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Erika Tan
Part I: Who? What? Where? When? Why? Or Asking Perplexing Questions About Ethnography, Anthropology and Classification

Both ethnographic and anthropological disciplines begin with the premise that the classification of nations, peoples, languages, and behaviours is an ontological practice. This means that there is little room for the straddling of descriptive boundaries, or the resistance to classification. As Michel Foucault informed us long ago, organizing knowledge inevitably involves friction. And this friction puts the structure of knowledge under pressure. As a result of this epistemological pressure the belief in the singularity of an ontological project - such as ethnography or anthropology - becomes difficult to sustain. What these disciplines are confronted by is a need to recognize that which is 'in between' classificatory structures. It is at this juncture between the ontological and epistemological that Erika Tan's art practice dedicates itself to excavating by representing that which is always and already 'in-between'.

Tan's work relentlessly interrogates the feeling and knowledge, the materiality and embodiment of past and present memories that never subsides because one is living 'in-between'. Working from this position, the artist's practice examines what it means to live and work in the gap, on the edge, and in between classificatory systems, nations, political and military regimes, languages, ideologies, and subjectivities.

Boatrace (1998-2000) is a fine example of both the anthropological and ethnographic critique that Tan engages in her work, and the participatory imperative of her practice. Orchestrated as a race of small paper boats, the colour and number of which represent 19th century British racial classifications, members of the public participated in both making and launching the boats down a river. In addition to the theoretical questions asked by such a work, such as who are we and how do we constitute ourselves - the boat race itself is a poetic display of both the hierarchies and dismantling of classificatory regimes as the boats disobey any rules of their implementation and abide by the river's own flow.

The participatory aspect of Boatrace is also quite clear in Faint (2004) and Beacon (2004) where Tan worked with individuals in Margate to consider questions of location and dislocation. An ongoing photographic collection The International Collection of Cultural Cross-Dressing analyzes our fantasies about the stranger within ourselves, and our ability to 'conform' or 'pass' within our cultural contexts.

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