Interview with Fiona Amundsen
Many of your artworks seem to treat the Second World War as a part of human history, how did you decide to deepen your research on it?
I am very interested in how WWII, particularly the Asia-Pacific battles, has defined the contemporary geo-politics of both Asia (Japan) but also the Pacific (Aotearoa New Zealand) regions. In short, we are still living the ramifications of this history. When I was growing up, we were only really taught about our country’s involvement in fighting that took place in Europe; very little attention was given to the history of what took place in Asia and the Pacific.
This focus is because Aotearoa New Zealand was colonized by the British, and as a result our education system gives more weight to histories that are Anglo-European. As a way to critique that bias (and its racism), I started to focus on WWII histories that are much closer to where Aotearoa New Zealand is geographically located. In other words, I have become interested in the colonial and imperial regimes that have impacted this region.
I am very interested in questioning how this history resides in the present and what is required to memorialize in socio-ethically responsible ways. My artworks aim to explore not only how to visualize this difficult history, but how to be present to what it can teach us about the human-to-human care that our present cultural moment is so desperately in need of.
How did you come up with the three keywords "rakugo," "filmmaking," and "zanshin" in your artwork for Tokyo Biennale? Were you originally interested in rakugo and aikido?
My art practice works with lens-based images, meaning photography and filmmaking. Within my filmmaking, I am very drawn to the Māori filmmaker Barry Barclay’s proposition that “we might do well to further explore how to make the camera a listener”. This strategy resists focusing on what is literally visible or knowable through images. Instead, attention is directed towards an image’s witnessing, consciousness raising capabilities, meaning its ability to enable collective listening as much as seeing. I am interested in how Barclay’s ‘listening camera’ invites connection and relationship beyond what we can necessarily know or see. This connecting camera is particularly significant in the context of historical colonial and imperial violence, where relationships are intercultural and intergenerational.
 Barclay, Barry. Our Own Image: A Story of a Māori Filmmaker. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.
I have practiced aikido for the last four years. Although I consider myself to be very much a novice, practicing aikido has impacted all aspects of my life. As a budō practice, aikido is non-combative and the primary aim involves overcoming oneself, instead of cultivating violence or aggressiveness. Aikido is often translated as ‘the way of unifying with life energy’. Through my training, I have been introduced to the concept of zanshin, which I am enamoured with. Zanshin translates as remaining mind, breath and body. The purpose of this concept in aikido is to practice a greater awareness of a technique just executed, or put differently, to develop an embodied consciousness with the continuity of a created and shared experience. As I started to understand zanshin within my aikido training, I started to wonder if the camera could also function in a similar way, particularly in relationship to working with complex difficult histories. Part of my project for the Tokyo Biennale explores ideas of zanshin not only in relationship to a specific WWII history—the March 1945 American fire-bombing of Tokyo—but also in terms of filming and editing.
I’ve always been interested in rakugo because of the way this form of storytelling relies on imagination. I think there are some interesting parallels to explore between Barclay’s ‘listening camera’ and the aikido practice of zanshin; they all invite forms of connection and relationship that go beyond what can necessarily be seen or known.
Small Tree growing near Shin-Ohasi-dori, Morishita, Koto Ward, Tokyo, 06/02/2017
What is important for you when considering and creating your artwork?
The people involved in the making of my work are always the most important aspect. I am very conscious that I am a foreigner to Japan and I am asking people to share painful experiences. Also, I am using a camera (which can be invasive) to work with painful experiences to which I do not have a familial or cultural connection with.
Accordingly, the ongoing relationships that I form with the people who share their stories with me (and my camera) are very important. I am interested in how to communicate something of these relationships into the artworks. It is important that the artworks function to teach us about humanity and the processes required to care for each other and assume a sacred responsibility for life and living. I am interested in how my artworks function as an invitation to ethically connect with painful histories; I am committed to this idea and to the people I work with to explore this idea.
There is a beautiful Māori (the indigenous people of Aotearoa New Zealand) proverb that I often think of when making artworks:
He aha te mea nui o te ao
What is the most important thing in the world?
He tangata, he tangata, he tangata
It is the people, it is the people, it is the people
You are participating in a program called "social dive", in which you will dive into the city of Tokyo. What is your image of Tokyo, or current Japan?
