Fiona Tan’s exhibition at Frith Street Gallery, ‘Ghost Dwellings’, occupies the gallery’s old but new premises; the townhouse site reopened in 2014 after its closure for their move to Golden Square. The exhibition was joined, for a period, with a showing of her ‘Inventory’ work at the new space. Both shows represent forms of installation in which the moving image is the locus, although the means of installing the various kinds of screens used to show the moving images form very particular settings, with formal aspects that cut to the quick of the works’ narrative and conceptual contents.
In ‘Inventory’ the installation/setting for the screens was rather more neutral than those on show in ‘Ghost Dwellings’, if eccentric in comparison to the giant projection screen or visible 16mm projector that is habitual when viewing the work of a major moving image artist. Six projections run at once, at different sizes but on one wall. The sequences show aspects of the collection of Sir John Soane, filmed at the museum dedicated to him and his acquisitions. A number of different film and video formats are used to originate the imagery; their simultaneous projection (and simultaneous ‘high’ and ‘low’ definitions) effect a kind of flattening of history and a subjectivisation of the viewing experience that quietly corresponds to the nature of a personal collection.
‘Ghost Dwellings’, on the other hand, is well suited to the quasi-domestic setting of the space on Frith Street itself, much as the concentrated zones of works did in Pádraig Timoney’s 2013 Raven Row exhibition (a much newer institution whose interior aesthetic somewhat echoes Frith Street’s original space). The three videos on display are given elaborate, staged environments, and the rooms of the building are very definitely used as rooms. In the content of the videos, these rooms form interiors that host images of abandoned exteriors, the shells of buildings in places that have been vacated of much of their human life. In contrast, the detailed construction of a (presumably) fictive domestic space within which to show the videos suggests a recently abandoned interior, whose occupant might return at any moment.
As the title of the original exhibition that saw the commissioning of the work (‘Options and Futures’, at Rabo Kunstzone, Utrecht) suggests, a meditation on advanced financial speculation occurs in the work. This is implicit in the videos, which show financial and social abandonments, in the cases of Detroit and speculative building projects near Cork, and an abandonment forced upon a place by natural and technological cataclysm, in the case of Fukushima.
In the first room the viewer encounters a kind of living room. At this point the present text necessarily switches from wider observations about the work to particularities: to the objects and images presented. There are so many objects and images that noting even a selection of them is perhaps a more adequate reading than a conceptual summary (although such an analysis may drift in and out the text). Existing reviews of this work have tended, quite logically, to trace geopolitical narrative out of videos that, formally speaking, are rather spare and still. This has, perhaps, been at the expense of describing the narrative furniture in which they sit, the amount of physical material that forms a crucial part of the wider project. There are cut out articles from newspapers, in Dutch and English, many of which are on economic matters centering in on the crisis of 2008: one article stresses the effect of this on the art market. A hoarder of newspapers (which the resident of these rooms seems to be) is an archivist of sorts, not collecting primary material as such but reportage. This is also a kind of collection that is highly sensitive to yellowing over time; to photographic change. There are net curtains partly obscuring the street outside, and on a small table there is a chess board, some of the pieces of which have been upset. Adjacent to this table there is a desk, upon which the cutting out of another article is in progress. Also on this desk are a pair of spectacles, a considerable number of American postage stamps, and a bowl of ground coffee (identifiable by its smell). There are a great number of magazines on shelves, mainly National Geographic, and (from the 1970s) copies of the Dutch magazine ‘Radio Bulletin’. The video in this room is shown on a flat-screen monitor mounted to the chimney breast: the place where a fire was. Within reach of the chess board there is a comfortable, slightly shabby upholstered chair pointed towards the screen, with a pair of slippers next to it. The video (which is nominally one of the ‘main’ works in the show) seems to be this room’s television, and therefore to exist not so much for the viewer as for the departed occupant. The images in the sequence are perfectly clear, showing scenes of Detroit in light snow, houses left empty by economic decay, and largely vacant streets. Much is overgrown. But the viewer’s eyes are perpetually drawn away from the screen in order to examine the room’s objects, which form a concentration of content in comparison to the evacuated spaces shown on the screen.
