Ho Tzu Nyen, EARTH, Single Channel HD Video, 42 min, 2009 to 2012.


Ho Tzu Nyen: Earth, Cloud, Tigers

November 14, 2016
AAA in A, '09-'21

43 Remsen St. Brooklyn, NY

Ho Tzu Nyen (HTN): Thank you everyone for coming and thank you AAA for organizing this event. What I would like to do this evening is to introduce some works and then open up for questions. I will begin this talk with pretty much the first art project that I did in Singapore. The work’s title is Utama, Every Name in History is I, and it was made in 2003. To explain this work, I need to start with Singapore. For those of you who are not familiar with the island of Singapore, it is a really small place. What interested me when I was doing this project more than 10 years ago, was that if you ask most Singaporeans when Singapore was founded, the answer you are likely to get is 1819 which is the year that the British arrived in Singapore. I have always found it interesting that we have regarded the coming of the colonialists as our founding moment. With my first project in Singapore, I tried to do a little research and think about this question of the origins of Singapore.

For most Singaporeans, the founder of our island is a man called Sir Stamford Raffles. What you see [here] is a representation of Sir Stamford Raffles. The image of Sir Stamford Raffles is omnipresent in Singapore; pretty much everyone knows what he looks like. This pose is very familiar to Singaporeans as well, because we have [in a prominent public place] a statue of Raffles in this exact position.

This image was part of the project. It is a painting and these are two actors playing part of the colonial story, playing Raffles. I’ll explain a little bit more about this. One thing to know about Singapore is that Singapore has not always been our name. Before the name Singapore came about, we were actually known as Temasek, so I started thinking about how the name Singapore came about and this brought me to the other, earlier founder of Singapore.

The name Singapore itself comes from another earlier founder. He is known as Sang Nila Utama. Utama is one of his names. He is also known as Sri Tri Buana. In Singapore, knowledge of this other pre-colonial founder is rather vague. Everyone knows the name Sang Nila Utama, but very few people actually know anything about him, where he came from, or what he was doing in Singapore. Nobody knows what he looked like. So I decided to make a project about him. Compared to [documentation of] colonial history, [there are no images of Sang Nila Utama]. What we do know is that on the way to Singapore, it is said that his ship was met by a huge and powerful storm and the only way he could keep his ship afloat was by throwing his crown overboard because his crown was said to be super heavy. It was a crown that was passed down from Alexander the Great. If you track the genealogy of Sang Nila Utama, you come to a text called The Sejarah Melayu Annals. It is a poetic, historic text written by the Malay court, so I guess from the Western perspective, it’s not really regarded as history.

The other thing that Singaporeans know about Utama is that he saw a lion upon the shore of an island. Singha means lion; Pura means city, so he was the one who named the island Singapore.

The project that I did comprised a series of 20 paintings. Some of these paintings depicted Utama in various scenes. Others tracked his genealogy — his lineage — to see where he came from. According to the Malay Annals, he was descended from Alexander the Great, but they also track his lineage to King Solomon and King David, so in a way we have always had kind of a cosmopolitan lineage in Singapore.

Accompanying these 20 paintings is a film of about 22 minutes. That was the project Utama: Every Name in History is I

Now we can move on to the next work. The next work that I’ll speak about is a work called Earth. I think before talking about this work, I will backtrack a little bit and talk more about these paintings. They were, in a way, fake paintings. They were film stills that were produced from the film and printed on canvas. Then I applied a layer of glaze on top of these printed canvases and I started adding brushstrokes while [the glaze] was still drying. I also dirtied the sides of the canvases so they looked like real painterly works. This sense of the artificial was very important for me. It was the same way the film was constructed. This film was the very first film that I have shot. I had never made any films prior to this, and it was shot entirely in the living room of my friend’s house. We stuck Chroma (key) paper on all sides and shot figures that were quite static against changing backgrounds. A sense of construction and artificiality permeates the work.

