BLOWING SMOKE AND SEAHORSES
Dominic van den Boogerd
Wandering along the streets of China's ever expanding cities, along the vast construction sites, the dirty sweatshops, the shopping malls, the markets and the provisional dwellings of migrants in the cellars of enormous apartment blocks, Aram Tanis focuses on aspects of daily urban life that often escape the eye.
China as mapped by Aram Tanis stands in strong opposition to the image of China advocated by commercial advertising. If the enormous billboards speak of happy shiny family life, these photographs are about solitude, misery and loss. Tanis pictures do not reflect the glamour of success that came along with the 2008 Olympics, but the greyish light of the dirty skies over a harsh metropolis.
The seahorse mentioned in the title is a figure that may symbolize the spirit of this remarkable collection of photos. The seahorse has little enemies, as its bony body is hard to digest. Yet, along the coasts of China, the animal is under severe threat of extinction, as in traditional medicines the dried seahorse is believed to be a strong stimulant for the libido. As many as twenty million seahorses may be caught and sold for this purpose every year. The capacity of this little fish to adapt to the colours of its surroundings seems to be of little protection. It is a known symbol of grace and faith (the seahorse is a monogamous animal) and due to the nature of its own virtues endures as a perilous species. This makes it a perfect metaphor for this series by Aram Tanis, an artist known for his sixth sense for the wry side of life.
What do you photograph in a country where you see a lot and understand little? What do you document while travelling through vast and unknown cities, strange as it is incomprehensible? Knowledge of the world implies an attack on its compactness, an open eye for what is small and volatile. We see images of gaps and voids. A vessel turned upside down. The melancholic image of a stripped duck in a shop window is among pictures of animals which could function as indicators of the rigorous if not cruel ways the Chinese organize their society. The photographs of high rise blocks are devoid of human presence. Women, glorified and idolized in commercial photography that is abundant in China's streets and highways, are a mere mirage in Tanis’ works. China’s abundance of photographic imagery dissolves into oblivion. All that is left are feelings of alienation, disorientation and discomfort. This is what Aram Tanis captures with precision: memorable images that embody these unnameable, formless emotions. Precisely this quality sets them apart from the everyday they document.
FIREFLIES AIN'T HERE ANYMORE
Fireflies Ain't Here Anymore is a project Tanis started to work on during his travels to Asia. Tanis strayed the city streets to photograph its people, objects and buildings. Fascinated by the sharp contrasts he found there, Tanis kept on returning to Asia. Later on he started writing down his memories, which Tanis added to the photographs. The result is Fireflies Ain’t Here Anymore, an autobiographical installation that represents the places that have meant most to him.
Even though Tanis set out to establish an identity through his photographs, they convey a feeling of alienation. In his search for a sense of belonging he seems to dissect the city, trying to grasp and comprehend every aspect of it. He deliberately documents the disparity between beauty and crudeness, richness and poverty, tradition and modernity. Consequently, the photographs do not just reflect his own sense of indeterminateness, but also of the cities themselves.
While the photographs explore the beginnings of Tanis’ life, the texts pertain mostly to more recent memories. What at first sight looks like a collection of random anecdotes, unfolds to be fragments of a letter written to a loved one, it stays unclear to whom. Tanis words dart back and forth between recollections of time spent with this loved one and more general thoughts on topics such as loneliness and oblivion. The text offers a glance into Tanis’ mind and thereby adds a layer of context and depth to the photographs.
Is it a horse? No, there is something funny with that nose, that does not look like the nose of a horse. What is it? The gallery owner helps me: it is an anteater. His blurry head fills almost the entire image, which reflects the crazy muzzle flash. It's like being on the verge of kissing the beast, so up close was the black-and-white photo taken.
The one who took that photo was Aram Tanis. He presents his latest photographic installation Urban Jungle. Over the past seven years Tanis traveled to Asia where, without becoming clear at which location the photographs were taken, he captured urban daily life. And in a way he didn't. In these cities with her millions of citizens he constantly looked for places and situations where people were absent. That is, his pictures, show us human traces in the form of high-rise buildings, the swarming of electricity wires and dirty sidewalks. But the people seem to be wiped from the earth, like the first day after a catastrophe.
