The stories we tell of our origins, collective histories, personal obsessions, and place in the natural world, are complicated and diverse. These attempts to classify and interpret how we are emplaced are concerns with which Fiona Tan’s practice has long engaged. Using film, photography and sculptural collections at a variety of scales, and made by the artist and by others, Tan questions how we represent ourselves, and our surroundings.
Fiona Tan: DEPOT (2015) fills the whole of BALTIC’s level three and four galleries with monumental projections and an enormous lorry, promising to carry, ‘The Giant Whale Jonah’. This truck dwarfs us and forces us to negotiate a path close to the walls of the gallery in order to see inside. The interior defies our expectations. In place of a gaping-mouthed whale, here is a wunderkammer. Museum display cabinets hold full-sized narwhal tusks, and miniature depictions of sea anemones in glass, plaster and wire by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka (c 1870). This collection of objects, each small enough to fit into the palm of a child’s hand, make giants of us, reversing ideas of the public and the personal. Here also, is a film of marine specimens in which the narrator speaks of ‘seeing the world through glass’, of how ‘his dreams as a child were always of the sea’ and that artifacts in museums ‘speak first of death and only after that of what they once were’. Exiting the lorry it is possible to watch Leviathan, a film based on archive footage of the choreographed stripping of a whale (played hourly). A recording of the live performance of the soundtrack for Leviathan (composed by Calliope Tsoupaki) can be viewed via a BALTIC Bitesize film, where a bass clarinet replaces the song of the whale (view here).
In the Level 3 gallery, dual film installation (on opposite walls) Disorient (2009) juxtaposes images of place and time. Sitting on a beanbag, it is possible to simultaneously see Tan’s re-imagining of ancient objects in a museum depot or repository, and images of people living and working in global settings. The narrator speaks of the qualities and failings of regions and nations, and it gradually becomes clear these are The Travels, said to be the tales of Marco Polo’s journeys in The Orient. The contrasts between images and words highlight issues that remain around colonialism and globalism. The mind wanders back to the lorry and its contemporary role as a means of escape for people seeking a new life in the West.
Finally, Inventory (2012), a film montage made at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, reaches the heart of Tan’s concern with the human need to collect and collate objects and practices. Filmed in a variety of formats, from 35mm to Super 8, each chosen medium demonstrates how it affects our perception and interpretation of the collection, the archive and the collector.
FIONA TAN: DEPOT is supported by Sfumato Foundation with the assistance of the Art Fund, the Mondriaan Fund and the Embassy of the Netherlands. It will result in an acquisition of Fiona Tan’s work by the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle.
Fiona Tan: DEPOT continues at BALTIC until 1 November 2015.
Images: Fiona Tan, Depot 2015 (still). Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery © Fiona Tan; Fiona Tan: DEPOT installation at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art 2015. Photo: © Jonty Wilde