Now I will move on to Earth, which is one of the three works I want to focus on today. It was first made in 2009, but we say 2009 to 2014, because during this period I collaborated with many different musicians. The film itself is silent and I worked with different musicians to create different versions of the sound track. One of the musicians I worked with is here tonight, Aki Onda. He lives in New York and is a fantastic musician. We collaborated in 2014. As I mentioned the film is 42 minutes long and is done in a way that is one continuous unedited take. It moves from character to character. The basic vision of the film is that the light oscillates from cold to warm, like day and night. We had 50 actors and they are alternating from sleep and waking, or from death and resurrection.

Now I would like to show the storyboard [I created] to compose this entire film. It is a collage. If you zoom in on certain spots, you might recognize motifs that might be familiar in art history. For example, in this central area, you have the Raft of Medusa from Jericho. Here you have Caravaggio’s David and Goliath, David holding the decapitated head of Goliath. There are parts of Delacroix’s painting here.

This is a still from one of the other moments, one of the characters from the larger tableau. This is the original reference, Caravaggio’s Doubting Thomas. In this picture Thomas is putting his finger into the wound of Christ.

Here we have another still from another moment in the film Earth. This is the original from [Girodet’s] The Sleep of Endymion, the figure almost burnt out by light.

What is common among all of these paintings that I was gathering and collecting was that something extreme happens to the human body. The human body is penetrated, reconfigured, reassembled, and sometimes rendered unconscious. That informed my criteria for collecting all these images. So in a sense I think of what I do to these paintings as what they are doing to the human body in this kind of rearrangement. But of course the other main thing that I was doing was the replacement of Western bodies with bodies that I could find in Singapore, which was not determined by race because in Singapore, we find different kinds of bodies, different types of physiognomies.

History has always been a constant source of fascination and inspiration for my work. [I am very interested in] the whole genre of [historical] painting which has been treated as the highest form of painting in the Western classical tradition, but at the same time, there was always a question of its relevance to Singapore.

For those of you who might know, history painting [always has a] certain embodiment of a particular event, which might be biblical, historical, or mythical, such as of Greek myths. When I was working on Earth, the question was: what was the narrative, what was the history that this painting was embodying? I didn’t have an answer when I was working on it. Maybe the answers came later, which was that everything was in ruins, like the setting. The work no longer reflected specific events, but it reflected a post-apocalyptic scenario. When I was making this work I didn’t think of it as an apocalyptic catastrophic narrative. This wasn’t on my mind, but when the film was screened at festivals, at Rotterdam, the programmers classified it as a science fiction film. They described it as an apocalyptic film, which gradually kind of made sense to me as well. There was no longer a linear, historical unfolding. Everything was kind of mashed up [and washed up] in this setting.

Earlier I mentioned that the film was done as a silent film. That was also another point of interest for me; I became very interested in music and sound in recent years, to the point where sometimes, as I think of these works, the question of the relationship between image and sound was something that was very important to me.

I have always been curious about the relationship between image and sound. And in 2009, I would say that sound became almost more important than the image for me. I started thinking of the images I was shooting as flesh, and sound as the spirit. It is the sound that really animates the flesh, which was why I was interested in getting different musicians to work on the soundtrack. The soundtrack that we heard was by the German musician Black to Comm. I have worked with seven different musicians and it is always fascinating for me to experience how each musician transforms the images and the rhythms completely. Some musicians make the work feel longer, in a good sense, and some manage to make it flow a lot quicker. For me, sound really transforms the image, almost mechanically.

So now I would like to move to The Cloud of Unknowing, which is a work that I did in 2011. I will just show a short clip. This was a trailer for a work at the Mori Art Museum. It is very easy for me to show. The work is 26 minutes long. Usually it is installed with a 13-channel sound system and many sub-woofers and it is accompanied by theatrical lights and smoke machines.

This is what it looked like when it was first installed in the Singapore Pavilion at the Venice Biennial. What we see is a floating screen and at the end of the video, we eject smoke from the screen so we see [what looks like] the shadows of the smoke from the projected image. Then the smoke comes out from all sides of the screen and hangs above it. The Cloud of Unknowing was derived from a 14th Century mystical text. It is difficult to sum up what the text is about, but if I am trying to do a quick summary, [I would say] it is from the Christian tradition, by an anonymous writer. He is essentially saying that the path to the divine cannot be arrived at through logic, but it can only be arrived at through the senses. The whole notion of the cloud and being clouded is important because the visual is what we always associate with clarity, rationality, and logic. To be lost in the cloud of unknowing is for us to blind ourselves and to open up to the rest of our senses. This was an important idea for me.

