Blowing Smoke and Seahorses
240 x 170 mm
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. The range of subjects include a dying pot plant, a discarded stained mattress and a gas tank. 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. A dried fish split open with a stick, exposing the emptiness of its insides. 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 Tanis captures with precision: memorable images that embody these unnameable, formless emotions. Precisely this quality sets them apart from the everyday they document. ......
Dominic van den Boogerd
Blind Dogs, Fallen Men
200 x 140 mm
Café Royal Books
In Aram 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 his 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 how people judge things. It provides a standardization in society. Tanis wants to show the other side and go beyond the façade.
Fireflies Ain't Here Anymore is a project Aram Tanis started to work on during his travels to Asia. Tanis strayed the city streets to photograph its people, objects, animals 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 the autobiographical installation Fireflies Ain’t Here Anymore.
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.
Yesterday I was in the city to buy a black woollen sweater. When I sit in front of my window it feels like there is no glass separating me from the outside.
I see small snowflakes dancing through the air. Snowflakes that sometimes come together and then quickly say farewell. Twelve months ago we sat here in front of this window. I still have moments I can feel you sitting next to me.
People who lose a leg or an arm often feel pain after the limb has been removed. It’s like having a memory of the pain because it is wired into the brain. You are still wired into my brain.
While I am writing this there is a performance on television of a woman we both met when we were in art school. I didn’t realize it at first, but slowly the voice of Marina Abramović got through to me. I turned my face to the screen and saw Marina on the Great Wall of China. I recognized the part she was at. I mostly remember how I sat there in total silence looking at how the Wall, like a dragon, slithers over mountains and disappears into deep valleys. Marina and Ulay walked the Great Wall to mark the ending of their twelve-year relationship. Marina’s last words in the video of the performance are: “Because in the end you are really alone”.
A few minutes ago I was making myself a cup of tea. When I opened a glass jar filled with Korean tea leaves, the aroma that escaped took me straight back to my childhood.
The first time I went to the Netherlands from Korea has been a while ago. A plane filled with baby girls and me, the only boy, was heading for Amsterdam. I was on my way to another life, a Western life with an unknown future ahead.
The sleeves had to be rolled up. I was only allowed to touch my homework and the desk I was sitting at. I wasn’t allowed to touch my hair, face or other ‘clean’ stuff. There were also times when I did my homework downstairs. The rules were just as strict. The table top consisted of 12 tiles in length and 8 tiles in width. My homework had to stay within 6 by 4 tiles.
I had a nightmare about a deadly poisonous black widow. She was attacking me and eventually she just ate me.
Ella and Louis are singing the last notes of ‘Summertime’. Now it is Frank’s turn with ‘When Somebody Loves You’.
During breakfast I was thinking of us when we used to visit a jazz café near the Kiyomizu-dera Temple where they had two cats. Both had their own favourite place to rest and snooze on the rhythm of the music. At the café they served delicious homemade pies, blueberry muffins and cheesecakes.
Frank has started singing ‘I Believe That Dreams Come True’.
Listening to the music I realize my dad was right, loss by death is easier to deal with than loss by separation.
When I look up I see my reflection in the mirror. I never liked mirrors. As a teen I wanted to look white. No Asian eyes. No flat nose. Looking white was the answer to my uncertainties and would dissolve my loneliness.
Last month I was in Suwon, a city near Seoul. Streets filled with clinics. Plastic surgery is booming business in Korea and Suwon is the place to be to erase part of your Asian identity.
When I first walked in I entered a huge waiting room. It looked more like a dining hall. Everywhere were big, round wooden tables. On each table was a hand mirror. At one of the tables sat a girl, around 20 years old, looking at herself in the hand mirror. Every little detail in her face she closely inspected. Finally she put the mirror down to pick it up again a few seconds later. This ritual she repeated several times. Observing the whole thing made me feel anxious enough. I changed my mind and walked out of the clinic.
In Tokyo a large dog walked up to me. I was thirsty and decided to go to a bar and the dog just followed me. Haruki Murakami used to own a jazz bar named ‘The Peter Cat’. He sold it before he started his writing career. I knew where it was and to my amazement it still existed. As I walked in I could hear Miles Davis playing. I ordered a beer and some snacks as I sat down at the bar. The dog found a suitable place in a corner and looked quite content as he laid down.
This dog looked so familiar to me. After my third beer I remembered, it was Daido Moriyama’s ‘Stray Dog’. As you know, that photograph is one of my favourites. In this image the dog looks more like a wild wolf trying to survive in Tokyo.
I finished my beer and put some money on the bar. As I turned around the dog had left.
That evening I went to Ueno Park for a concert of Kondo, a Japanese trumpet player. Once I saw a video of him while he was performing at scenic spots throughout Japan. He was serenading the sunrise at Mount Aso and playing a tortured lament on the tsunami-ravaged coast of Kirikiri. What I liked about Kondo is that he said most trumpet players think the trumpet is a musical instrument to make sound with breathing, for him it is a musical instrument to express breathing.
I still don’t like coffee, but you left two bags with Nestlé powder, so I had a go at one of them when I came home from the concert. Did you know that the boss of Nestlé thinks water is not a fundamental human right? As I was sitting outside drinking my coffee, I looked at the moon. I realized that no matter where we are, we see the same moon. You can be in Mongolia, I can be in Korea and still we see the same moon at the same time. It’s a comforting thought.
