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WWFD? In Conversation with Fiona Amundsen

WW..D? Is an interview segment where we get to know awesome people that are a part of the creative community in New Zealand.

This week we spoke to Fiona Amundsen. Fiona is a New Zealand photographer making work that is influenced by her background in social anthropology. A firm interest in the Asia Pacific region Fiona explores sites of trauma, memorialisation and documentary. Read more for what would Fiona do?

I remember you started off 2014 with a residency in Japan at Tokyo Wonder Site, how was it?

The residency was incredible because it was very structured but also completely open. When I say structured I mean that you had to apply with a project that related to or reflected on Tokyo in some way.  Once in Tokyo, each person got assigned with a ‘minder’ (mine was called Miwa san) who helped set up meetings that were appropriate to your work.  As a result I met some amazing curators from major museums, which would be hard to achieve on my own.  The residency really looked after me, and Miwa san was really supportive; she did all the translations for me in terms of the site that I was photographing.  Another really amazing aspect of this residency was all the artists I met: we arrived at the same time and there was this feeling that we were all in this experience together. We were discovering the city together, while also working on our individual projects; we would do weekly critiques of each other’s work, go out for dinners, and have incredible conversations related to art making.

That sounds amazing! Is this the first residency that you’ve been to that’s had this structure?

Yes, it’s the first residency that I’ve been on that’s been like this, that’s been so well structured and organised.  It has ruined me for any other residency!

Right! Going to a new country seems so intimidating so it would have been great to have all that support.

Yes, although it’s exciting, residencies can get pretty lonely as you’re so focused on your work.  However for me it was a slightly different as I’d been to Japan because and a lot of my work is focused on that region: also I know Tokyo quite well and I can speak some Japanese.  With the other residents, I became the Japanese speaker which was quite funny!  There was a real camaraderie amongst the residents as in we really operated collectively even though we were doing solo projects.  I haven’t found other residencies to be like that, but I’m sure they exist.

What was your project for this residency? 

I was looking at the controversial Shinto Yasakuni Shrine, which enshrines people who died serving the emperor.  The shrine in and of itself is not problematic, however there are over 1,000 convicted war criminals (from WWII) that have become enshrined, and when you’re enshrined you become a spirit and the spirit is seen as a kind of god or deity.  In other words, war criminals become glorified through the enshrinement process.  Also, there is a museum onsite called Yushukan, which presents this history of Japan in terms of WWII (as well as other wars relating to Jaoan) and it makes Japan as a sort of liberator of Asia from western colonization.  Although this has some accuracy, it leaves out all the atrocities that Japan committed in terms of their own imperial expansion, the colonization of Taiwan and Korea, and the Nanking massacre. None of this is mentioned… Yushukan gives a very narrow story. Also, just before I went to Japan, Prime Minister Abe made an official visit to the shrine which is not only funded by tax payers but is also like having your national leader glorify war criminals.

Wow that’s a pretty big statement that can be read in so many ways.

Yes, the history and experiences are so complex and so layered.

Is the shrine used by the local community? 

Yes and that’s what was really interesting … There are just over two and half million souls enshrined at Yasukuni, but they become over-shadowed by the one thousand convicted war criminals.  I kept thinking about the other souls; the ones who died before WWII, who had nothing to do with Japan’s Imperial conquests.  I was interested in how the site holds so much contradictions.

Ah right, it sounds like a complex situation to those who have ancestors enshrined but are wary to visit because of that particular narrative.

Totally, so the shrine is basically known for this single narrative, and of course there are so many other narratives and experiences there. Another thing I was interested in is how the whole process of convicting the war criminals was a biased process in the first place and its a complicated history in this sense – its not that Japan is innocent as it were, the crimes they committed were terrible but I think there is a relationship to America’s participation: the dropping of atomic bomb twice, civilian bombing, the internment of any American of Japanese descent.  It’s how to hold all this contradiction, and then to narrate it, or visualize it that I’m interested in.

Where did this interest in Japanese history come from?

Well I think its two things, firstly I have a personal connection to Japan, a family connection – I’ve watched my partner constantly negotiate racism in terms of an experience of being here and being Japanese, and also her family were really affected by that war. Another aspect that I am really interested in is the sense that this is our history too – we live in the Asia Pacific region which is where this war was fought and has subsequently shaped the geo-politics of this area now. When I reflect on my high school education it was so Eurocentric and positioned any narratives around WWII from this positioning.  The complexities of the racism that was directed towards the Japanese was never addressed.  However in saying this I know it’s problematic as the Japanese were racist to their Asian neighbors, and of course their own (very violent) colonial conquests in places like Okinawa, Taiwan, Korea, China, Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore – it’s a very long list – illustrate this.  I’m interested in the contradictions that exist around these narratives, especially as they relate to American (British, French, and Dutch) colonization.

Do you come across criticism about making work about these issues?

Yes, a lot! I think firstly it’s important to say that I’m not trying to speak for a Japanese (or anyone’s) experience, I mean I cant speak for this, I’m not Japanese. So it’s not my history to own or inherit. However, I’m interested in trying to speak into a space that is a collective space and when I say collective I mean humanity, that we are all responsible for what happens now.  I think I’m interested in addressing and critiquing present day racism by looking at these histories that are linked to WWII.   I think the really key thing is that I’m not trying to speak for anybody else but I am trying to speak into a space that I believe is important.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot⎯my work asks its audience to trust that I’ve gone through some kind of process in terms of the people (here I mean survivors of these experiences) that I work with.  If these people, who’ve had such horrific experiences can trust me with their stories, then the audience of the resulting artwork needs to as well.  My first concern is with the people I work with.