The other important source for me was an art historical text by Hubert Damisch, an Austrian art historian living and working in Paris. His book is called The Theory of the Cloud and it examines the motif of the cloud as it appears in Western paintings. For example, from early Renaissance paintings to paintings by, say, Constable, [artists] have been trying to paint clouds as they were and trying to classify different types of clouds. The really fascinating thing was that Damisch ended the book with a chapter on Chinese ink painting. I think clouds and fog and mist play a very important role in Chinese paintings. I guess it is the circulation between heaven and earth. What is really fascinating is the way the Chinese represent clouds by not painting [them], but by leaving the paper blank, so the virgin whiteness of the scroll can emanate. Whereas in the Western tradition, it is a paradox to want to paint clouds with oil because oil takes a long time to dry, but clouds, as we know, are ever-changing.

[Here are some images of] some of the great cloud paintings.

This is Tintoretto. It is called Paradise. I’ve always thought this image looked very [much like] science-fiction. It is almost like an alien abduction. This painting has a certain relationship to this great sculpture by Bernini. There is something very paradoxical happening here which is the transformation of clouds into the hardest substance, into its opposite, rocks. Clouds as a motif in art history have always been [a metaphor] for thoughts, travel; it is almost like a visual of ascension, of elevation. This motif travels from the East to the West. We see this in many different traditions.

This is Correggio, who for me is the master of cloud paintings. He has many great paintings of clouds. With clouds there is always the idea of ascension, of elevation. When I was working on this project, the way I normally would operate would be to try to find out everything about clouds. So that was what led me to 17th century British romantic poetry; the motif of the cloud as well as this sense of elevation was important to some of the romantic poets.

Now we are looking at a film still from The Cloud of Unknowing. This is towards the end of the film, where we see somebody … actually this is a window of one of the apartments in the public housing estate [where the film was shot]. This was the final shot in the film and it was a ten-minute, constantly elevating shot. This crane for me is the cloud elevation machine.

This is a fascinating image for me. This is by Ceasare Ripa, who’s a 17th century iconologist. He collected different motifs that were prevalent in renaissance culture and classified them. This was an emblem of beauty. Very interestingly, he wrote a short description below it that says, ‘beauty must be depicted with a head lost in the clouds.’ So that explains this image.

This is a film still from The Cloud of Unknowing, which is my extrapolation from Ripa’s emblem.

This is a beautiful painting by Zurbarán, one of the great Spanish visionary painters. We see someone in prayer and then we see an eruption of an indoor cloud. Whenever we have an indoor cloud, it means one of two things; it is either the presence of the divine or madness. Sometimes we can’t really tell these things apart. This notion of eruption of clouds indoors through meditation formed the basis of another of my scenes from The Cloud of Unknowing. Before I go through that, I should explain The Cloud of Unknowing that you saw earlier from the trailer. The whole film consists of eight protagonists, in eight different apartments. These eight apartments are [situated] one right on top of another. I basically rented eight units in a public housing block in Singapore that was about to be demolished. In each of these units, I created one scenario based on one of these references, so in this particular scenario what we have is a man who is writing or researching and these bookshelves start moving on their own and locking him in. At the end something opens up from behind the bookshelves and we see this strange angelic figure emerging from behind.

This is another painting by Correggio. This is Jupiter and Io. For those of you familiar with Greek mythology, Zeus or Jupiter, is always trying to seduce women, by transforming himself into different disguises. Here he transforms himself into a dark cloud so that he can seduce Io while hiding the scene from his jealous wife. Here we see a figure emerging from inside this dark cloud.

This is another film still from The Cloud of Unknowing, where we see the transposition of that motif.

