Fiona Tan’s Ascent

Visual artist Fiona Tan’s Ascent is a collection of still photographs edited together that mirrors the construction of film as a single image at a time. The only difference is that Tan threads together still moments as opposed to the liberated movement of the filmic imagery, both within the frame and in its connection to the preceding and succeeding images. Ascent’s study of Mount Fuji in stillness offers not only an aesthetic experience, but one that touches upon the very nature of the still image. Tan has created a film that addresses a multitude of ideas, from our perception of stillness and our innate propensity to create movement in stillness, to the reasons we are aesthetically drawn to the form of a particular image.

In conversation with Aesthetica at London’s Frith Street Gallery, Golden Square, Tan discussed the connection Ascent shares with her work and the ideas central to the making of the film. She also shared her thoughts on the relationship between photography, film and memory, and how the identity of our world is a human construct.

ASFF: How do you look upon the place Ascent occupies within your body of work as a whole?
FT: There are quite a few connections I can see with the strands in my work. Firstly, there is this ongoing investigation into photography and also working with found images, which is something that has been in my work from the beginning. Not necessarily both the same thing, but both those questions are repeatedly looked into and explored.

When I first started working with moving images I found myself collecting stills from television and editing with them. Then I started working with film archives and made a body of work using only film fragments, but I have also always filmed myself and have sometimes combined found footage with my own. A central concern is this investigation into what is a filmed image or what is lens-based imagery. What does it mean for us and how do we deal with it? Why does it fascinate me and why are there certain images that don’t let me go, that I have to look at again and again, and investigate? I’m constantly looking at looking – at the way we look, and in this film, this comes even more to the forefront than in other recent works.

As I said I had been working with archives and I also started making my own, particularly photographic ones. There is a series of works called Vox Populi, of which I’ve made five that is both a book publication and a large wall piece. All images are amateur photos from people’s photo albums, which I then make a selection of and carefully arrange. The relation to Ascent is clear because a large amount of photographs from Ascent are amateur photographs. For Ascent we launched a website for people to upload their images for this project and I managed to collate more than four thousand photographs – the basis of the film. Not all four thousand are in the film, but that was what I started with.

ASFF: In Ascent you take Mount Fuji and you study it through the still image. This connects to an innate human fascination to study an image, in order to understand or attempt to understand the appeal of its form on an aesthetic level.
FT: Yes, but also there were several ideas central to the making of this film. Firstly, it was was my goal to try and make a feature length film using only still images, which felt like mission impossible, but it was something that I really wanted to try and achieve. Secondly it’s about a mountain and our relationship to this mountain and to landscape. I really like hiking mountains and I’m very conscious of the fact that no photograph ever does any mountain justice. There’s always something lacking. There’s this feeling of scale, space, expanse and it’s never in the image. So why do we still take photographs? Whilst I was always aware of photography’s shortcomings, paradoxically throughout the editing process I was constantly hit, touched and moved by the images.

As quite often happens when you are editing something very intensely, you get blind and tired, and you think, oh, I can’t bear to see another photo of whatever it is you are working on. I thought I’d definitely feel this because I was dealing with one and the same subject the whole time, but this didn’t happen. I had all these images, all organised in folders to help me think about it. I guess it was such a wealth of diverse images that I’d sometimes come across an image that I had already seen twenty times, and would think, wow, that’s a good image…Gosh! It would hit me again and that surprised me. I didn’t think that would happen and that’s something that I still haven’t adequately delved into, but hopefully it’s in the film without me having to dissect it [laughs]. I hope the piece is beautiful, but not only that. People tell me it is [laughs].

ASFF: Film is an offshoot of all the various art forms and certainly photography. Does Ascent take an approach that is natural to us, an extension of ourselves, wherein we have the propensity to view images with movement in spite of their stillness?
FT: I wonder… It’s something I ask myself a great deal – what is the relationship between photography, film and memory? Much has been written and said about how cinema is similar to dreams and memory, and about the way editing works in film – how we construct the narrative and meaning in our head as we are watching a film. It’s tempting to think that film language operates similarly to the way our memory works.

For Ascent I was looking into the crossover between film and photography, something I try to deal with within the film’s commentary as well. Agnès Varda said that we remember in still images and I’m inclined to agree with her. I was reading about this recently. Current theory suggests that memory is actually something that you are reconstructing on the fly, as you are remembering something, and so the prevailing image of memory as a hard disc where all is stored with perfect recall, on a one to one accuracy, I feel this is incorrect. I am inclined to think that even when you think of a book, a film or a very strong experience, you hide the memory of that experience behind one image in your head. When you then touch that image, sort of like a leporello –  a whole set of images folded in concertina form – you flip it open and it unfolds for you.

Memory as something in flow, as something moving. Not fixed, but lurking behind placeholders in the form of still images. I don’t know where truth lies – the truth probably lies in many places. But these thoughts strengthened my resolve to make a film with still images only. I thought, maybe I can make magic, maybe I can make it move sometimes. I’ve spoken to some audience members that are convinced there are a few moving images in there, but there are not. Even for me there is one part in the film where I could swear to you that it moves, which has something to do with the sound. At the end of the film where we are waiting on the top of the mountain for the sun to come over the horizon and the sun is flashing, I could swear to you that something is moving there [laughs], even though I’ve seen it umpteen times [laughs], and I know for sure it is a still image. So we trick ourselves – it’s an optical illusion.

ASFF: In Buddhism there is the idea that there is no truth.
FT: No, of course there is not just one truth.

ASFF: Thinking of the thought experiment, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it…” if no one is around to see the mountain…
FT: The mountain wouldn’t care. The mountain would still be the mountain [laughs].

ASFF: We must be cautious as to how we identify our world because as humans we project our own consciousness onto nature that is without consciousness. Therefore, the identity of our world is the projection of our flawed subjectivity.
FT: Of course, and that’s the thing with a mountain. It’s always going to be a mountain, it’s just a pile of stones, but we make so much more of it or less of it, we use it or misuse it, and I talk about that in the film. All you are doing is looking at all these pictures, but meanwhile there are all these different strands and ideas coming and going throughout the eighty minutes.

Ascent plays as part of the Deep Focus: Frameworks strand at the 46th International Film Festival Rotterdam.

It will be screened on January 27 at 16:30 in Kino 1, January 29 at 22:00 in LantarenVenster 6 and on February 1 at 09:30 in Pathé 3.

Paul Risker

1. Fiona Tan, Ascent (film still).