Unpacking our libraries: Elizabeth Tan’s network of little lost things

7 June 2018

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Behind every artist is a rich collection, a “library”, compiled of works by other creators. In Seesaw’s “Unpacking our libraries” series, Claire Coleman talks to West Australian makers from various disciplines about the works and texts that have influenced their creative practice.

Among her diverse talents, Elizabeth Tan is a meticulous observer of the overlooked. Chancing upon a mislaid object, a forgotten idea, an overused but under-appreciated texture, a barely audible sound, Tan builds spaces in which a little lost thing can be not only seen, but recognised, witnessed, contemplated. In her first novel, Rubik, real and hyperreal people and situations promenade in a series of interlocked short stories; each new snapshot revealing what went unnoticed in those that preceded it, and receiving alternative meanings in those that follow. Rubik is set in a place with the outline of Perth but one that, like Tan’s collages, has burst open to reveal a shoal of colourful fish, a cabinet holding reeling galaxies, or a vernissage devoted to IKEA stock patterns. In her webcomic “Mais Pourquoi” (also Seesaw’s house comic), Tan similarly makes a moment stand still long enough for viewers to appreciate its joy, or absurdity, or melancholy.

In this first interview for the “Unpacking our libraries” series, Tan shares some of the cultural experiences that have influenced her own creative practice as an author, artist and academic.

Claire Coleman: What works contributed to your earliest creative work? What works inspired you to become an author and artist?

Elizabeth Tan: The video games I played in my teens were pretty instrumental in finding my groove as a writer, in particular the Final Fantasy series. Each game in the series is independent – there are separate worlds and characters each time – and you have to invest many, many hours in the gameplay and story. Although I suppose you could invest as much time in reading a book as playing a video game, the nature of your investment in a video game is a bit different – you’re enlisted as a direct collaborator in the story. I think video games are also where I learnt that readers can be quite forgiving, because in video games there are inevitably all these contrivances that you just have to go along with in order to continue playing (for example – your protagonist apparently has bottomless pockets that are capable of carrying hundreds of items).

I fell very quickly into reading and writing fan fiction after playing my first Final Fantasy game when I was twelve. It really helped that Final Fantasy has generated such a lively and diverse fan culture – there isn’t just fan fiction, but visual art, fan videos, remixes of the game soundtracks, and so on. I think the interactive storylines of video games and the act of creating fan art both encourage experimentation – they set up a little playpen in which it’s not such a big deal to fail. Fan fiction and fan culture have a strong presence in Rubik – not just literally in stories such as “Luxury Replicants”, where characters are engaged in fan-created texts, but also in the novel’s ethos of repurposing/referencing/re-contextualising/borrowing from other texts.

CC: What works or artists have influenced your creative process?

ET: When I visited “Sculpture By the Sea” at Cottesloe Beach in 2011, the person I was with asked which sculptures were my favourites. Among the works that I named were lifeboat by Marwa Fahmy, Stephen Genovese, Elizabeth Marpole and Kate Parker, which consisted of hundreds of wax-coated origami paper boats cascading down a slope of lawn; and not drowning, waving by Sigrid Ranze, which was a collection of porcelain hands and arms impaled on wires protruding from the sand. “Oh, I get it,” my companion said. “You like it when there’s a lot of a little thing.”

I don’t know if it’s obvious or trite, but I’ve since found “a lot of a little thing” to be a reassuring way to think about my creative process. Everything I do is an accumulation of small efforts across a long period of time. I think I was in Year 6 when I realised that I could never get away with doing assignments the night before they were due – I know some people thrive under the pressure of an impending deadline, but I really don’t; I am not a quick worker in the slightest, and I’m easily daunted. With Rubik, I basically tricked myself into writing a novel by first setting out to write a series of interconnected short stories.

'upstream colour' by Elizabeth Tan.
“My collages often feature ‘a lot of a little thing'”: ‘upstream colour’ by Elizabeth Tan.


CC: What works resonate most strongly with your own?

ET: I was tempted to answer this question together with the last one because I feel like both my creative process and creative output are very “a lot of a little thing”. There’s a literal smallness to the figures in “Mais Pourquoi”, my collages often feature “a lot of a little thing”, and my writing is full of characters who feel themselves to be small objects in an incomprehensible system.

I think it’s this attentiveness to, and affection for, smallness that makes the work of Anna Dunnill and Mel Pearce resonate so strongly with me. Their work often features small figures and objects that are dwarfed by empty space. There’s also this sense of blurring between creative process and creative output – where the artist’s “process” is very much visible in the “finished outcome” – manifesting, for instance, in the wayward lines and ink marks in Pearce’s illustrations.

There was one part of Dunnill’s 2013 solo exhibition “Notes Toward a Universal Language” that I found particularly moving: there was an armchair in the gallery, and you’d sit in it, put on a pair of headphones, and listen to an audio track of Dunnill reading out a series of instructions on “How to Disappear”. Some of the instructions were fanciful – “Make a hide. Find canvas, sticks, grasses, mud, cardboard, string, tape. Build it up from the ground, or make a skeleton to cover.” Others less so, like instructions on how to get out of bed: “Sit up. Push the covers off. Swing your feet onto the floor. Now stand, stand up, good.” When I sat in that chair, I felt such an affinity with these instructions – this recognition that the small daily efforts of living can feel insurmountable and exhausting.

CC: What new or recently encountered works are influencing you at the moment?

ET: I just watched The Lobster on Netflix, a 2015 absurdist film directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. It depicts a dystopian society in which newly single people have 45 days to find a partner or else be turned into an animal of their choice. There are many things about the film that fascinate me – the lack of fidelity to realism, the deliberately flat and artificial dialogue, the representation of a dystopia ruled by customs and regulations that seem bizarre at face value but are actually twisted extrapolations of our own familiar cultural norms and values – and I’m sure some of its weirdness will inevitably trickle down into my work.

Elizabeth Tan (@ElzbthT) is a writer from Perth, Western Australia. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from Curtin University. Her writing has appeared in journals and anthologies such as “The Lifted Brow”, “Westerly”, “Seizure”, “Best Australian Stories 2016”, “Overland”, “Pencilled In”, “Review of Australian Fiction”, “Tincture”, “The Sleepers Almanac No.8”, and “Voiceworks”. Her first book is a novel-in-stories titled Rubik, which was published by Brio in Australia, The Unnamed Press in the US, and Wundor Editions in the UK. She has dabbled in zine-making and collaging and maintains a webcomic called “Mais Pourquoi”.

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