Those who know the works of Jeff Wall might find this a bit familiar. Jeff Wall has a really great photograph called The Invisible Man. It depicts a scene with a black man living in an apartment with a lot of light bulbs, so I borrowed this from Jeff Wall. Interestingly, the title Invisible Man came from a novel of the same name by Ralph Ellison, so we see this constant recycling of motifs. This idea of recycling of motifs is something that is important for me.

Here we have a painting by Magritte, another great painter of clouds. Here we see an example of clouds indoors, sort of folded into wallpaper, but you also see clouds together with things that we might associate with a still life. I think this association is very powerful because clouds make us think about transience and mortality and that is because the function of still life is to [make us] think about death and passing.

This is another example of a great still life. All of these came together in one of the units in The Cloud of Unknowing. In this particular unit, we have a woman in an apartment that is decaying. It was possible for us to do this to the apartments because they were about to be demolished. In this same apartment, we see photographs of the protagonist at different stages of her life, so you have a sense of time passing. We also have our version of the still life which is really just a plate of rotting meat.

Here we have yet another painting by Correggio. Here I will skip the myth and talk about what fascinates me about the image itself, which is a person about to sleep. When we sleep, we fall, we fall asleep, we sink, but what is interesting to me is that above her hovers a cloud, so it is almost like this cloud embodies this dreamlike state above her horizontal body which is sinking downwards.

In one of the units in The Cloud of Unknowing we have this sleeping figure and what happens … he is sort of sucked downwards into his bed and then above him floats an angel.

Next, we look at an example of a Chinese landscape painting. I mentioned earlier [the way the clouds in Chinese painting are represented], not by painting them, but by using emptiness to signify that which is ever-changing.

In one of the units, we attempted to do our version of the Chinese landscape painting. It was an apartment filled entirely with grass, so this is another example of a Chinese landscape painting and this is what the landscape looked like from the inside of the apartment. This was us filming it from the outside in the final shots of The Cloud of Unknowing. We had this crane rising up, filming the eight apartments in a single long shot. It is only in the last shot that we see these eight apartments linked together.

Now we move on to the final set of references, also from the tradition of Chinese painting. At a certain moment in the development of Chinese landscape painting, this notion of the blank screen became very important. I think this came out of the Literati movement of Chinese landscape. What interested me was this screen behind the figure in the pavilion. Traditionally, we [see] scholars or officials in a [garden scene] or pavilion and the screen behind them is often that of a landscape, but at this moment the screen became blank. This is something the art historian Wu Hong wrote about in a book called The Double Screen, if I remember correctly. There was an association between the blank screen and the cloud. The blank screen is somehow the structural equivalent of the cloud. I think that is really interesting because clouds screen us from the sun, but the cloud is also a screen because it very often receives our projections, our imagination of what it looks like. I am sure all of us have at some point looked at clouds and imagined landscapes or faces or animals in the clouds, so a cloud is almost like a screen on which we can project our imaginations.

This is another painting—probably it is too small—in which we see a figure in the pavilion sitting in front of a blank screen. So, in the eighth apartment of The Cloud of Unknowing what we had was essentially a protagonist in an all white room, looking at a white screen. This screen was exactly double the [size of the] screen on which the entire video was projected.

This was another version of The Cloud of Unknowing that I did at the Mori Art Museum where I did a four-channel projection. This is at the end of the video loop where all the lights in the space come on and what we see is just these four empty blank screens.

This is another version of the installation in the Singapore Art Museum. This is the single-channel version with smoke machines.

We are already well into the presentation now and I haven’t talked about tigers, which was one of the things that was promised in the title, so I will now move quickly.

Here is a work called 10,000 Tigers and it is actually a theatrical performance. One reason that I wanted to start with Utama, Every Name in History is I, was because of the lion. The name Singapura, Singapore, came about because Utama supposedly saw a lion on the shores of Singapore, but of course lions are nowhere to be found in Southeast Asia. What we have a lot of are tigers. Singapore was probably named after the wrong large cat. I always wanted to do a project about tigers, and it was in the last five years that I was able to do so. Tigers have always been an important part of animist cosmology in our region. This was the first written record of something called the weretiger in Malacca. This was written by Ma Huan, the interpreter of the great navigator Zheng He when he travelled from Malacca in the 15th century.

