on it. In the pale glow of the light he surveys an ancient globe.

Henry is alone, and a world beyond this decaying palace does not seem to exist. He is stranded between times, places, and cultures, without a home and continuously wandering between histories, architectures, biographies, and identities. Henry is a ghost between East and West, and accordingly, he is sometimes called "Eng Lee". This, too, is related by the voice over, somewhat later. Henry, or Eng Lee, is the only character in Fiona Tan’s film A Lapse of Memory (2007), and he is also the sole inhabitant of this earth.

Tan is represented in the Deutsche Bank collection with drawings she finished a year earlier in connection with this melancholy, poetic, powerful film. It was shot at the so-called Royal Pavilion in the southern English seaside town of Brighton. The pavilion is a curious summer residence and postmodern pastiche avant la lettre, built by King George IV. at the turn of the 19th century, when he was not yet king, but rather Prince Regent. It quickly becomes clear that this film is about uprooting and memory, archives and cultural contexts—in short, about layered identities and all that is used in times such as these to build biographies.

Exactly ten years before A Lapse of Memory, Tan also dealt with her own biography in one of her first film pieces. Given her history, it comes as no surprise that in her work she referred to herself as a "professional foreigner". Her life, too, spans East and West, takes place between Asia and Europe. She was born in 1966 in the former Dutch colony of Indonesia as the daughter of a Chinese father and an Australian mother. She was raised, however, in Australia, and later received her fine arts degree from the Gerrit Rietveld Academie and the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam, where she has been living and working intermittently since 1988. Thus her life is an outstanding example of an international, global biography. It seems culled from the postcolonial handbook of hybrid identities. It is a paradigm of a life story that epitomizes global connections and uprooting beyond rigid traditions or straight lines of development.

Yet the catchphrase of the "professional foreigner" goes beyond pure self-description. Tan uses her biography for her work, she “professionalizes” it as a concrete example of an abstract state and uses it in a thematically deliberate manner. Tan’s biography has, after all, neither nothing nor everything to do with her work. In the same vein, her work can, of course, neither be reduced to her own life story, nor to the artist subject behind it, just as her life cannot be traced back to a single place or time. It is in this chasm between the concrete and the general that the bulk of her work seems to unfold—no matter whether the works contain references to her own history or that of others. But it is the sliver of the concrete within the abstract that always sharpens the message of her films, photographs, and audio-visual installations.

This same dialectic is employed in her series Vox Populi, continued in irregular intervals. For this series, Tan has been collecting photos from private archives and family albums—so far from Norway (2004), Sydney (2006), Tokyo (2007), and, most recently, Switzerland (2010)—arranging them into a big whole made up of small parts. The work Vox Populi Tokyo from the Deutsche Bank collection consists of 304 individually framed photos. They portray what can usually be found in private pictures: people. They are laughing, grinning, pressing their eyes shut, or opening them wide; they appear alone or in groups, children in the parents’ laps, colleagues in white protective suits, and families in full representational robes in crammed living rooms. They are asleep, yawning, looking back in melancholy, friendly, and proud.

These are the kinds of photos everyone owns and everyone knows: of weddings, trips to the countryside, of vacations, of the family. They are mementos, memories in pictures, literally photographic memories. It is a potpourri of what seem to be snapshots, each of them a glimpse into the lives of others. Taken together they represent a massive number of constantly repeated, almost standardized settings and subjects that are nearly globally recognizable without conveying the same value they may have for their owners. In short, viewers understand their underlying principle, yet the concrete emotional meaning inevitably eludes them.

Thus this work has hardly anything to do with voyeurism, although it may initially seem that way. But while we are contemplating the works, a comparative view very quickly takes over, an interest in this strange monotony with which people around the globe (at least those who have a camera) seem to choose the same poses, settings, and subjects. Do we all remember in the same way? Do we all remember the same things: friends and family, joy and contentment, home? Maybe so.

And thus this work is yet again about one’s own position in a globalized world, a life in states of transition. Once again we are dealing with the big issues: remembering, home, and the fading of the two; identity and how it produces itself from a web of traditions, stories, biographies, images, places, and times.

It is moving to see the melancholy of uprooting that emanates from almost every one of Tan’s works, the feeling of permanent transition, where a concept like home is only carried around as a pale but elementary memory. The images and stories are beginning to wrap the viewer around their fingers. On the other hand, when we submit to them, they can unfold their analytical potential. Tan’s works are consciously positioned between these two poles—an emphasis on the suggestive power of her works on the one hand, and their use for stating political positions on the other. They bring forth their clear argument precisely when the emotion becomes seemingly unclear. Because whoever wants to think about the power of images, cannot avoid being drawn into them.

Translation: Katrin A. Velder, Boston




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On View
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