Artist Fiona Tan thinks of herself as an “image-maker.” In “Kingdom of Shadows,” Tan’s 2001 short film presented last Sunday night at the Carpenter Center, she explores how the proliferation of images in the modern world—namely through photographs—changes our perception of them. Interviews with collectors and artists guide an exploration of our relationship with photographs—a relationship that, to Tan, “can never be settled”. The screening followed up on a lecture—in which Tan presented her more recent work—that had taken place at the Carpenter Center the preceding Thursday. Identity plays a central role in Tan’s work, which is not surprising considering the artist’s background. Born in Indonesia to a Chinese-Indonesian father and a Scottish-Australian mother, Tan grew up in Australia and now lives in Amsterdam. In “Kingdom of Shadows,” Tan explores how images help contribute to a sense of self. A former Nazi in the film describes how his first encounter with pictures of Auschwitz defied his entire worldview. Tan also interviews a New York artist, Alfredo Jaar, who believes that only images of pain can still affect today’s viewer. In “The Eyes of Gutete Emerita,” Jaar forces viewers of his work to confront images of the genocide in Rwanda directly by placing one million slides on a lightbox. Tan’s most recent projects take the combination of image and identity one step further. In her 2005 work “Corrections,” she amassed 300 video portraits of prison inmates and workers, while her 2006 “Vox Populi” project brought together photos from family albums in Sydney, Tokyo, and Norway. She also draws on the large-scale collection of images. This may be a reaction to the contemporary era in which, as she said on Sunday, “much is not being saved.” The current transition from analog to digital photography will likely change Tan’s relationship with the image. “Going through the [digital] archive is not the same,” Tan said, adding that, “serendipitous research” is not possible in the same way. “The act of looking is also an act of creating,” she said. Tan applies this idea when beginning her own projects, frequently finding inspiration for her work by rummaging through old collections of photographs. In the film, photographs often prompt unusual ideas. A series of pictures with blacked-out figures calls memory’s role in photography into question, while short interviews with Dutch citizens about their favorite images probe the human penchant for collecting what others find meaningless. Throughout the film, visuals frequently take the place of verbal explanations. Tan periodically interrupts her documentary work with a panning shot of a man holding a mirror. As he walks, the mirror reflects the landscape around him, evoking what Tan refers to as “the silent world” of pictures. But among all assortments of existing images, Tan appreciates the occasional lucky occurrence when shooting a film. She explained how Dutch filmmakers refer to such a moment as a “cadeau,” or present. “Cinema,” she said, “is a way of collecting presents.”
Identities Caught on Film
Fiona Tan explores sense of self through photographs at the Carpenter Center
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