I’ll just read this:

The myth of weretigers is one that threads through the whole of the region. Southeast Asia is a region that is very heterogeneous, from Vietnam to Indonesia. I think that in many places in Southeast Asia, there is the myth of the weretiger. The tiger or the weretiger is a myth that spreads across the sea. We saw this in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film Tropical Malady. It had a weretiger.

So this is the first and probably only photograph of weretigers. This was done by an anthropologist Walter William Skeat in a book published in 1906 called Pagan Races of the Malay Peninsula. It is fascinating why there are two figures here, because a weretiger is already two things, and that is somehow multiplied in this photograph. I have always found this photograph super fascinating.

This is another important image for me. It was produced in 1865 by a German artist, Heinrich Leutemann and records an actual historical event in 1835 when a tiger interrupted some road surveyors. The title of the work is Interrupting Road Surveying in Singapore. The white man here, conveniently dressed in white, is named George Drumgoole Coleman. He is actually the first civil architect superintendent of Public Works in Singapore. For those of you who have been to Singapore, you know that one of the main streets in our city center is called Coleman street and that is where the National Gallery is. Coleman was on a survey mission in 1835 that was disrupted by a tiger. The tiger didn’t kill anyone; what it did, however, was to destroy the surveying machine, the instrument [pictured here that is] used to measure land. It was the most expensive instrument in surveying missions. The tiger destroyed this instrument to bits.

Coleman started this survey because there was a demand for gambier and pepper in those days. They had to create more plantations in those areas. Ten years after this, an all-out war against tigers started in Singapore. Because they were creating more plantations, the chances of human-tiger encounters intensified, so there started an all-out war against the tigers. Tigers were basically annihilated by the turn of the century.

Tigers however have returned in a different form. General Tomoyuki Yamashita, leader of the Japanese 25th Army during the Japanese occupation, was known widely as the Tiger of Malaya, so I think [one can say that] tigers returned. The physical extinction of tigers was followed by their metaphorical return, in the realm of language. This is the Japanese 25th Army and it famously dealt the British a notorious defeat, which Winston Churchill said was the greatest military defeat ever suffered by the British. The Japanese were able to defeat the British because they could move very swiftly through the forest; they were savage, cunning, and full of gall, the same qualities that the British projected onto actual tigers a century before.

The next time we see the return of tigers as metaphors was actually the Malayan Communist party. In the literature of the time, very often the Communist Party guerrillas were referred to as tigers.

This is actually the cover of a graphic novel. We see here Lee Kuan Yew, who is actually the founding father of our post-colonial Singapore, riding a tiger. He was referring to his collaboration with the Communists. He worked with the Communists for a while, but when he got into power, he put them into prison, a very familiar story that we can find in different places. Lee Kuan Yew said famously that working with the Communists was like riding on a tiger.

We can track this motif of tiger riders to Indian motifs where very often we see gods riding on tigers. This was actually a bounty for the leader of the Malayan Communist Party Chin Peng. One of the ways that the British exterminated real tigers was to create a bounty system. We see tigers subjected to capitalist exchanges as the best, most efficient way to kill them. All of these ideas were kind of mapped out for me.

Sketch for Ten Thousand Tigers, 2013

This is actually the way that I create my scripts, this kind of mapping, and also a mapping of images. Now, very quickly I want to move to the work itself.

Sketch for Ten Thousand Tigers, 2013

This is the stage of 10,000 Tigers. What we see here is almost like a wunderkammer or cabinet of curiosity. This is near the end of the performance where we see the whole stage. But for the first forty minutes what we are looking at is just part by part of this large cabinet. Basically I flattened the space of the stage so we are looking at just a wall. This wall is about 15 meters long and 6 meters high. In it we see certain figures. You might find something familiar, like a figure squatting or the photograph of the weretigers, but we see this double.

This is another moment. In the center there are shadow puppets made out of buffalo skin. These puppets form the image of the interrupted road survey [which I spoke of a little bit earlier when the tiger destroyed the instrument]. So all the images that I was speaking about earlier were somehow embedded in this large cabinet.

