All things being equal, the news was especially grim in the days preceding the opening of Fiona Tan’s retrospective “Terminology” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. Rockets, beatings and murders were being exchanged between Palestinians and Israelis, all the while accompanied by claims and counter-claims to the legitimacy of one narrative of victimhood over another. Just when it seemed that the quota for the collective equivalent of punching yourself in the face had already reached its maximum, a Malaysia Airlines plane flying from from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur crashed, allegedly shot down by Ukrainian militants.
I wondered if this last event might have had particular resonance for Tan, who grew up in Australia and now lives in the Netherlands. However, in her art, and in person, Tan resists preconceptions about identities, and has less-than-positive memories of interviews in which she has been pigeonholed and been asked to reduce her work to simplistic explanations.
“For me it’s important that my works are layered, that you can look at them in different ways, that you are not done with them in one go,” she said.
I asked whether this presented a particular problem in Japan, where it’s often the case that viewers are forced to view works in a particular order, and textual information sometimes comes across as facile or patronizing when translated into English.
She recalled being herded by attendants at the James Turrell installation in Naoshima, and the oddness of how there are so many automated messages telling us what to do in general, but also added, “It’s a worldwide problem in art today, how much exposition you do, how much signage you do. I’m always having this discussion with museums in the West: asking them to take down signs, to explain less, to let the visitors look.”
It is one of the conundrums of being an artist that the only thing worse than not being understood is perhaps being understood too quickly. Tan, open and amicable, but also extremely precise and conscious of the words she uses, and the words other people use about her work, sees the process of talking about her practice as a dance.
“As a visual artist it’s very important to reach a point where I’m going beyond words,” she said. “In interviews I find myself struggling, because we’re always talking around (the work), circumscribing it. A question that I hate is, ‘What does this work mean?’”
This is almost certainly something that all artists dislike being asked, but in Tan’s case, where much of her work plays with and disassembles the construction of narrative, such a question must be particularly galling. As she put it: “Narrative is very leading, and we can’t do without it. It’s very important which narrative you choose, and very important to realize that you choose. It’s tough to have that awareness and to know you can choose any story to follow.”
When I asked her what other highs and lows there are in her work, she talked about the thrill of beating the odds.
“The highs are doing the impossible; sometimes I take the most incredible risks, like in ‘Lift,’ ” she said, talking about a performance work in which she floated into the sky carried by 50 helium-filled balloons. “When I was planning it, I was thinking I needed to ask someone to do this for me, but then I thought, no, it’s too dangerous; I couldn’t bear being responsible for breaking someone’s leg if something went wrong. I do have a fantastic life, being able to engage with questions that interest me.
“The lows are multiple: When you work with technical things, getting things to work.”
But what about an emotional cost to the kind of work she does, I asked.
“Whenever I start a new project I have a personal crisis and wonder, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ It’s part of (the process) and I know I’ll get out the other end. When I was making ‘Disorient,’ I felt like Atlas trying to carry the world on my shoulders, taking on the whole problem of globalization and world economy, and there’s something quite ineffective about art,” she explained. “At the end of the day I’m just making pictures; what am I doing to change things? But I don’t know what else to do.”
As someone who pays close attention to the medium in which she works, I also asked if she was nostalgic about print.
“It’s a struggle I know I can’t win; I cannot battle against the economic forces of large industry. I can only choose between certain limitations. It’s being dictated to all artists that the analog film era is over and we have to deal with that.” She went on to say, “All media have their own qualities, they all have something specific that is quite beautiful. I’m not nostalgic. I don’t think we can afford to be.”
The day after our interview, the preview of “Terminology” took place at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography in Ebisu. By chance I bumped into Tan at the exhibition, dressed in a midnight-blue cocktail dress, as she headed downstairs toward rows of journalists for another “dance of words.” She acknowledged me in a tired voice as I went upstairs into the quiet, darkened exhibition space of “Terminology,” where I saw Tan again, this time in “Lift” drifting into the Amsterdam sky, hesitantly at first, and then smiling.
“Terminology” at Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography runs till Sept. 23; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Thu. and Fri. till 9 p.m.). ¥900. Closed Mon. www.syabi.com Fiona Tan’s works can also been seen in her show “Nellie” at Wako Works of Art, Tokyo, till Sept. 27; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Free admission. Closed Mon., Sun. www.wako-art.jp/top.php