Fiona Tan

Born in 1966 in Pekan Baru (ID)
Lives and works in Amsterdam (NL)

Downside Up

Video, black and white, sound
Durée : 2'04''
Year of Purchase: 2002

Starting out from her own multicultural, multilingual background, Fiona Tana higlights in her photographs and films questions of belonging to a broad range of social and cultural communities. Thus the installation Countenance, shown at Documenta 11, has two hundred portraits of Berliners, and Correction three hundred video sequences of prison inmates and guards filmed in Illinois and California.

In Downside Up, a black and white video in more ways than one, indeterminate shapes appear first. Then there are a few seconds of waiting in a soothing poetic cadence of sound and images before we understand that these are the shadows of people marching down a street. Some are walking slowly, others running or riding bicycles and the video then appears as to be one more of these virtual family portraits. It is a classic enough ploy since August Sander’s People of the Twentieth Century and Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man, but in Downside Up there is nothing to clearly identify the bodies. As in Plato’s cave, we only see the shadows, here on the ground and only differences of size show that they are of human beings at different stages of life. While the visual composition is reminiscent of avant-garde photography and more particularly of Aleksandr Rodchenko’s Boulevard (1929–1930), in this work the image is upside down or, as the title states with a further reversal: downside up. A text on three caption cards at the start of the video does however supply a crucial key to inter¬pretation: ‘Imagine travelling the four corners of the earth, only to discover that the world is flat. No point in digging down all the way to China. / It could be a boat floating upon an ocean smooth as glass. On the water – a thin slice of reality where heaven and earth touch. / As winds blow, the boat’s tossed and torn, I lose my bearings. But afterall, is that such a bad thing?’ This seems to lead to the universality of the sequence filmed out in the street. The street thus appears as a Western clue in an environment that might be oriental and in which the play of light refers back to Chinese shadow theatre (perhaps a nod towards one of the artist’s cultural roots). The video thus takes on its full contemplative significance to leave the imagination to wander as the viewer has to recompose an abstract film between the words and the visual stanzas parading before her eyes, while the sound of footsteps, traffic or murmurs punctuate this most mental and subjective of projections.