Installation view of FIONA TAN’s Inventory (2012) at Frith Street Gallery Golden Square, London, 2015. Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery. 

“Inventory” and “Ghost Dwellings”

Fiona Tan

Frith Street Gallery
UK Australia Indonesia

Significant stylistic variations and a distance of a few street blocks separated Fiona Tan’s “Inventory” and “Ghost Dwellings,” housed separately in the two outposts of London’s Frith Street Gallery. Yet each half of Tan’s two-part solo exhibition (each titled after the installation it houses) responded to the other, reflecting on the gradual passage of time and the inevitably of loss. Born in Indonesia, raised in Australia and now based in Amsterdam, Tan’s previous work has interacted with the specific postcolonial resonances of her background, but Inventory and Ghost Dwellings address memory and time in a more general manner. With each piece built around objects that appear to have been obsessively collected or even hoarded, the figure of the collector looms large, but ultimately remains unseen. Tan asks whether the act of collecting could truly capture the past, or serve as a viable strategy to interact with the present—questions injected with contemporary significance by evocations of post-2008 economic instability.

Displayed in the Frith Street Gallery’s Golden Square space, the six video channels that make up Inventory (2012) slowly pan across Roman sculptures from the collection of 18th-century British architect Sir John Soane. While the fact that the original artifacts rested only a short walk away from the gallery (in Soane’s eponymous London museum) somewhat mooted the air of mystery, the details of the chipped faces and carved owls in the film remained opaque, their precise origins left unexplained. As multiple cameras circle around the objects, presenting different perspectives on the same figures, Tan varies her film format, flipping between 35mm and Super 8, and between high-definition digital and  camera-phone quality. In looking at these artifacts, it is evident that centuries have elapsed since Soane collected them as newly unearthed antiquities. Tan’s video documentation carries its own kind of timestamp, from the artificial nostalgia evoked by analog graininess to the queasy sharpness of digital media. Akin to assembled souvenir footage from different eras, Inventory shows that as the distant past grows ever more remote, our means of understanding it also shifts and evolves.

Installation view of FIONA TAN’s Ghost Dwellings I (2013) at Frith Street Gallery Soho Square, London, 2015. Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery. 

Ghost Dwellings, on the other hand draws viewers’ attention to the present, questioning how the recent past can be comprehended before it slips into history. Tan converted the Frith Street Gallery’s Soho Square space into what resembles the rooms of an apartment, or possibly a squat. Tan uses the “apartment”—decorated in a scruffy but careful bohemian style, with the walls covered in European newspaper stories documenting the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis—to display Ghost Dwellings I (2013) and Ghost Dwellings II (2014), videos showing urban decay in the cities of Cork and Detroit, respectively. With a pair of glasses left on a desk in one of the rooms, there’s an uncanny sense of trespassing—that the apartment’s inhabitant might return to their private space at any moment.

Ghost Dwellings could be seen as the imagined home of an obsessive artist-activist, but layers of contradiction complicate the picture. Though the exhibition’s supplementary texts provided by the gallery specifically reference the 2008 financial crisis, the collected newspapers on the walls date from 2014 and later, the global incident only discussed in retrospect. Consequently, the viewer is left pondering the course of the world of the past few years, wondering how it managed to change so profoundly and seamlessly. The concept of the squat also jars with the setting of Soho, still a creative hub for London yet increasingly an elite and high-class neighborhood. Even as Tan’s invisible collector attempts to address the present, the installation simultaneously seems to say that time has already passed on.

Installation view of FIONA TAN’s Ghost Dwellings II (2014) at Frith Street Gallery Soho Square, London, 2015. Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery. 

A more hopeful tone comes through in Ghost Dwellings III (2013–14), found in the gallery’s basement, which houses a workshop table. Though mostly covered in rusted metal, the table suggests the possibility of constructing something new. A video of Fukushima, Japan, after the 2011 tsunami and earthquake, feature strangely beautiful shots of its devastated landscape, accompanied by escalating intermittent beeps of a radiation detector whose effect is at once anxiety-inducing and ethereal. Meanwhile, a motley assortment of chairs in the screening area, and a stack of quilts accompanying the installation, bring to mind a collective hideaway, or underground shelter, and the notion of societal collaboration in times of need. 

The decay captured in Inventory and the near anachronism of Ghost Dwellings’ squat reinforce the idea that time cannot be halted; yet Tan hints at how collecting can be more than just a passive reaction to this phenomenon. Closely linked to the act of bearing witness, collecting is perhaps what gives the unseen protagonist of Ghost Dwellings the knowledge and context they need in order to move forward.

“Inventory” was on view at Frith Street Gallery’s Golden Square location in London, from May 1 to June 26, 2015. “Ghost Dwellings” is currently on view, at Frith Street Gallery’s Soho Square location in London, until July 31, 2015.