Ho Tzu Nyen
I am always as interested in the story, as I am interested in how a story is told. Since around 2012, I started working on a long term project called The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia.
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Waiting, One or Several Tigers
by Ho Tzu Nyen
I am an artist living and working in Singapore, where this recording is being made. I am very happy to be able to connect with you in these challenging times. I hope to take this time to share a little bit of my projects and processes with you.I am an artist who works primarily with moving images. And these images can be created by using a camera, or they might be graphics generated by the computer.
Sometimes they are mixtures of both. I also work with “found footage”, images created by other people, for other purposes, that I re-cycle and re-purpose for new uses. Since 2003, I’ve made films, installations and performances. And perhaps because of this restlessness, I’ve been fortunate to have had the chance to work with a wide spectrum of collaborators from various disciplines and different geographies, from film crews, to theatre designers, to experimental musicians, technicians, programmers, animators, to dramaturgs, writers and researchers.
One thing which continues to drive my projects is my curiosity about the technical, conceptual and political potential of the different art forms and mediums, I would say that many of my projects begin as an encounter with a historical event, a text, or a figure.However, I am always as interested in the story, as I am interested in how a story is told.
Since around 2012, I started working on a long term project called The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia. The earliest form of the project was a collection of concepts, motifs and biographies, that suggested a different re-imagining of the region that I am from – Southeast Asia. These concepts, motifs and biographies are arranged in an alphabetical order, as befitting the structure of a Dictionary.
In 2017, with the help and collaboration of the Berlin-based artists and programmers Sebastian Lutgert and Jan Gerber, I created a version of the Dictionary that was an ongoing film, made up completely of video footage found from online sources that are continuously re-composed by a set of algorithms we developed. So this was a film that it is constantly changing in real-time, and different for every viewing. The parameters for the editing, or re-composing are in turn based on terms gathered as part of The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia.
One such term is T for Tiger, which revolves around the histories of tigers in Southeast Asia. Since 2013, I’ve made a few different works about tigers, such as the theatrical performance Ten Thousand Tigers (2014), as well as the video installation 2 or 3 Tigers (2015).
For the rest of my session today, I would like to focus on 2 of my works. One of them will be 2 or 3 Tigers. The other project which I will share with you, is called “Waiting”, made earlier this year in 2020. I hope that at the end of this 20 minute talk, these two projects, made in very different times and under very different circumstances, can somehow resonate, to give you a sense of my larger practice and purpose.
I will begin first with “Waiting”, was made this year, in 2020, in collaboration with Ripon Chowdhury - a poet, writer, blogger and online activist from Chittagong, Bangladesh. Since 2010, Ripon has been based in Singapore as a migrant worker. Singapore has a population of slightly less than 6 million. But it is home to more than 300,000 foreign workers from countries like India and Bangladesh, who mainly work in industries like construction and manufacturing.
In April 2020, I received an invitation from a London Gallery to contribute to an online project made up of a series of short essays set to video, by artists from different parts of the world, in response to the outbreak of Covid 19. I accepted the commission with the intention of transferring the commission to Ripon.
Some additional context is necessary here:Just a week or so before I had reached out to Ripon, the Singapore government had, in early April, imposed a partial national lockdown which brought the spread of COVID among the general public largely under control. However hundreds of new cases amongst the migrant workers community were being discovered each day. In mid-April, the Singapore government took to releasing two distinct figures in their daily updates on the number of infections in Singapore. One set of these numbers were for cases amongst the local community. The other set of numbers were for infections that took place amongst migrant workers in the dormitories. In other words, Singapore was not presented as one. Singapore does not count as one. It is divided, separated, from the inside.
By August 2020, there were increasing concerns about the state of the workers’ mental health, due to combination of their long confinement in the dormitories and their great uncertainty over their future. There were also reports of suicides and attempted suicides. Back in April 2020, when Ripon and I started discussing the project, I told Ripon I was interested in the dreams he has been having. I wondered if we could for example, commission from him a poem about time. This was how “Waiting” came about.
For Ripon, the challenge came in making the video. He was concerned that his confinement within the dormitory greatly limits the range of shots we can obtain. However we agreed to attempt to transform this limitation into a parameter for the making of the video. Confinement is not only to be the subject of the video, but would also determine its form. The video would be done in long, uninterrupted shots, within the dormitory. This removes the need for intense post production, as there will be almost no editing choices, no multiple shots to choose from.Instead of planning a sequence of shots to be put together in edit, the filming simply consisted of extremely long sequences. The shots did not just capture events, but were events in themselves, unfolding in real-time. The uninterrupted shot gives us a sense of the space in which Ripon was confined, while its choreography gives us something of Ripon’s rhythmic sense.Every shake and tremor that we feel in the image, a record of Ripon’s nervous system. For me, this long, uninterrupted shot is a concrete slice of time, spent in Ripon’s presence, waiting.
The second work that I will like to share with you is a work from 2017 called One or Several Tigers, which first appeared as 2 or 3 Tigers in 2015. Both versions of the work consist of two screens that are facing each other. On one screen we have a Tiger, while on the other screen, we have a Man – both are created through computer graphics, and both are drifting through a void as they sing a duet, which condenses a million or so years of the history of tiger-human relationships in Southeast Asia. The human audience engaging the work is thus caught between the two screens, and depending on where they choose to face, they will embody the positions of either the man or the tiger.