The transition between this room and the next is a doorway without a door, and hanging fabric strips instead. The second room is more like a bedroom, with elements of a bathroom, although both uses appear a little makeshift – the unmade bed is low and its covering is a sleeping bag. There are shaving implements, a cologne bottle and unopened hotel soaps but no sink. Next to the bed are another pair of slippers, which are large like those in the first room, presumably men’s. It is possible that the occupant has a pair of slippers for each room, but also that he is simultaneously present and absent in both. The video in this room is projected onto loosely hanging sheets on the wall opposite the bed. It shows abandoned, sometimes half-finished buildings near Cork, which are a little damp under grey skies. There are two maps of Europe, one of which is classified as a ‘political map’. There is, on a shelf, a gold sticker not yet peeled from its backing, from the old Soho haberdashery shop Kleins, a few streets away. On the bedside table there is a copy of Xavier de Maistre’s 1794 ‘Journey Around My Room’, an elaborate and now experimental-seeming text in which the author recounts a ‘forty two day journey’ around his room, full of digressions and of geometries and cartographies of an interior space. It provides, if not an instruction, then an encouragement to review the exhibition through a notated audit. This book is perhaps a key text to the exhibition, or is perhaps relatively incidental. It is certainly one of the few pieces of ‘scenery’ in the exhibition that is quite clearly shown to be in use by the occupant of the rooms rather than stored, collected or placed.
A corridor leads from this room to the steps down to the third. There are rugs joining the spaces, a jacket and a dry-cleaner’s suit bag hanging from the walls, postcards, shoes, boots and a chair, and a bag containing newspapers. The bag appears either to be ready for a foray outside, to collect more, or perhaps to have been set down upon the return from such a trip. The corridor is interstitial within the scheme of the exhibition, not containing a video, but due to its lower-pressure atmosphere (in terms of being filled with objects) it prompts the thought that the viewer requires a photographic memory in order to make a reading of the surroundings – if indeed the objects are specific content rather than simply an elaborate setting. They have the effect of being both specific and otherwise; of being indexical to an atmosphere.
The third room, downstairs, is larger and divided into two areas by a partition wall. The first of these is itself sub-divided; partly a workshop and partly a kitchen. A small work surface and kitchen cabinet has cups, plates, a thermometer, a kettle, a coffee pot, some unlabeled tins of food and some tins of quail paté. A large workbench has drill-bits, nails, various tools, another map, a vice and radio. A small model of what appears to be one of the towering propellers from a wind-farm is left in mid-construction. It is quietly startling to see evidence of the occupant ‘making’ rather than ‘collecting’ here; suggesting at least that there is something pointed in the nature of the model under construction. It resonates as a muted appeal to gentler forms of technology than that of the subject of the video that plays in this zone of the exhibition.
On the other side of the partition wall there is a third video, a more expansive production and shown as a larger projection on the wall, with mismatched chairs arranged as one might expect in a gallery, though belonging in character to the furniture elsewhere in the exhibition. The video shows the area subjected to the nuclear disaster of Fukushima, and is more ‘dramatic’ in its cinematography and editing than those shown upstairs. As well as similar kinds of still scenes (that bring to mind De Rooij and De Rijke’s ‘Bantar Gebang’, a short 35mm sequence from 2000 showing the sun set over an Indonesian slum area) there are also moments where the camera is in motion. In fact there is a narrative bound into these movements: the camera is approaching the centre of the devastation (up until the point it is stopped, reaching a roadblock manned by a figure whose mouth is masked). The film occasionally cuts to the reading on a digital Geiger counter, the clicks-per-minute reading increasing, and whose ticking is heard during other parts of the footage. Huge, bagged piles of refuse are sorted by cranes, and still-functioning traffic lights instruct entirely absent drivers. The relative drama of this video is both alarming and surprisingly ‘cinematic’ (to use a clumsy term) in contrast to the relative stasis of everything else in the exhibition.
At either side of the seating area there are piles of books and newspapers, stacked much more neatly than the materials in the upstairs rooms. These ordered piles are the last things that the viewer encounters; they give the impression of being the source of the work being done at the desk in the first room, and perhaps the source of all the work; the research materials for the videos as well.
Whilst the apparent subject matter of the videos and films in both exhibitions are quite distinct, the two sets of work are linked by the way in which they fold interior and exterior space into one another. They both represent and construct spaces authored by accretion, by the gradual acquisition of objects and structures until a setting (or, in practice, a ‘set’ in the filmic sense) is created. This setting is then vacated by its author(s) and left to future witnesses to reassess. The states of presence and witness are subjected to a kind of Russian doll effect in the rooms of ‘Ghost Dwellings’, where the abandoned buildings are visited by a now departed camera, whose recordings are placed within rooms belonging to another now-departed witness and archivist.
The subject matter of ‘Inventory’, like the temporal collage of the media used, is a highly subjective historical record, an archive of sorts that is not exhaustive but is rather more personally written by the collector. Indeed, the gallery’s own text refers to the work as a ‘visual essay’ on ‘the impulse to collect’. In ‘Ghost Dwellings’, however, the evocation of authorship and collection is a more complex and richly ambiguous affair that invites a reading of objects and space both within and without the screen.