Ho Tzu Nyen solo exhibition on view at Edith-Russ-Haus for Media Art

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Ho Tzu Nyen solo exhibition on view at Edith-Russ-Haus for Media Art
The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia © Ho Tzu Nyen 2015.

OLDENBURG.- The installations of Singaporean video artist and theater director Ho Tzu Nyen are visually stunning, opulent works permeated with numerous and complex cultural references. Various concepts, imaginaries, and allusions to the histories of Eastern and Western literature, art, and music are woven together with multifaceted sound collages to form these enigmatic pieces, which reveal new layers of meaning to the viewer on every level of perception. Ho’s central theme is the pursuit of Southeast Asia’s cultural identity, which is both written in and overwritten by such a multitude of languages, religions, cultures, and influences that it is almost impossible to reduce it down to a fundamental historical core.

The earliest piece included in this exhibition—the first survey of Ho’s oeuvre in Germany—is Utama—Every Name in History Is I, a film work from 2003 that explores the mythic founding of Singapore in staged scenes based on paintings.

The nexus of the artist’s intense occupation with this region’s histories is the multimedia Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia (CDOSEA) from 2017, which comprises twenty-six parts organizing this specific knowledge in a structure mirroring that of the English alphabet. The project’s video component makes use of an algorithm-run editing program to render and re-render live found footage from online sources to accompany each written entry, by which Ho links parallel narratives of local animistic cosmologies with those of diverse colonialisms and modernizations. He is less interested in a simple, historical truth than in “how these constructed histories regulate, define, and control our way of thinking and our mode of life.” The all-encompassing format of the dictionary represents Ho’s equally obsessive and ambitious attempt to describe a whole world with his art—CDOSEA extends to include not just the twenty-six multimedia dictionary entries but also functions as an umbrella project under which pieces from the last fifteen years are gathered.

In 2 or 3 Tigers (2016)—the third of Ho’s works listed in CDOSEA under “T”—we see computer-generated figures that are animated by a human performer through motion capture technology, through which Ho uses the metamorphic possibilities of digital imaging to traverse the worlds of humans and animals. Tigers, driven to extinction in multiple Southeast Asian countries by the increase of plantations, return as metaphors. In Ho’s approach, tigers are one of the very few creatures that can symbolically link the different cultures of the region, as human-tiger transformations appear across regional mythologies and interestingly enough also in the modern mainstream imaginary: Malayan communists were called tigers, and the highly feared Japanese soldiers were described as having tiger-like attributes by the British.

In this web of references, the two-part video work The Name and The Nameless find their specific place in the dictionary under “G ,” for “Gene Z. Hanrahan” and “Ghost.” Hanrahan is the author of The Communist Struggle in Malaya (1954), one of the earliest studies of the history of the Malayan Communist Party, in which translations of a number of the party’s most important internal documents on political and military strategy from its founding to 1951 were first published. Although there is practically no major or minor work on the conflict that does not cite Hanrahan’s book, The Name reveals Hanrahan’s identity as a ghostwriter. The Nameless tackles the question of political conspiracy, multiple identities, and the different powers that have influenced the histories of Southeast Asia by drawing the portrait of the triple secret agent Lai Teck, who was the secretary general of the Malayan Communist Party from 1939 to 1947. At the same time, The Nameless is also about the cinema and acting. Of all the world’s major cinema cultures, it is perhaps Hong Kong’s that has shown the most intense fascination with “compromised” individuals, as is evident in its constant stream of films about stool pigeons, double agents, informers, and traitors. Ho’s own film is also about a shapeshifter, told through a series of borrowed images and featuring an actor from a land of multiple allegiances.

Ho’s most recent work, R for Resonance (2018), presented for the first time in Europe as part of the G for Gong exhibition, is a continuation of the CDOSEA dictionary through the seemingly endless possibilities of virtual reality. The exhibition borrowed its title from its main protagonist, the gong, as it has been not just a key instrument already in tribal rituals but also as a significant metaphoric presence in Ho’s reference-heavy universe. The gong first appeared in a historic moment marked by new formations of social hierarchies in the region, and the resonance it continues to generate can serve as a poetic model for thinking about Southeast Asia—a kind of quaking vibration across space.

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