Fiona Tan: Archive/Ruins @Peter Freeman

JTF (just the facts): A total of 6 photographs and 2 film installations, displayed against white walls in the two-room gallery space and the entry area.

The show includes the following works:

  • 1 set of 2 photogravures, 2019, each sized 18×28 inches, in an edition of 12
  • 1 set of 4 photogravures, 2019, each sized 8×12 inches, in an edition of 12
  • 1 HD video installation (Archive), 2019, 3D animation in black and white, 5:45, in an edition of 4+1AP
  • 1 sound recording, 2016, 15 minutes, in an edition of 4+1AP
  • 1 installation (Ruins), 2020, consisting of 1 16mm film, silent, color, 4:10, and 1 HD video, silent, color, 3:50, in an edition of 4+1AP

A small catalog of the show entitled A Walk Among Ruins has been published by the gallery.

(Installation shots and film stills below.)

Comments/Context: The “patina of age” might be explained as a set of subtle visual clues that we can all generally recognize, and assume tell us something about a journey through time. Signs of weathering, wear, hard use (or disuse), and decay, often made visceral by nuances of texture and color, help us to orient ourselves, in a sense placing what we see before us on an invisible continuum of time, where our present experience is connected to the events of the past.

Fiona Tan’s new gallery show, her first in New York a decade, thoughtfully engages with the concept of the patina of age, forcing us to wrestle with the unexpected deceptions and confusions she finds (and creates) there. Her recent works turn on almost imperceptible subtleties, that when amplified by her art making, become all the more dissonant.

In Ruins, Tan takes a World Heritage site (the abandoned mining complex at Grand-Hornu in Belgium) as her subject, making two parallel films of its remnants. In both parts of the installation (her films run at the same time on two opposing screens), she wanders through the now quiet buildings, making fixed frame images of several seconds each of views through the brickwork, up at the ribs of the ceilings now open to the sky, and inside at courtyards and passageways where columns stand like sentries and shadows slice across the stone. The ruined buildings offer a straightforward past-present-future spread, where we can imagine the long gone glory days of these buildings, see and touch the immediate present (hearing the birds and the wind, seeing the bugs flying around through the shafts of sunlight), and then imagine the future as the ruins continue their slow march toward inevitable decay.

In one film, Tan has made her images in extra crisp HD video (seen above as the second group of stills, shot looking left toward the screen.) The colors are clear and seemingly uncorrected, the images consistently sharp and articulated. The resolution of the video allows us to dive deeply into the roughness of the brick, the bumpiness of the gravel, and the flat expanses of color in the sky. And so we feel rooted in the 21st century present – we see the aging structure, but center ourselves in the now.

In the other film, Tan has made nearly identical images using 16mm analog film (seen above as the first group of stills, shot looking right toward the screen.) She’s followed roughly the same progression, put her camera in many of the same places, and made many of the same framing choices. The differences come in the patina – the colors are shifted toward yellow, like faded memories, the details are slightly blurred due to the lower resolution of the film, and the whole experience feels softer and warmer. The film feels like it was made in the 1970s, and yet it was made at effectively the same moment as the HD video running across the room. So the patina of age we experience is an artistic illusion, and yet we feel it no less strongly or believably. Given that the ruins are aging at such a slow pace, we might even plausibly believe several decades of time had elapsed between the two shoots, so looking quickly back and forth between two versions of the present which look like the present and past, we watch as Tan deftly collapses our usual understanding of time.

Tan’s 2019 film Archive unpacks the patina of age from another angle. In muted black and white, we silently travel through what appears to be a massive library of sorts. Our path walks through endless rows of wooden drawers, the tall stacks arranged in a circular patterns radiating from a central point with an overhead window. We go downstairs to another subterranean layer of stacks, and follow along through the empty hallways and work areas, where toppled chairs, pulled out drawers, and the march of stacks continues in the shadowy dust. The film feels slow and meditative, as we linger on the shine of the metal drawer pulls, the rough texture of the wood, or the weave of the carpet underfoot, the light streaming in from above and catching the swirling dust. Whatever this place is, it seems to have once been exhaustively ambitious, but is now lonely and unused. Near the entrance of the gallery, a selection of photogravures pull out single frames from the film, the prints executed in rich, tactile tones.

But when we later get to the backstory of this facility, Tan upends our sense of reality. Apparently, the turn of the century Belgian lawyer Paul Otlet had a plan to catalog all of human knowledge and house it in an archive called the Mundaneum. In a certain sense, this extensive catalog system of index cards and materials was a physical precursor to the Internet, but Otlet’s efforts were never completed, with portions begun and larger facilities never actually built. So Tan’s cinematic experience of the space isn’t really a film documenting an actual place – it’s a 3D rendering of what the Mundaneum might have looked like, a computer-based simulation that Tan “walks” through and “films” so we can experience it. In her vision, it is both vast and archaic, impressively gargantuan and hopelessly out of date and left behind. The photogravures offer even more deceptive twists, as they aren’t photographs of the place, but screen captures of the renderings. In this case, the patina of age that Tan has given us is false, or at least imaginary, her Mundaneum a very convincing flight of fancy rather than an actual physical ruin.

Together, these two projects open up some complex questions about recording technologies (photographic or otherwise) and what they actually document. They both offer us quiet misdirection and subtle confusion, which is then resolved, thereby exposing our own misconceptions and faulty assumptions about what we have been shown. Those singular wait-a-minute moments of recognition are the essence of Tan’s art, her inversions delivered with an understatement that makes the transformative power of her perspective all the more elusive.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The photogravure sets are 6000 and 8000 each, while the video installations are 120000 each; the sound piece is priced at 25000. Tan’s photographic work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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