These are the shadow puppets; when the screen is down, we see the projection of the shadows. When the screen lifts at a certain moment, we see the actual materials from which the puppets are made. At another moment actual images are projected onto the puppets, so I use the puppets also as a screen. Well, I think I should stop here, so you all have time for questions.

Hilary Chassé: Thank you very much Tzu Nyen.

Audience member: The tiger performance is not live…it’s a video?

HTN: No. It’s actually live. What happens is that all of these objects are automated. We have a gramophone player that plays on its own. We have radios that turn on on their own. The audience sees a lit object and then something happens to the object. We also have four live performances. This person is a Japanese soldier. These are the weretigers. One of them is a sculpture; the other is a live human. It is the same with the other site.

On top here we have a Chinese speaking person who channels the Chinese Communist party. This channels the Japanese history and this channels the Malay animalistic cosmologies and histories. Throughout the performance, all of the actors are not moving at all, so they look like objects as well. The question of the animate and the inanimate was something that I was interested in looking at.

Audience member: The audience was walking? Or are they standing?

HTN: They are all seated. It was a very traditional theatrical set-up. We did the performance in three languages: Malay, Japanese, and Mandarin, with very loud sounds and very dense soundscapes. It was almost a bit like a radio play with animate objects.

Audience member: While one part was performing, the other one would not be moving?

HTN: Yes. Basically, the show starts and we see here an old tape player… And the tape player moves on its own and then we hear voices. And the voices are a mix of recorded voices or sometimes voices that come from the actors, so a mixture of live and recorded [voices].

Audience member: So the attention…

HTN: The [audience’s] attention is focused through the [light]. We start with the tape player, and we move up. Over here we see books and the books move on their own.. All of these are mediums of some sort. Tigers are a kind of medium or media in Southeast Asia. The animists believe that tigers are vehicles for ancestral spirits.

Now we move to this section—we go section by section and it’s quite punishing for the audience because while it is a big stage, they have to focus on something super small and the movement is often minimal. They need to concentrate on it to get it. That was the sensation.

Audience member: So the spirit of the tiger was infiltrated through history?

HTN: When I was rehearsing with the actors, we had to find a kind of logic because there weren’t exactly characters like [there are] in a narrative. The approach that we settled on was that they were mediums and they were channeling the tiger’s spirit. They were sort of the eternal tiger in different forms. We also thought of it as a kind of séance of sorts, to summon the tiger.

Audience member: You only showed this work for four months as an installation?

HTN: We only showed the performance…

Audience member: Was it easy to travel with this piece?

HTN: It was horrible…it required two 40-foot container trucks. The shelf is made entirely of metal. We wanted something heavy. Of the invitations we received, we could only manage to do about a third of them. We showed them in theaters. Usually when you go to theater festivals, they give you only about three days to set up and we needed six to seven days. I had to travel with eleven people and none of them were replaceable because every part is automated. We also have water, which is one of the worse things to have on stage, water flowing from section to section. But water is very important to us because the tiger has to go through running water to transform into a weretiger. Water was crucial; water kind of flows from different compartments.

Behind the stage there are ten people running around during the performance, plugging in the pipes, but I am destroying the magic by telling you that…it is tough work.

Audience member: I’m trying to relate to how you have taken images from stories, Greek myths or historical records, and made them into images. Many of those images are narrative, but you have made them into images, into a tableau, without a narrative, but still necessarily with a sequence, right? Because the lights have to light up sequentially. How do you decide on the logic of the sequence of your narrative?

HTN: That is always the question. How the sequence works, right? The sequence for example for Earth was much easier because there was no spoken text. Like I mentioned earlier, the only kind of thing we had going on was this oscillation of light, between warm light and cool light. Everything was cyclical. For me it didn’t really matter what came first and what followed. But for 10,000 Tigers, because there was spoken text, the question of sequence was much more complicated. In the beginning, I structured everything in a linear way starting with the arrival of tigers one million years ago in Southeast Asia. And then the arrival of homo-sapiens probably 10-15,000 years ago in Southeast Asia. But I was not satisfied with this kind of linear narrative, so I decided to break up the timeline, so it kind of jumps from histories to moments and it is now completely non-linear. I think what I was after was a kind of resonance amongst the fragments, so that suddenly the Japanese history could resonate with the Malay cosmological and folk themes. In the end, that was kind of the logic of the structure.

