The Art of History and Reality

Ho Tzu Nyen’s Biggest Challenge In Creating Art Is Knowing When To Stop

The Singaporean artist speaks on how he intertwines fact and myth to meticulously construct alternative pasts.

Ho Tzu Nyen’s Biggest Challenge In Creating Art Is Knowing When To Stop
Ho Tzu Nyen

It could be musings on the amorphous cloud that reference the works of European masters such as Francisco de Zurbarán, Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Rene Magritte exhibited at the Singapore Pavilion for the 54th Venice Biennale. There could be a nod to Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas and his use of chiaroscuro, or a video that begins with a book, a source of knowledge, which drops, echoing how Isaac Newton discovered the law of gravity after watching an apple fall from a tree. 

Beyond art historical influences, there are themes of control, power and resistance. There are scenes of a man playing the piano furiously with a white-gloved hand on his head. At times that the hand is pushing the head and at other times that the head is moving the hand. It’s a portrait of pianist Glenn Gould, where he possesses the music as much as the music possesses him.

When I research the past, what interests me for my work is neither fact nor fiction, but very much the line between them.

Tackling such diverse subjects, Ho Tzu Nyen’s multifaceted practice spans filmmaking, painting, installation, performance and writing. Sometimes, Ho finds his work so complex that he finds it difficult to explain it himself. Piecing together diverse archival materials, he injects fantastical elements to craft new historical narratives, which he has shown at the Venice, Cannes, Sundance and Berlin film festivals, The Guggenheim in New York, Mori Art Museum in Tokyo and the Museum of Contemporary Art Busan.

In his decade-long meta project The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia that still continues to expand to this day, the Singapore-based artist considers the countless definitions of the many territories forming this region not unified by language, religion or political power.

The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia, 2012–present
The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia, 2012–present

Presented as a multisensory experience, his dictionary forms part of a database of texts, music and online images, where an algorithm picks and merges various sounds and visuals to create an abecedarium, first developed while in residency at Hong Kong’s Asia Art Archive. Each time, his intent is to bring audiences on a journey of new discoveries and interpretations to question their beliefs and assumptions.

Earlier this year, Ho offered viewers new ways of perceiving his art through Visions, an interactive outdoor augmented reality (AR) exhibition in front of the National Gallery. Specially commissioned by Acute Art for the Light to Night Festival in Singapore’s Civic District, this marked the first time that the AR art production studio featured the work of a Singaporean artist in its international roster, alongside the likes of Tomás Saraceno, Cao Fei, Olafur Eliasson, Alicja Kwade and KAWS.

2 or 3 Tigers, 2015, a film by Ho that explores the shifting shape of the animal
2 or 3 Tigers, 2015, a film by Ho that explores the shifting shape of the animal

Up next for Ho is the group show Lonely Vectors about the lines, infrastructures and networks crisscrossing the globe that reflect uneven distribution, which opens on 3 June at Singapore Art Museum, and To Where the Flowers Are Blooming, aspecial exhibition during the 2022 Venice Biennale.

You were born in Singapore in 1976. Tell me about your parents, your childhood and how you became interested in art.

Both my parents were civil servants. My dad worked for the Housing Development Board and my mother worked for the military. I still have powerful memories of the construction and reclamation sites where my dad used to work. Back in those days, he loved watching films, and brought my older brother and me to see everything.

My older brother, who is now an architect, exposed me to interesting music and books when I was quite young. But I had no exposure to the fine arts until one day when I read, by chance, a book on Marcel Duchamp. He was the first artist who made an impression on me.

Hotel Aporia presented at the 2019 Aichi Triennale
Hotel Aporia presented at the 2019 Aichi Triennale

What is the most important consideration when you first start creating an artwork?

Some of my projects begin as questions. Sometimes they come out of an encounter with another work of art, a piece of music or a book. I begin my day in the morning by reading. It sets the tone of the day for me. I don’t quite know how I came up with the themes and subject matters for my work. Perhaps my works are more like constellations of themes and subject matters. Sometimes, I think I did not choose, but was chosen to serve as a conduit.

What role do words, music and lighting play in your films, and how do you incorporate them?

Words are critical starting points, but also that which has to be resisted. Music is a huge inspiration for me. I listen to music almost the entire day, and I can only work in an environment with music of my choice. And sometimes I listen to the same record for days, or even weeks, on end. It has become a way to tune my nervous system. Sometimes I think I made videos just so that I can have an excuse for making a soundtrack.

Multimedia installation No Man II
Multimedia installation No Man II

As for lighting, when I used to work more with the camera, I was obsessed by chiaroscuro, extreme contrasts of light and darkness. For me, the light is interesting only when there is darkness. 

Why have you chosen to explore the histories of Singapore, Southeast Asia and the wider Asian region in videos that weave together fact and fiction, investigating how histories are constructed?

My interest in histories emerged solely out of my attempt to understand my present. When I research the past, what interests me for my work is neither fact nor fiction, but very much this line between them.

A still from the film Earth, directed by Ho and released in 2009
A still from the film Earth, directed by Ho and released in 2009

You were selected to represent Singapore at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011. What were your inspirations for The Cloud of Unknowing, the epic work you displayed?

The Cloud of Unknowing probably began with my encounter with a beautiful book called A Theory of /Cloud /: Toward a History of Painting by the French philosopher and art historian Hubert Damisch, which traces the history of cloud paintings in Western art history. Somehow, I became obsessed about transmuting my experience of reading that book into a kind of drama that takes place within a low-income estate in Singapore. This mixing of incongruous elements might be a recurrent strategy in my works.

Tell me about your ongoing project, The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia.

The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia (2012-present) began with a rather simple question: what makes up the unity of Southeast Asia, a region that has never been unified by language, religion or political power? For me, responding to this question requires an act of composition… an artistic activity.

R for Resonance, 2019, from The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia
R for Resonance, 2019, from The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia

Describe your commission for the Visions augmented reality exhibition that’s part of the current Light to Night Festival in Singapore.

Language is a piece of AR (Augmented Reality) work. We hear a selection of three texts by three Japanese wartime philosophers at the so-called Kyoto School. These three texts are set to different visual conditions, including nothingness, a decomposing political prisoner, and a disintegrating “mecha” (a robot in the parlance of anime). I called the work “Language”because it seems AR works keep away from the realm of language.

How has your work developed over the past two decades, and what keeps you going?

I suppose my works have grown in complexity, in terms of their processes and technique. I seem less and less able to sum up what my works are about. So I think I have become worse than ever in delivering elevator pitches about them. But this indescribability is something that I find quite interesting… interesting enough to keep me going!

What are the greatest challenges you face when creating your artworks?

Knowing when to stop.          

One of the rooms from Hotel Aporia, presented at the 2019 Aichi Triennale
One of the rooms from Hotel Aporia, presented at the 2019 Aichi Triennale

What do you feel is the role of the artist in society? What do you hope to achieve or what message do you hope to convey through your art?

I think artists exist to channel other realities into this one. Artists are like mediums for other worlds. But I don’t think they need to have messages.                

What new projects and exhibitions are you working on?

Currently, I am working on a VR project about humidity and infrastructural systems. Other than that, I am preparing a future project related to time and synchronisation.

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