Fiona Tan on Ascent: “A mountain will always escape a photograph”

In the artist-turned-filmmaker’s second feature, still images of Mount Fuji are used to tell a love story, and to raise questions about photography, loss and Japanese culture. She talks about missing the mountain, and why she asked the public to send her their snaps.

Geoffrey Macnab

Web exclusive

Ascent (2016)

Ascent (2016)

Fiona Tan’s Ascent is a film made up entirely of still images depicting one of Japan’s most recognisable landmarks: Mount Fuji. An ambitious affair, which works as a love story, a philosophical meditation on the nature of photography, a film about bereavement and even as a social history of Japan in the 20th century, the film comes complete with references to Japanese militarism and the American occupation. There’s a late appearance from Godzilla too. Tan made the film in collaboration with the Izu Photo Museum, located in the foothills of Mount Fuji. She was given full access to the photos of the sacred mountain held in the collection but the museum also launched a website for the project, inviting anyone to upload their own images. The images flooded in, some of them beautiful, some banal.

Interviewed at the Frith Street Gallery in London on the day of the 2016 London Film Festival screening of her film, Tan acknowledges she was startled by the variable quality of the photographs. “Some were really crappy – really, really crappy. I was surprised. Why did someone upload that for me? This is out of focus, blurred… I can hardly see the mountain. That [experience] said something to me about the state of photography now… I dreamed up this idea of taking photos as a starting point and then waited for the photos to come in.” The sheer variety of the images also startled her. It took a long time to catalogue them and to work out where they had been taken. There were historical as well as contemporary pictures. As she surveyed them, Tan decided she needed to do more research.

“The thing with Mount Fuji,” she says, “is that this single volcano in the most densely populated area of Japan is very visible from all over the place and that probably is the reason why it is iconic.” One telling image shows a row of Japanese photographers, looking like fishermen, standing on a bridge at the bottom of the mountain, taking yet more pictures, as if Mount Fuji hadn’t already been photographed enough.

Ascent (2016)

Ascent (2016)

“Only Japanese photographers would stand back and take a photo of their cameras photographing Mount Fuji, as if the person almost wasn’t there and it is the camera doing it,” says Tan. “I got incredibly well executed photos technically but quite often something is missing. They are quite… dead, so well-lit and sharp that you miss the human part of it.” She also received plenty of blurry pictures snapped on mobile phones by people in cars. In the end, Tan had around 4,000 photographs at her disposal, a “mountain of images” as she says and a fitting number for Fuji, since it’s just under 4,000 metres tall.

Ascent is the second feature film Tan has made in barely over a year. The first, her debut, History’s Future (2016), which screened at the 2016 Edinburgh Film Festival, was a more “conventional” film in that it had actors and moving images. Co-scripted by Jonathan Romney, this was the story of a man (Mark O’Halloran) who lost his memory after being beaten up. Cut loose from his everyday surroundings, he embarks on a journey across a very turbulent and politically divided Europe, trying to work out his own identity. “I was interested in the idea of the narrative self. If you lose that sense of narrative self [who you are], then you are in big trouble.”

With its imagery of clouds, Ascent is altogether calmer in its approach, if not in its conclusions. The mountain, we are told at the outset, is a “void that has the potential to be filled”. It is a canvas on which viewers can project any kind of feeling. Depending on your point of view, Fuji is benign or threatening. It’s a setting for soldiers on manoeuvres or for kids on a walk with their parents. It’s a holy place but one so familiar that everyone takes it for granted. The mountain is associated both with volcanic explosions and with cherry blossom, with permanence but also with transience. There is always something missing from even the most accomplished images of the mountain, an absence and a lingering sense of mystery. This, of course, is one of the reasons why people continue to snap away at it and why Tan’s film has such an enigmatic and beguiling quality. “The mountain is there and never there,” she says. “A mountain will always escape a photograph. You can never appropriately capture it.”

Ascent (2016)

Ascent (2016)

As we see the images of the Mount Fuji, a voiceover reveals the story of a love affair. We hear excerpts from letters from an English woman (voiced by Tan herself) to a Japanese man (voiced by Hiroki Hasegawa). The man has been dead for several years. The woman is grieving. She is sitting in an armchair in the study with her eyes closed, thinking of him. Thousands of years ago, the popular (Japanese) belief was that life itself originated on Mount Fuji. “It was the highest peak, the closest to heaven. There is quite a strong Asian religious tradition of mountains being holy and of monks going and living up in the mountains.”

The more Tan researched, the more the scope of the film expanded. Early on, she had expected the film to be about 10 minutes long, but the project quickly grew to feature-length.

Credit: Izu Photo Museum

“The working process was simple and complicated at the same time in that it was all happening at once… I was writing, editing and sound designing all at the same time because they [the different aspects] are all interconnected and depend on each other.” She was very conscious that she was an outsider, not someone with an intimate knowledge of Shinto religion or Japanese history. The film has references to Vincent Van Gogh, who collected Japanese woodcuts and had a strangely sentimental attitude toward the country, writing of “the so uncomplicated Japanese who live in nature as if they are flowers themselves”.

