Malaysian filmmaker showcases art at one of the world's biggest photo festivals


'My exhibition is mainly to pose a question about the meaning of photography, authorship and ownership, which I do not think I have an answer myself,' says Tan, who is exhibiting a series of works at the Rencontres d'Arles international photography festival in Arles, France. On the right is Wang Yiquan, the exhibition curator from China. Photo: Adrien LMS

Award-winning filmmaker-artist Tan Chui Mui’s Just Because You Pressed The Shutter? is one of the exhibitions featuring at the 54th edition of the Rencontres d’Arles international photography festival, which opened in the southern French city of Arles on July 3.

Her exhibition series, featuring photography and video, expands on the notion of image and artwork. It is being held at the heritage site Montmajour Abbey, a monastery building in the heart of the Arles region.

The Rencontres d’Arles photography festival, founded in 1970, is a major influence in exhibiting the best of world photography and playing the role of a springboard for photographic and contemporary creative talents.

Tan original exhibition first premiered in China in 2022 and was her first solo exhibition in the field of contemporary art, despite her prior acclaim in the international film industry.

Last year, the exhibition was held at the Jimei x Arles International Photo Festival in Xiamen, China and it won the Jimei x Arles Discovery Award, providing the opportunity for Tan to exhibit in France this year.

“The photograph captures the scene, but the scene was always there. You did not build the camera. Why should the photograph belong to you? Because you composed the shot? Just because you pressed the shutter?” reads the exhibition notes.

Tan is exhibiting a series of works at the Rencontres d’Arles International Photography Festival in France. She is standing alongside the exhibition’s curator Wang Yiquan. Photo: Adrien LMS Tan is exhibiting a series of works at the Rencontres d’Arles International Photography Festival in France. She is standing alongside the exhibition’s curator Wang Yiquan. Photo: Adrien LMS

For her updated exhibition in Arles, Tan utilised popular artificial intelligence (AI) image software Midjourney and DALL-E to produce two series of artworks, mirroring her reflections on copyright, ownership and image making.

“My exhibition is mainly to pose a question about the meaning of photography, authorship and ownership, which I do not think I have an answer myself. A photographer captures a photo, with the action of composing the photo, choosing the lens and the mise en scene, and ultimately, choosing the moment to press the shutter and hence ‘creating’ an artwork of a captured moment, freezes a moment from the flow of eternity,” said Tan.

“How does the photographer claim ownership or copyright? The moon and mountains have been here for millions of years. The photographer stood there and took a photo, so is it because of his presence? Or his emotional connection with this landscape? A boy jumped over a puddle of water, the photographer waited and captured the precise moment. Is it because of the time he waited?” she added.

A work from Tan's 'Kinmen' series (2022), which presents the land of her ancestors, Kinmen Island in Taiwan. Photo: Tan Chui Mui A work from Tan's 'Kinmen' series (2022), which presents the land of her ancestors, Kinmen Island in Taiwan. Photo: Tan Chui Mui

The Kinmen series (2022) presents the land of her ancestors, Kinmen Island in Taiwan, through the lens of her imagination, while the Arles series (2023) was inspired by the 1980s boom of Japanese tourists flocking to cities across Europe and North America, who were able to capture myriad photographs of Western architecture on home cameras thanks to their country’s economic growth.

“In Tan’s conceptual works, however, the Japanese have been replaced by Chinese tourists, and the era has switched to the 2000s,” elaborated Shanghai-based Wang Yiquan, who curated Tan’s exhibition in France.

The Arles series features Luma Tower, designed by famed architect Frank Gehry, and the Arles Amphitheatre, a Unesco world heritage site, which take the spotlight in AI generated images, creating a humourous, sometimes unsettling effect.

The Just Because You Pressed The Shutter? exhibition also showcases Tan’s latest video work The Emotion Machine, a nine-hour-long video referencing American scientist and AI pioneer Marvin Minsky’s book of the same title.

A view of Tan's exhibition at the Rencontres d'Arles Festival in Arles, France. The show is being held at the Montmajour Abbey heritage site. Photo: Wang YiquanA view of Tan's exhibition at the Rencontres d'Arles Festival in Arles, France. The show is being held at the Montmajour Abbey heritage site. Photo: Wang Yiquan

The video consists of snippets from Tan’s typical daily life – you’ll see her riding a scooter in the alleys of Kuala Lumpur or practising Brazilian jiu-jitsu (she is a martial arts enthusiast).

“These images are no longer Cartier Bresson-esque decisive moments, but portray contemporary life in all its details,” said Tan.

This year’s Rencontres d’Arles International Photography Festival, which runs until Sept 24, revolves around the theme “A State of Consciousness”, delving into how artists capture the profound transformations of our times. The festival invited 105 artists and 40 curators to present 44 exhibitions across 24 venues.

Hailing from Kuantan, Pahang, Tan has produced a number of award-winning short films and feature films. Her third feature, Barbarian Invasion (2021), won the Jury Grand Prix at the 24th Shanghai International Film Festival (SIFF).

Last December, she also picked up the Best Actress award for her main role in Barbarian Invasion (which she also directed) at the 32nd Malaysian Film Festival (FFM) Awards.

Tan’s upcoming feature, All About Yuyu, earned the ‘Most Creative Project’ award at the 25th SIFF Project Market, a component event of the main festival.

The project, a Malaysia-China co-production that is planned to be shot in Malaysia, is a story that combines contemporary wuxia (Chinese heroic martial arts) with youth elements.

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