Only the animals are there. The anteater. Two peacocks, captured from so close that you almost squint when you look at them. A dog without head or tail, which falls outside the scope of the picture. A white parrot on a stick fills almost the entire image, like the bald corpse of a plucked duck. Here flies the combination of these animals and the desolation of the city you almost to the throat, while the series also contains beautiful individual images.
Urban Jungle is the result of a thorough empirical investigation into how the urban environment is being experienced. It is great how Tanis managed to turn his investigations into an installation that the viewer can actually feel. At that moment the photographer is in complete control.
In Tanis’ work Isolation and standardization are important themes. He also wants to make people aware and confront them with subjects they often pass by or ignore.
Important motifs in Tanis’ work are the buildings and the urban landscape. By photographing this the artist wants to capture the anonymity of the contemporary urban environment and the isolation of the people who live in it.
Tanis’ work about people and everyday objects refer also to this theme. He wants to show the less attractive side of (family) life. The media inundates us with stereotypes. People need to meet a certain standard to be found 'normal’. One must keep a certain lifestyle, which is ‘accepted’. The media determines what is beautiful and how people judge things. It provides a standardization in society. Tanis wants to show the other side and go beyond the façade.
During his residency at The Fifth Season Aram Tanis started working on a new project that deals with the theme obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Because Tanis grew up with a mother who suffers from this disorder; he knows how intrusive OCD can be for the person who has it but also for their surroundings. For Parallel Lives Tanis interviewed people who have OCD and incorporated their experiences and daily struggles into newly written texts.
In meticulous and poetic words Tanis captures thoughts and actions and creates an image of an in itself communicating inner world. The isolation and the absence caused by this disorder are gradually becoming more oppressive. The text, which is partly fiction and partly observation, takes the reader back and forth between different realities. It represents the complex feelings of how someone can experience him or herself as an outsider.
For Parallel Lives Tanis also made pictures on the grounds of the mental health institution where the residency is located. The sober black-and-white photos show objects as true living creatures, as things to talk to, as things that invade you and feed the fear. These are suggestive images that create a disturbing atmosphere: restless and frightening.
As a witness and person concerned, Tanis plays with the perspective of the child and the parent, giving the text a universal meaning. It's about many of us, and shows the impact of mental illness in a broader social context. It expresses the child's powerlessness and the desire to escape the determinative and oppressive reality.
OFF THE STRIP
Ask anyone what Las Vegas looks like and you’ll often receive the same answer: glittering lights and huge casinos. It is not even necessary to have visited to be able to picture the city in your mind. But besides the glitz and glamour of the strip, there are suburban, residential areas that are hardly seen – at least not by tourists. Aram Tanis documents these neighbourhoods in Off The Strip, seen in fleeting glances as an American muscle car speeds past. Black and white images show the emptiness of these spaces, the palm trees are still here, but modest condos, wire fences and back alleys betray the backstage part of this city. Hints of the Las Vegas we all know are visible in the background, high-rise apartments and large hotels are just about in shot, contrasting the foreground. The boring normality of it all actually serves as the antidote to the saturated kitsch that lies just a few hundred metres away.
The sea gives and the sea takes. Everyone living with the sea knows that. The Zeeuwen also in February 1953, when the water took over their land. As well as the father of Aram Tanis, who, as an eight-year-old boy, experienced the flood disaster.
In the documentary Departure Bay, created by Aram Tanis and Jacolijn Verhoef, the father talks about those fateful days. The memories complete the 'Big Story' of the flood disaster, as we know from the history books, with small scenes from everyday life. Such as cycling along the dykes, while the water was so high it was impossible to move forward; the filling of sandbags with his father; the disinfection of corps carriers and throwing snowballs with soldiers.
The father is filmed in a long close-up. The only additions are photos of the flood disaster, in which the water moves in further, still images. In this way the viewer gets a little bit closer to life as it was in February 1953. And that is special. Because no one spoke about what had happened afterwards. That makes the retrieval of memories not easier for the father. In one of the first minutes of the documentary he tries to keep his emotions in check. The vulnerability of that moment and that you are a witness to it has a touching effect. The respect of Verhoef and Tanis to the material testifies to their integrity. It ensures the emphasis is on the story.
Work In Progress
After working on Parallel Lives Tanis started creating still lifes with the materials his mothers, who has OCD, uses to clean with and objects she finds dirty or considers a risk hazard to her health.