Uncomplicated the Japanese certainly are not. Tan saw many paradoxical aspects of Japanese culture that her film could touch on. Yet, at the same time, she was wary about being overly didactic – one reason why she introduced the story of the love affair.

Tan presented a rough version of the script to her editor, Nathalie Alonso Casale, early on but she continued to add to the script and to rewrite it. She relished the challenge of paring cinema “down to its most elementary parts” and making a film with “almost nothing”. The director knew that Mount Fuji had been “censored out of all movies” during the American occupation of Japan after World War II. She discovered photographs showing US airplanes flying over the mountain, and she had also been sent dozens of postcards of Japanese soldiers posing in front of it. There had been a military base at the foot of Fuji. She was very struck by one image of a slightly gawky looking and bespectacled Emperor Hirohito, pictured on the slopes, wearing a tweed suit and a pith helmet.

Ascent (2016)

Ascent (2016)

Late in the film, there is a prolonged dialogue about the nature of photography and that of moving images. It is suggested that film is “fire” and that photography is “ice”. The latter is about arresting time and the former about accelerating it. Photography is compared to grief as a way to try to hold on to a memory of a person or a place. “I guess for me on a personal level, I was trying to pre-empt something,” says Tan. “When I was in the final stages of the film, my father, who had been ill for some time, died. [Making the film] was me dealing with that before I realised.”

In an era in which almost everyone has a camera in their pocket, Tan has observed the way that photography is used so often as a barrier, to keep reality at bay. She talks about visitors to her exhibitions who, “Take out their phone and snap away… It’s like: ‘Well I’ve been here.’ They haven’t! The camera has been here but what does that mean? It is this thing of looking at something through an image. I go to a huge amount of care to make an exhibition a worthwhile experience. You can only do that by being there yourself. There is no way that a website or a photo in your magazine or a photo on your phone can replace that.”

It’s hardly surprising that Tan cites Chris Marker as one of the influences on Ascent. Her inspiration isn’t just from Marker’s still-image science-fiction movie La Jeteé (1962) but, more significantly, from Marker’s 1982 documentary, Sans Soleil. Before embarking on Ascent, she studied Marker’s use of voice-over in Sans Soleil. “I’ve dealt with voiceover or “voice under” as I like to call it, quite a lot in my work.” In preparation for Ascent, she also showed her editor and sound designer Patrick Keiller’s 1994 film, London, which uses narration in a similar way.

Fiona Tan

Fiona Tan

Tan, who lives and works in Amsterdam, has had many exhibitions at venues from the Venice Biennale to the Rijksmuseum, from the Photographers’ Gallery in London to the BALTIC Centre in Gateshead and the National Museum of Art, Architecture, and Design, Oslo. She is one of a number of artists exploring the opportunities of working in cinema. However, having made two films back-to-back, she sounds wary about continuing to make features.

“On the one hand, in terms of the end result, when you just watch a film or go to an exhibition and see a video installation, you think there’s hardly any difference. It’s the same medium, you are dealing with the same subject matter… on that level, there is almost no difference so why not?” She pauses, then adds: “In terms of how the worlds work, there is quite a lot of difference. That might be one reason for me not to continue in this way, because it has its complicated sides.” As an artist used to being in control of her work, Tan found it draining to put together together funding for History’s Future (which she co-produced). She didn’t always appreciate having to take notes from financiers. Art and film are “two different worlds. They’d like to cross over but it is quite complicated in reality.”

As a Dutch artist living in a “country as flat as a pancake”, Tan relished the challenge of making a film based on a mountain landscape. Several years ago, she described herself as “a professional foreigner,” a tag she now resists as being glib and limiting. She still travels widely. She grew up in Australia, lives in Amsterdam and, earlier this autumn, began a stint as artist in residence at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. She chafes against attempts to pigeonhole her either as an artist or a filmmaker.

Ascent (2016)

Ascent (2016)

Asked about her own feelings toward Mount Fuji, she admits that before she started Ascent, she thought this was “the last thing” a Western artist making a film about Japan should take as a subject. “It’s an absolute cliché. It is quite ironic that I ended up doing it and quite nerve-wracking too. I thought, ‘How on earth can I say something new?’ But when I realised what a wealth of stuff has not been said about the mountain, I thought that was OK!”

Earlier in the summer of 2016, just after the film was completed, Tan and her family were back in Japan. They set out to climb the mountain but were caught in a very fierce storm. Her son had his arm in plaster, which wasn’t supposed to get wet. They had to turn back. “I thought that was incredibly fitting. The whole time I was in Japan, we didn’t ever see the mountain. It was shrouded in clouds.”

Finally, when they were about to depart, they were at a gallery opening in Tokyo. From the 49th floor of a building, they finally caught sight of Fuji. “It was like the mountain saying goodbye!”

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