Artist Ho Tzu Nyen Digs Through Layers Of History To Create His Own Version Of Reality
It could be musings on the amorphous cloud that reference the works of European masters such as Francisco de Zurbarán, Gian Lorenzo Bernini and René Magritte exhibited at the Singapore Pavilion for the 54th Venice Biennale, 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, thereby 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 in scenes of a man playing the piano furiously with a white-gloved hand on his head, in which it seems at times that the hand is pushing the head and at other times that the head is moving the hand, in a portrait of pianist Glenn Gould, where he possesses the music as much as the music possesses him.
Tackling such diverse subjects, Ho Tzu Nyen’s multifaceted practice spanning filmmaking, painting, installation, performance and writing is so complex that he sometimes 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. 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 in the 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, it 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. Additionally, Ho participated in the group show “Lonely Vectors” at Singapore Art Museum about the lines, infrastructures and networks crisscrossing the globe that reflect uneven distribution, and “To Where the Flowers Are Blooming”, a special 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 very strong 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 I 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. So he was very much the first artist that made an impression on me.
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 that 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 different works.
Tell me about your ongoing project “The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia” and how your understanding of what constitutes the unity of Southeast Asia has evolved over the years.
“The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia” (2012-present) had began with a rather simple question: what constitutes 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.
Describe your commission for the “Visions” augmented reality exhibition that was part of the Light to Night Festival in Singapore.
“Language” is a piece in AR. We hear a selection of three texts by three Japanese wartime philosophers of 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 decided to call the work “Language” because it seems AR works tend to keep away from the realm of language.