Audience member: And the resonance is between two sequential parts? What was the most powerful juxtaposition for you?

HTN: Actually I would say the whole thing was equally powerful. Maybe that’s just my way of getting out of the question… but for me this sense of not having a strong moment was important; I like it to have horizontal meaning, something that is flat but is always very dense at the same time. That is a mode that I like. It also has to do with my taste in music; I tend to like things which have a horizontal structure. It was a bit of a challenge to create this horizontality, with a narrative.

Audience member: You mentioned how important music was to you and you mentioned that your taste in music is very important [when you talked about] your collaborations with other artists. We didn’t get to hear any of the sound from this, so first of all, what was the sound like? And secondly, how did you you go about finding musicians you wanted to collaborate with? How do you find that collaborative process? Does it change your work or does it enhance your work?

HTN: I think that it is never difficult for me to find musicians because I enjoy music so much. There are always people I want to work with. Earlier I mentioned that I worked with Aki Onda on Earth. I was a fan of his work before I met him. The way that we worked on Earth was that I didn’t really give him any directions; I just sent him the film.

Aki Onda: But the film itself is almost like a score… It told me what to do…

HTN: Yes. Ok, but I think I leave it to the musicians to interpret because they would know how to do music better than me. With Earth, it was very interesting for me because I didn’t interfere with the music, but of course, like Oren said, something is already folded into the images themselves.

So for 10,000 Tigers, I worked with a Japanese musician called Yasuhiro Morinaga. Yasu’s work is interesting because he has been doing field recordings of ethnographic music. He does a lot of recordings all over Southeast Asia and he collects a lot of records of all types of Southeast Asian music. The score was eventually produced from all these mixtures.

One of the actors that I worked with—this guy here, Bani Haykal—is a really great musician himself. I also had him improvise on the drums, and we did some recordings, so very often the music just kind of grows out of the project. The actors weren’t speaking in a normal way—there was something almost like a recital, something song-like in the way they were delivering their text. That is how the sound eventually came about.

Actually two of the actors were musicians. They were vocalists. Very often, I work with non-theatrical performers. I like to work with musicians as actors as well. So the soundtrack developed for this work was more like a close collaboration that gradually kind of grew out of the process.

Audience member: In Clouds, you mentioned there were eight apartments. Is there a reason for the number eight?

HTN: One on top of the other. I mentioned earlier that the last shot in the work was a single long shot by the camera on a crane and the crane was elevating up. That last shot was what came to my mind when I was editing the work; the rest of the 20 minutes of the film was made just so that I could do the final elevating shot.

So this is on the ground floor, this is the first floor, then we see the second floor and the third floor. We saw a bit of the landscape outside the windows, that was on the sixth floor. Everything was constructed just so that I could reach this shot. For me, making films is often about reaching that one shot; the rest of the shots are there to make that one shot possible.

I wanted to do this to make that sense of elevation possible. On the crane we put in a fog machine but [because] it was a bit windy, it was difficult to [see the fog]. It is interesting. When we think about windows, we think also about screens, so this whole notion of windows and clouds and screens…

Audience member: So the effect the fog machines were supposed to have was to resemble the clouds?

HTN: The clouds would kind of trail…

HC: We almost have to stop, but I would like to leave time for you to give a little teaser about the project you are working on for AAA. If no one has another question, maybe you could jump into that.