Before I forget, your grandma appeared in my sleep. First I was completely taken by surprise. Then I was very happy to meet her again. I told her I was glad to see her, but she didn't have time to listen to me. In this brief moment, I had to promise her about seven times that I would tell you she is all right. Once your grandma was really convinced I would, she sat calmly at the end of my bed.
I remember as a child I walked up to the house and the smell and light of autumn just hit me. It was a memorable experience. I felt the same when I once went into an art gallery in Seoul. They exhibited an installation named ‘Before The Rain’, which captured the atmosphere and smell of an Asian city on a steamy day.
Talking about steamy days, a few years back I visited Hong Kong in June. The heat was unbearable. The air conditioning didn’t work. What made the whole thing worse; it was three in the morning and I was starving. I went through my whole apartment to see if I could find anything to eat. In every nook and cranny I searched for something edible, of course there was nothing. I was lucky though, there was a 24-hour restaurant within walking distance. By chance they served the best Chinese food I had ever tasted. That hot night this restaurant became my all time favourite. I often think back of that restaurant.
You can wake me up for fresh oysters, sushi, shrimps, fries, tacos, nachos, pies and what not. I am fascinated by food and how it’s being produced. I went to a butcher to see how a cow is turned into a steak and witnessed the process from A to Z. I don’t know why I am so obsessed with food. Maybe because I was underfed when I arrived in the Netherlands as a small baby.
This morning I read a post on Facebook by one of my ‘friends’. Today she is officially separated from her husband. She wishes him all the best and will always love him. Why would someone post that on Facebook for everybody to read? Is she so lonely that she wants compassion from someone, anyone?
The ravens are making loud noises again. The weather is changing. Dark clouds bring rain and lightning. Groups of ravens are soring through the air. The whole scene reminds me of ‘The Solitude of Ravens’. Some time after Masahisa Fukase made this work he slipped down the stairs in his favourite bar and fell into a coma of twenty years, before he died.
After his wife had left him, Fukase suffered from depression and alcoholism and was therefore probably drawn to these birds. In Japanese mythology ravens are disruptive presences and omens of dark and dangerous times.
A few days ago I had a strange dream. Everywhere I looked I saw empty bottles, fag butts, dirty pillows and stained bed sheets lying around. As I was trying to figure out what had happened, you walked up to me with some hard-boiled eggs in your hands and asked me if I had slept well. Then you started talking about your work, family and favourite alcoholic beverages.
In my dreams I can fly, travel to places I have never seen before and be a great film director. Since you left I haven’t made new work. I sometimes catch myself just sitting at the table staring out of the window. Sometimes my eyes focus on a tree standing in the far distance, then again on my own reflection in the window.
Today is the day to check my letterbox. I postponed it for as long as I could. Sometimes you just have to stare the beast in the eyes.
There is a white envelope with your handwriting on it. It makes me nervous.
You won’t be coming back.
I my heart I already knew, but hope is such a powerful emotion. The Dalai Lama once told me I should be living in the present. When I live in the now, I will be much happier since the past and future cannot weigh down on me. I replied, that is easier said than done.
Recently I found out Joni Mitchell gave up a baby daughter for adoption. I guess that’s why she has written such beautiful lyrics like ‘A Case of You’.
Work that moves me without knowing the story behind it, is what I love. It’s like the clouds of Nobuyoshi Araki. I have always loved those photos. Many photographers photograph clouds, but Araki’s clouds are the only clouds that move me. Later I found out he took those pictures from his balcony when he had just lost his wife. Now, many years later, I still carry his clouds with me, just as I always carry ‘A Case of You’ with me.
I can see he feels anxious. After a slight hesitation he walks up to me. As we hug I look at the woman standing close by. She looks away from me. I don’t know how she feels. Is she bored? Maybe she feels ashamed.
I walk towards her to introduce myself. When I take her hand, I see how fragile it is. I can see the contours of her bones and veins through the skin. We hold each other tight as we walk to the car.
This is how the first meeting goes in my fantasy.
When I think of death I wonder what the point of life is. We live a relatively short period of time. Most people are forgotten. I don’t know who my grandmother is. I don’t know who your grandfather is. I don’t even know who my biological parents are.
Fireflies Ain't Here Anymore has been exhibited among others at Caochangdi PhotoSpring (Beijing / CN), Gallery Korea (New York / USA), Ginza Graphic Gallery (Tokyo / JP), Misulsegye Gallery (Seoul / KR), Kunstverein Düsseldorf (Düsseldorf / DE), Timezone 8 - 798 Art District (Beijing / CN), Vegas Gallery (London / UK), The Twin Falls Center for the Arts (Idaho / USA), LhGWR (The Hague / NL), Art Space Wagemans (Beetsterzwaag / NL), Guest Studio Louwrien Wijers (Ferwert / NL), Incubate Festival (Tilburg / NL), C&H Art Space (Amsterdam / NL), Gare de Strasbourg (Strasbourg / FR), BASE (Milan / IT), Argument (Tilburg / NL), 10x10 Photobooks (New York / USA), Athens Photo Festival 2018 (Athens / GR), Istanbul Photobook Festival (Istanbul / TR) and Cosmos Arles Books (Arles / FR).
380 x 300 mm
Fireflies tells about Japan: modernity and chaos against tradition, which characterise the city in the collective imagination. A story in black and white, and of contrasts with photographs by Aram Tanis.