They may be musings on the amorphous cloud that refer to the works of European masters such as Francisco de Zurbarán, Gian Lorenzo Bernini and René Magritte exhibited in 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 well of knowledge, falling away, echoing how Isaac Newton discovered the law of gravity after watching an apple fall from a tree. Art historical influences aside, there are themes of control, power and resistance in scenes of a man furiously playing the piano with a white-gloved hand on his head, sometimes appearing as the hand pushing the head and at other times the head moving the hand , in a portrait of pianist Glenn Gould, where he owns the music as much as the music owns him.
By tackling such diverse topics, Ho Tzu Nyen‘s multifaceted practice of filmmaking, painting, installation, performance and writing is so complex that he sometimes finds it difficult to explain it himself. Merging diverse archival footage, he adds fantastic elements to create new historical narratives, which he has screened at the Venice, Cannes, Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals, New York’s Guggenheim, Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art Busan. .
In his decade-long meta-project “The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia,” which continues to expand to this day, the Singapore-based artist considers the myriad definitions of the many territories that make up this region that are not united by language , religion or political power. Presented as a multi-sensory experience, his dictionary is part of a database of texts, music and online images, where an algorithm chooses and puts together different sounds and images to create an abecedarium, first developed during his stay at the Asia Hong Kong Art Archive. Each time, his intention is to take the audience on a journey of new discoveries and interpretations to question their beliefs and assumptions.
Earlier this year, Ho offered viewers new ways to perceive his art through “Visions,” an outdoor interactive augmented reality (AR) exhibit for the National Gallery. Specially commissioned by Acute Art for the Light to Night Festival in Singapore’s Civic District, it was the first time the AR art production studio included the work of a Singaporean artist in its international selection, alongside the likes of Tomás Saraceno, Cao Fei, Olafur Eliasson, Alicja Kwade and KAWS. In addition, Ho participated in the group exhibition “Lonely Vectors” at the Singapore Art Museum about the lines, infrastructures and networks that criss-cross the world and reflect inequalities, and “To Where the Flowers Are Blooming”, a special exhibition at the 2022 Venice Biennale.
You were born in Singapore in 1976. Tell us about your parents, your childhood and how you became interested in art.
Both my parents were civil servants. My father worked for the Housing Development Board and my mother worked for the military. I have very strong memories of the construction and mining sites where my father used to work. At that time he loved watching movies and took my older brother and me to see everything. My older brother, who is now an architect, exposed me to interesting music and books at a fairly young age. But I only came into contact with the fine arts when I happened to read a book about Marcel Duchamp one day. So he was really the first artist that impressed me.
You have been selected to represent Singapore on the 54e Venice Biennale in 2011. What were your sources of inspiration for “The Cloud of Unknowing”, the epic work you exhibited?
“The Cloud of Unknowing” probably started with my encounter with a wonderful book called A Theory of /Cloud/: Towards a History of Painting by the French philosopher and art historian Hubert Damisch, who traces the history of cloud paintings in Western art history. Somehow I became obsessed with turning my experience of reading that book into a kind of drama set in a low-income estate in Singapore. This mixing of incongruous elements could be a recurring strategy in my various 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 begun with a fairly simple question: what constitutes the unity of Southeast Asia, a region never united by language, religion, or political power? For me, answering this question requires an act of composition…an artistic activity.
Describe your assignment for the augmented reality exhibition “Visions” which 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 war 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 anime parlance). I decided to call the work “Language”. because it seems that AR works tend to stay away from the realm of language.