Artist Ho Tzu Nyen digs through the layers of history to create his own version of reality

Artist Ho Tzu Nyen digs through the layers of history to create his own version of reality

It could be reflections 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 ” The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” by Caravaggio and his use of chiaroscuro, or a video that begins with a falling book, a source of knowledge, echoing how Isaac Newton discovered the law of gravity after seeing an apple fall from a tree. Beyond art historical influences, 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, in which he sometimes seems that the hand pushes the head and at other times that the head moves the hand, in a portrait of the pianist Glenn Gould, where he owns the music as much as the music owns him.

Addressing such diverse subjects, Ho Tzu Nyen’s multifaceted practice, which encompasses film, painting, installation, performance and writing, is so complex that he sometimes struggles to explain it himself. . Assembling various archival materials, he injects fantastical elements to create new historical narratives, which he has shown at the Venice, Cannes, Sundance and Berlin film festivals, the Guggenheim in New York, the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo and at 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 forming this ununited region. by language, religion or political power. Presented as a multi-sensory experience, his dictionary is part of an online database of text, music and images, where an algorithm selects and merges various sounds and visuals to create an alphabet, first developed during a residency at the Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong. Each time, his intention is to take the audience on a journey of new discoveries and interpretations to challenge their beliefs and assumptions.

Earlier this year, Ho offered viewers new ways to perceive his art through “Visions,” an interactive augmented reality (AR) outdoor exhibit outside the National Gallery. Specially commissioned by Acute Art for the Light to Night festival in Singapore’s civic district, it was the first time art production studio AR featured the work of a Singaporean artist in its international roster, alongside artists like Tomás Saraceno, Cao Fei, Olafur Eliasson, Alicja Kwade and KAWS. Additionally, Ho participated in the group exhibition “Lonely Vectors” at the Singapore Art Museum on lines, infrastructure and networks criss-crossing the globe that reflect unequal distribution, and “To Where the Flowers Are Blooming”, a special exhibition during the Venice Biennale 2022.

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 father worked for the Housing Development Board and my mother worked for the army. I still have very fond memories of the construction and rehabilitation sites where my father worked. At the time, he loved watching movies and brought my older brother and me to see it all. My older brother, who is now an architect, introduced me to some interesting music and books when I was quite young. But I had no exposure to the fine arts until the day when I read, by chance, a book on Marcel Duchamp. He was therefore the first artist who made an impression on me.

You have been selected to represent Singapore at the 54e Venice Biennale in 2011. What were your inspirations for “The Cloud of Unknowing”, the epic work you presented?

“The Cloud of Unknowing” probably started with my encounter with a beautiful book called A theory of the /cloud/: towards a history of painting by French philosopher and art historian Hubert Damisch, who traces the history of cloud paintings in Western art history. Somehow, I became obsessed with transmuting my experience reading this book into some kind of drama that takes place in a low-income residence in Singapore. This mixture 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 Southeast Asian unity has evolved over the years.

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

Describe your commission for the augmented reality exhibit “Visions” which was part of the Light to Night Festival in Singapore.

“Language” is an AR piece. We hear a selection of three texts by three Japanese philosophers of war of the so-called Kyoto school. These three texts are placed in different visual conditions including nothingness, a decomposing political prisoner and a “mecha(a robot in anime lingo). I decided to call the work “Language” because it seems that AR work tends to stay away from the realm of language.

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