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Ian Tan Ya: Meet The Model And Artist Making Us Rethink Self-Identity

Model and creative Ian Tan Ya's surrealistic manipulated self-portraits often come with poignant observations on the human condition. Here, a look at how she reimagines reality through photographs.

Ian Tan Ya, 25, is a favourite with local independent designers and creatives for her striking looks, as well as her unconventional photos. Taking a peek at her Instagram account (@inntya) is an eye-opening revelation. Her signature series An Everyday Thought, sees Tan re-imagined amid mundane settings, such as a severed head (her own) within a fridge or disembodied body organs juxtaposed across say, a shower head or elevator buttons.

The effect is somewhat unsettling, reminiscent of say Guillermo del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth or the drawings of cult Japanese horror master Junji Ito. But take a closer look at the subtitles etched at the bottom of her photos and you’ll find that her works resonate, not just because of the (admittedly powerful) visuals. “Who are you at the end of the day? Someone who I still recognise,” reads one. “What is at the top? An exit from where you began,” says another. They’re gleaned from Tan’s daily observations and epiphanies (we should be so lucky to have such poetic epiphanies).

Kidding aside, they’re deeply personal and easily empathised with. And as for the photos, she starts with a sketch before taking self-shots at home using a tripod and camera, manipulated and publicised on in-demand photo-editing app VSCO and Instagram. “I work primarily on stories [rather] than [just] an aesthetic concept, as I firmly believe a true narrative on its own is timeless in symbolism and intent. I see each of my works as a textbook page to understanding the human condition,” says Tan, a fine arts alumni from Lasalle College of the Arts. There can be many readings of Tan’s works and as she puts it herself, she sees “everyone as ‘onion people’ in that everyone has many different underlying layers… in their respective day-to-day lives.”

Perhaps what makes her extra perceptive of the amorphousness of the human condition is the fact that Tan is an intersex person who identifies as a woman. According to the Intersex Society of North America, intersex is a “general term used for a variety of (biological) conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male”.

That’s not to say that Tan’s intersex status definitively defines her or her art. “I can’t point out specifically how my intersexuality has contributed to my art making… but what I can say is that having to acknowledge that I was born intersex has taught me to relearn, rethink and reshape all matters and forms.” The potent combination of her surreal photos, thought-provoking commentary and blurring and reshaping of categories, in our opinion, make Tan an artist for our times.

Model and freelance creative Ian Tan Ya’s surrealistic manipulated self-portraits often come with poignant observations on the human condition.