That sounds like a busy practice, being a full time tutor at AUT how do you manage making art at the same time?

Well for a start I don’t have a traditional studio practice, as in I’m not tied to a space. This means I can work in chunks of intensity so the residency model is perfect for me. Also I think the way I can manage my practice, is that working in an institution provides me with chunks of concentrated time, as opposed to a 9-5 type job.  These chunks of time allow me to do intense projects.  And when I’m not doing projects, and I’m just doing my normal teaching job, then I have time for reflection, reading and research, which is equally as important as making.

Because you didn’t go through art school yourself, do you think that effects the way you teach in the institution?

Yes I do. I think I come from a different position in the sense of the processes involved in getting to a resolved artwork – there are such a multitude of ways to do this and labouring away in the studio is just one way.  There are other ways too and I really believe that reflection is so important – I’m meaning reflection on what you’ve done as opposed to what you’re doing. This is a constant process for me: I read, make, reflect, read, make, reflect… this is how I shift and change things in my relationship to art making.  This is the approach I take into teaching.  I think the main thing I try to encourage in my students is the ability to critically reflect on not only what they’re doing but also how they see the world and how they see themselves in that world: I’m really passionate about this.

Do you feel any type of pressure as you play an important role in influencing young artists? 

I think I feel more of a responsibility and I think as a teacher the thing that I strive for the most is to be consistent no matter who I’m talking to.  Obviously with teaching… how do I put this.. there’s always a spectrum, some students work is just amazing and engaging… like yours for example… but regardless, everyone deserves a consistent caring response.

Thank you!

You’re welcome!  With my teaching, the thing I try to do is to be consistent, and I try to be generous, as well as ‘firm but fair’ to everyone.

I can imagine that being quite hard?

I think I try to remember that there’s a human being on the end of that work that they’re presenting and it takes a lot of guts to do that and my job is to respond respectfully but also in a critical manner that is directed to the work.  I start critiques by saying we need to bring our aroha, because there’s no point in pulling someone down just for the sake of it; this is not going to help them, you can be critical but you need to do it in (I believe) a loving and caring kind way.  If you don’t do this, then the student isn’t going to trust you.

During your time as a teacher do you have any favourite memories or moments?

Yes of course!  The most exciting moments are when you have a student that’s been struggling for whatever reason and the you find a way to enable the student to find within themselves their own way of ‘moving forward’.  The other thing that gets me every time is after I’ve given a lecture and students say something positive.  For example, last year after I gave the lecture on Duchamp a student came up to me in a studio class and said “I just wanted to tell you that the Duchamp lecture changed my life’… that stuff is gold!  Students don’t realise how effecting it is when they say back to you “hey that was a really great lecture” or “I hadn’t thought about that”, or whatever because when your lecturing people can look pretty blank when they’re looking back at you.  I’ve realized over the years that they’re just processing information.  Last year before I went on sabbatical the year three students gave me a card and they said the most lovely things and I realized then that I do have an impact on them… this is something that is hard to realize day to day when you are in it, so to speak.

That’s so sweet! Also after doing a couple presentations I totally know the blank face look… it’s so scary! Now for the fun question, if you were to have any five artworks in the world what would they be?

That’s’ a damn good question! Ok I would have any work by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin who are two British South African artists but I would probably choose thier work titled War Primer.  I guess if I think about this as a kind of whakaapapa then I need some grandparents in there too, so anything from Hiller and Bernd Becher.  They’re so important in terms of my relationship to photography so they’re like my grandparents where as Broomberg and Chanarin would be like when you have cousins and they’re quite a bit older than you – a good ten years older than you – and you look up to them. Next, I’d go for the American artist Eric Baudelaire, particularly the work titled The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi, and 27 Years Without Images.  It’s a moving image/ photographic work that looks at the history of Japanese communism in Lebanon in the 1970’s – it’s a really clever critiquing of history, archive and truth within image making.  I’m also very interested in Hito Steyerl who is German Japanese theorist and artist.  She does these moving image essay performances and they’re often lectures as well.  Her thinking about photography is so interesting.  Finally, I would love to live with a work by the Japanese artists Leiko Shiga, anything from the Rasen Kaigan series. 

I have one last question, what advice would you give to young artists?

Well I think the practical advice would be that being an artist is a really a strategic exercise, it’s really important where you show, who you show with, and who writes about your work.  This is so much about building a trajectory and a career as an artist… but you could argue that this is what art schools teach you.  I think that the hardest thing for an artist to do is to constantly believe in the work they make, because you get so many knocks and set backs, so you really have to believe in your work, in what you do.  Being an artist is 90% hard work and you have to have the tenacity to keep going, even when you’re not so sure about what you are trying to do with your work… this also means being open to new things.  I think this is both the hardest and the best thing about being an artist, because this requires being open to change, which is always a constant.

Image courtesy of the artist: Trees on the Cliff Tops of Mabuni Hill, Itoman City, Okinawa, 21/09/2014, 6.33 (spirit wind) 2015, from the series Violent Wind of Steel.

Interview conducted by Louisa Afoa

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