HTN: I have been working on this project with AAA since 2013, but the tiger [project] ate up all my time. Other than 10,000 Tigers, a lot of projects that I had been developing were around tigers as well… So basically tigers are one part of a larger project that I was developing with AAA. The project is called The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia and it is made up of 26 terms—26 because of the 26 letters in the alphabet—so T is for Tiger, but I got stuck on just doing T for 4 years, so I really need to get on with the project…

The project has been a kind of research project for me. It incorporates all the things that fascinate me about Southeast Asia. Thinking about Southeast Asia a region…why is Southeast Asia a region? If you think of Europe as a region, it kind of makes sense because the countries were somehow unified by a religion, which constructed a kind of imagination that unifies the visual cultural production that the region has produced for a few centuries. But what unifies Southeast Asia? Neither language nor religion unifies Southeast Asia. But if you look at writings by other historians, they like to propose that there were these deep subterranean links.

The term Southeast Asia, as some of you might know, was coined during the Second World War, when the United States wanted to take over the area from the Japanese. It was in this theater of war that the region Southeast Asia was constructed named. In the academy, Southeast Asian studies as a discipline—such as at Cornell–were supported by the CIA. A lot of money was also [spent] during the Vietnam War to [promote] an understanding of the region and to repel Communism. So I guess this question of the region which is not exactly ‘one’ was something that I was super fascinated by.

One of the other terms for the dictionary, other than T is for Tiger, is: L for Lai Teck. Lai Teck was the leader of the Malayan Communist Party from 1949 – 1977. He was also a triple agent working for the French and British and during the Japanese occupation, while he was also working for the Japanese secret police. He was also the leader of the Communist Party. The biography of this man fascinates me immensely. He is known by 50 different names, so no one knows his real name. I made a film called The Nameless about Lai Teck. What fascinated me about Lai Teck was that we do know that he was originally from Vietnam, so we have a figure from Vietnam who ended up in Malaya—Singapore and Malaysia—and became the leader of the Communist Party. He was someone who was moving across the region and his subjectivity was entirely plastic, as in how he constructed his own identity. This links somewhat to the myth of weretigers, so these are other connections that I am interested in.

Another example is A for Altitude. I think about altitude in Southeast Asia…A for Altitude, but also A for Anarchism. Thinking about higher altitudes… for example, as a region, the northern part of continental mainland Southeast Asia, where we have the massive mountains that trail off from the Himalayas, is larger than Europe, and it is populated by many tribes that have never been governed by any state. There we find a form of organic anarchism at the highest altitude. High altitudes are traditionally an obstacle for armies, so geography becomes a natural defense. Then, if you think about the lowest altitudes, the sea level at the southern part of Southeast Asia, where we have archipelagos, this is the terrain of pirates, which is another form of anarchism. So, A links with Altitude and Anarchism.

I tried to think like this; a graphical sort of vector in connection with anarchism. Also, traditionally in the Hindu cosmology, mountains and seas are the sites of power. Mountains are where we receive energies and seas are the origin of life. So, with the dictionary, I tried to follow these different lines of thought, like cosmologies and anthropologies and histories. The dictionary consists of all these different ideas. Now I am working on an editing system with two Berlin-based programmers to create a system that can automatically edit images for the dictionary. It is my fantasy not to have to edit any more. So that is more or less the project that I am working on and hopefully the dictionary will get finished next year.

HC: Well, I guess we really do have to stop now. This has been a fascinating presentation and we look forward to hearing more about the dictionary. Thank you so much!

Ho Tzu Nyen is a current Artist in Residence at Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong. He makes films, videos, and theatrical performances that often draw upon historical and philosophical texts and artifacts. His work has been presented at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (Bilbao, 2015); DAAD Gallery (Berlin, 2015); Guggenheim Museum (New York, 2013); Mori Art Museum (Tokyo, 2012); the 54th Venice Biennale (Venice, 2011); Artspace, (Sydney, 2011); Tate Modern (London, 2010); the 6th Asia-Pacific Triennial (Brisbane, 2009); the 1st Singapore Biennale (2006) and the 26th Sao Paulo Biennale (2004). His films have premiered at Cannes Film Festival (2009) and the 66th Venice International Film Festival (2009).

All images courtesy of the artist and all artwork by Ho Tzu Nyen unless otherwise indicated.
Transcribed by Daisley Kramer and edited by Hilary Chassé and Jane DeBevoise

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This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.