Ho Tzu Nyen has had his work shown at the 2009 Cannes International Film Festival. He’s also represented Singapore at the 2011 Venice Biennale while one of his atmospheric video installations won the Asia Pacific Breweries Foundation Signature Art Prize in 2014. Yet his art practice is hard to categorise.
Straddling visual arts, performance and video installations, Ho says the works that are most compelling to him are very often “those which somehow slip between disciplines”.
For nearly 20 years, his complex multimedia projects have woven Southeast Asian history and myths together with connected narratives and recurring characters — such as architect GD Coleman, who designed many early colonial buildings in Singapore; the mysterious Lai Teck, one of the 50 known aliases of the Secretary-General of the Malayan Communist party from 1939 to 1947; and the Malayan tiger.
His immersive multimedia installations often appropriate compositions from well-known paintings (Delacroix, Caravaggio, Magritte) or scenes from films (The Wizard Of Oz, 2001: A Space Odyssey), which he re-contextualises to give new meaning — The Nameless (2015), for example, centres around Lai Teck, brought to life via footage from 16 different Hong Kong films that featured Asian thespian Tony Leung.
“I think of this process of appropriating a film or composition as a kind of reanimation. And this stems from a fascination with the undead and the afterlife, as well as an obsession with things that can generate more than one meaning at any one time. Sometimes I understand what I do as composing the resonance of all these possible meanings, to find at the end of it a shape, an intensity, a form,” Ho says.
Blurring artistic boundaries has led Ho Tzu Nyen to creating art performances that serve as the basis for his videos, and vice versa.
“All my works begin as a tracking of metamorphic motifs, usually in the form of figures, who freely pass between the actual and the metaphorical. And because I see no fundamental difference between content and form, I am interested in the works themselves transforming from one form into another, or in figures that return, sometimes in disguise, from one work to another. All of my works, regardless of the forms of their manifestation, come out from the same universe, one which is perhaps most fully sketched out in The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia,” Ho says, referring to the long-term project he has been working on since 2013, which involves the building of a database of text, music, online images, concepts, motifs, biographies and anecdotes related to Southeast Asia, and edited in real-time, 24 hours a day by a set of algorithms. It is available for public viewing online and now acts as a matrix for him, like “a generator of works, but also a kind of device by which I interface with reality”.
The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia, Vol 3: N for Names, which incorporates three works — The Nameless, The Name and The Dictionary — into a single work shows in Hamburg this month at the Kunstverein.
Ho Tzu Nyen will next premiere at the International Summer Festival in Hamburg The Mysterious Lai Teck a 60-minute live performance that fuses animatronic puppetry, shadow play, projections and music, as he continues to explore the powerful life story of the legendary historical figure, revealed in 1947 as a triple agent working for the French, British and Japanese secret police.
SEE ALSO: Singaporean Artists Making Waves Overseas — Heman Chong (2Of3)