My image of Tokyo (and Japan) is layered. I am interested in how Tokyo as a city does not seem to privilege either its historical past, the contemporary present, or its future. I am fascinated by how such a hugely populated city can function where time—historical, present-day, and future—is not experienced in a linear way.
What do you expect of Tokyo Biennale as an event? What makes Tokyo Biennale different from other art festivals you have participated in?
One of the things that has already made the Tokyo Biennale different from other art festivals I have participated in was the initial call for proposals for the ‘Social Dive’ programme. I cannot think of another major art event that allows for this kind of inclusion—I find it refreshingly egalitarian!
This same sense of equity was extended to the discussion around how to proceed within the uncertainty produced through the COVID-19 pandemic. It was amazing to be part of a Zoom call with 108 participants where we discussed ways to carry on in a very uncertain world.
I am expecting that the Tokyo Biennale will be an amazing opportunity to develop a new series of artworks in a supportive and stimulating environment. I am also excited to meet the other artists involved and to see their artworks. I am very much looking forward to arriving in Tokyo to develop my artworks.
Please tell us about the current progress of your upcoming work, Our Remaining Breath. What kind of work do you think it will be?
My work for the Tokyo Biennale will consist of a video artwork that is made in response to experiences of the WWII March 1945 fire-bombing of Tokyo. I will be working with aikido and rakugo practitioners to communicate these experiences.
To prepare for arriving in Tokyo next year, I have been working with a local rakugo performer here in Aotearoa New Zealand. We have been having some interesting discussions about storytelling and I have been doing some filming experiments. I have also been engaged in similar kinds of tests at the aikido dojo I belong to. In particular I have been doing some sound recordings of the various breathing exercises associated with aikido training.
At the time of responding to these interview questions, Auckland has just returned to its second period of lockdown due to community transition of COVID-19, which means I am currently confined to my home for the next 2-3 weeks. Once we are out of lockdown I will return to these various filming and sound recording experiments.
I think it's an inconvenience now that Corona is raging around the world. What did you think about in response to it?
Yes, of course COVID-19 is an inconvenience! However I think this virus is teaching humanity some important lessons in terms of human to human care. I am interested in how COVID-19 might be able to teach us to care for each other and the planet in new and different ways. I have been reading an essay—titled ‘Politics of Vulnerability and Responsibility for Ordinary Others’ (2016)— by the theorist Sandra Laugier. She suggests that
“care […] corresponds to a quite ordinary reality: the fact that people look after one another, take care of one another, and thus are attentive to the functioning of the world, which depends on this kind of care.”
Maybe in the extraordinary context of COVID-19, humans can better learn acts of ordinary care. I feel we are quite lucky in Aotearoa New Zealand as our government has prioritized the welfare of people as opposed to only the economy. There are lots of examples of simple acts of care, kindness and support for one another.
“It Was a Cave Like This” 2018, from the exhibition “A Body that Lives” at ST PAUL St Gallery, AUT, Photo by Sam Hartnett
It's been said that mobility of people will be difficult since coronavirus's outbreak, what impact do you think it will have on your artwork? Also, what do you plan in response to it?
It is hard to predict the impact COVID-19 may have on my artwork as the situation is still in flux. I think the making of the artworks can be done safely and also in a way where social distancing is observed. This protocol can be extended to the installation and viewing of the artworks too.
What kind of impact do you think you can have on society through your artwork? Also, what kind of power do you think art has?
I am interested in how artworks can function as forms of critic and conscience for society. In other words, artworks provide an important reflective space where society can ask critical questions of its beliefs, its histories, and the narratives it constructs about itself. Artworks can help us to see societal inequalities, while also proposing ways in which we can better come together and understand and make room for each other’s differences. For me this is the kind of power art has; it shows us things about ourselves in new and different ways.
I aim for my artworks to establish a safe and socio-ethically responsible space where complex histories are able to retain a contemporary presence. I would like my artworks to impact society by inviting intergenerational connections between those just learning about painful histories, and the ideologies that cause them, and those who live their aftermath.
Cover photo: “A Body that Lives” 2017, from the exhibition “A Body that Lives” at ST PAUL St Gallery, AUT, Photo by Sam Hartnett