Tigers were said to have dispersed across Southeast Asia more than a million years ago, when Southeast Asia was still a single land mass known as the Sunda Shelf. This means that the presence of tigers in Southeast Asia preceded that of the modern humans, since homo sapiens were said to have emerged only 200,000 to 300,000 years ago, and had dispersed from Africa only about 70,000 to 100,000 years ago. In its own way, the animistic cosmologies of early Southeast Asia understood the precedence of tigers well, this is why they regarded the tiger as a kind of ancestral figure, or a kind of medium, or container that can transport the spirits of ancestors. And this close relationship between humans and tigers gave rise to the belief that in parts of the Malay world, the tiger lived in villages, where the houses have walls of human skin, and the roofs are thatched with human hair.
It has been said that in the midst of crossing lakes and rivers, a tiger can dissolve into human shape. This makes me think of how the French philosopher Georges Bataille once described the being of an animal in the world - as that of “water in water.” Water is, in Southeast Asia, the prime element, featuring in almost all its originary myths. It is a liminal element, a lubricant for metamorphosis, facilitating the change of states. Should a body of water not be close at hand for the would-be weretiger, he can instead perform three somersaults, drawing in the air the sign of the swastika – the symbol of water, the sign of the whirlpool which opens the path to the underworld.
The figures of the Tiger and the Man from “One or Several Tigers” were drawn from 1865 print, Road Surveying Interrupted in Singapore, by the German artist Heinrich Leutemann. This print represented an actual event that happened in Singapore in 1835, when a road survey was undertaken for the purpose of creating gambier and pepper plantations to meet with European demands. And this survey was interrupted when a tiger leapt out at them Miraculously, it was reported that no humans were harmed in this encounter with the tiger; only the theodolite, the toppling instrument in the center of the image was reported to have been destroyed to bits.
The theodolite was an instrument used for the measuring of the angles of horizontal and vertical planes, a necessary tool for the rationalization of space - an essential tool for the surveyor named George Dromgold Coleman - a highly accomplished civil architect and land reclaimer of Irish extraction. In 1833, Coleman was appointed Superintendent of Public Works in Singapore. He became responsible for reclaiming large plots of land from the sea and river marshes to extend the town. And he also designed many notable civic buildings in classic Palladian style, most notably St Andrews, the first church in Singapore. But Coleman was at the same time, also the Superintendent of the Convicts in Singapore. In fact, in Singapore’s colonial history, the engineers and architects that were in charge of Public Works also took charge of the prisons. The reason is simple - the prisoners were directly involved in the building of these public works. These prisoners were Indians, sentenced to what was known as “transportation” – which referred to a term in overseas prisons in other parts of the British Empire. For those sentenced, “transportation” meant a life of indentured labour. These convict-workers were employed in all aspects of public works. They drained marshes, built roads, and also worked in the survey departments, where they served as chairmen, survey assistants, and land measurers.
It was these Indian convict-workers that had made up Coleman’s entourage in the survey of 1835, the same survey interrupted by the tiger. During the colonial era, the Singaporean penal system had a reputation for being “progressive”, in how the convicts were rendered productive. It was the first jail to introduce a steam-powered sawmill and pug mill for manufacturing.
There was also a printing press in the prison, so that the prisoners can be put to work, to in printing and bookbinding documents for various government departments,.J.F.A. McNair, an engineer, manager of public works and like his predecessor Coleman, a superintendent of convicts in Singapore, published a set of memoirs, titled Prisoners their own Warders. In his memoir, McNair describes the philosophy of the Singaporean penal system.
Prisoners were to be motivated by a system of rewards and promotion to carry our surveillance on each other. A well-behaved prisoner could be promoted into a warder over his follow prisoners, before being finally released into the colony as citizen. In any case, it was these same prisoners who had worked on the buildings that Coleman designed, including the first church in Singapore.In 1844, when brick prices soared, the Colonial administration would even get the prisoners to produce the bricks with which they would build the civic buildings. In Singapore in 1860, the prisoners were assigned to the construction of a building that when close to completion, took the form of a prison, upon which the prisoners realized that they were building their future jail.
With this, and in ending, I would like to bring us back to the future, to our present.A report in The Guardian in April 2020 quoted a migrant worker who was confined to his dormitory during the lockdown. Out of fear of reprisals, the worker has asked to remain anonymous,
when he said: “It feels like we’re in a prison. [It is] too difficult.”
Thank you for your time.
Ho Tzu Nyen is a Singaporean contemporary artist and filmmaker whose works involve film, video, performance, and immersive multimedia installations. His work brings together fact and myth to mobilise different understandings of Southeast Asia's history, politics, and religion, often premised upon a complex set of references from art history, to theatre, cinema, and philosophy. Ho has shown internationally at major exhibitions such as the Aichi Triennale, Japan (2019), the Sharjah Biennial 14, United Arab Emirates (2019), and the Gwangju Biennale, South Korea (2018). In 2011, Ho represented Singapore at the 54th Venice Biennale at the Singapore Pavilion, presenting the work The Cloud of Unknowing.
Ho has been collected by institutions such as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, and participated in several international film festivals, such as the 41st Directors' Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival in France (2009) and the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah (2012).
Ho co-curated the 2019 Asian Art Biennial at the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts alongside Taiwanese artist, Hsu Chia-wei. Ho was featured on the 2019 edition of the ArtReview Power 100 list, which charts the most influential individuals working in contemporary art internationally.