Ho Tzu Nyen is a careful and attentive student of neglected histories. In a rambling, expansive essay in Forum on Contemporary Art and Society from 2007, Ho traces the story of “how cats—big and small, wild and domesticated, imagined and real—have been enigmatically woven into the history of Singapore.” Plowing expertly through a dense thicket of references to colonial policy, pathology and the identity politics of nation building, Ho traces the ways in which felines—mostly lions and tigers—have played an unusually prominent role in the history of his home country.
Although government-sanctioned accounts of Singapore’s history tend to emphasize its British colonial past and its “founding” in 1819 by Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles, there are few reliable sources that document the country’s precolonial founder. One story can be traced to the mid-14th century. A Sumatran prince named Sang Nila Utama arrived on the shores of an island, where he spotted a strange beast. Utama’s aide, Demang Lebar Daun, informed him that the beast must be a lion (the source of his conviction, however, is unclear). Utama thus decided to name the island Singapura—singa meaning lion and pura meaning city.
This founding myth is the subject of one of Ho’s early works, Utama – Every Name in History Is I (2003). First shown at the Substation, a Singapore nonprofit arts organization, Utama consists of a 22-minute video depicting the explorers and a series of 20 paintings of those historical figures. In the video, Utama is played by Zulkifle Mahmod, a Singaporean sound artist, while his jester-like trickster companion Lebar Daun is played by Rizman Putra, a performer and artist who also narrates the video’s Malay voice-over. As clouds
of mist drift across the verdant shores of the as-yet-undiscovered tropical island of Singapore, Ho considers Utama’s genealogy through both plausible and implausible interpretations of the origins of this dapper prince. Was he descended from the Malay-Hindu prince Iskandar Shah? Was he a distant relative of the Chinese eunuch-admiral Zheng He? Throughout the film, Utama and his aide are cast and recast as other intrepid explorers and imperialists from European, American and Asian history—Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Captain James Cook, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar
all make appearances.
While Utama anachronistically presents an ensemble of historical figures, each of them shrouded in their own mythic reputations, the video seeks neither to endorse nor discredit any of them. Omitting authorial judgment, the piece is content merely to mimic the construction of the nebulous histories, mingling official accounts with more dubious sources and even fanciful speculation on the same level. Grainy stock footage of Singapore’s once-pristine beaches, lit by the bleached white light found in tropical latitudes, is interwoven with a cast of often comically incongruous characters in period costumes—all of them played by Mahmod and Putra. As Ho has written, the film is simply “an attempt to summon forth the specter of Utama. Ultimately this is a film about the intertwining of myth and history, the impossibility of ontology, the instability
of all beginnings.”
Perhaps another clue to Ho’s strategy can be found in the film’s subheading, Every Name in History Is I, which, according to the artist, comes from Friedrich Nietzsche’s late writings, when the philosopher was close to madness. As if to counteract the all-consuming search for a single, unitary identity corroborated in history books, the phrase makes a case for the plausibility of every single hypothesis ventured in the film. The ominous narration is delivered with a slipperiness that makes it almost impossible to tell whether these conjectures are being made with anything more than an ironic smirk. All of these characters and the interpretations that accompany them are adrift on the ocean that swirls around an island founded and refounded time and time again, an enchanting expression of the fiction making inherent to all historicization.
The film ends with a surreal, slow-motion tour de force in which the actors step “offstage” and into present-day Singapore. “And so it is that whoever seeks his own truth will find only image, mirage, spectacle,” intones the narrator, at which point the camera cuts to a sign that reads “SPECTACLES” on a street corner a few steps away from the riverside statue of Sir Stamford Raffles. The charade soon dissolves into mere cosplay: Utama and Lebar Daun, clad in their now out-of-place costumes, gleefully lead a small procession of trishaws from the Raffles statue to the Merlion, another invented national icon with a lion’s head and a fish’s tailfin, monumentalized as a 70-ton sculpture (which dates back to only 1972). While Raffles’ name has been immortalized in a staggering number of prestigious contexts that range from one of Singapore’s oldest luxury colonial hotels to elite private schools and exclusive country clubs, Utama’s lion is forced to endure the ignominious fate of being co-opted by an image-making campaign launched by the country’s tourism office. Although the origins of the humble beast that Utama apparently “discovered” have largely been plastered over and obscured, the contemporary tourist icon on which it is based continues to be commodified as part of Singapore’s exotic vernacular, turning up in everything from souvenir-shop chocolate boxes to the interior décor of Singaporean-themed restaurants abroad.
As much as Utama was Ho’s attempt to unearth hidden strands of folkloric history that have been eclipsed or simply ignored by official modern histories of Singapore, he is dismissive of working approaches that simply play up notions of national or regional identity—or at least those that foreground these issues as major artistic “themes.” The 35-year-old artist and filmmaker’s academic background reflects both this ambivalence and the sprawling reach of his interests. Although he earned an MA in Southeast Asian studies from the National University of Singapore in 2007, Ho previously pursued his undergraduate studies in creative arts and mass communications at the Victorian College of the Arts of the University of Melbourne. He soon became dissatisfied with the curriculum, however, and opted instead for a self-education in cinema by devouring films by European directors such as Jean-Luc Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini. He combined this with philosophy and cultural studies, including French poststructuralism and a particular, recurrent obsession with Nietzsche. One of his short films, Zarathustra – A Film for Everyone and No One (2009), enlisted a whole cast of students from the LaSalle College of the Arts (where Ho teaches) in a loose adaptation of Nietzsche’s philosophical novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None (1883–85).
None of these diverse references and inspirations are indispensable to an instinctive appreciation of Ho’s work. Even though many thoughtful parallels between his work and that of other writers, filmmakers and artists came up during the course of our conversation in March, Ho repeatedly emphasized that “spotting references is never a crucial thing in my work. I always try to produce work for an imaginary spectator who might have zero understanding of these references. That is the ideal—though an imaginary one, of course.”
The staggering scope of these cultural references is evident in his 42-minute video EARTH (((radio))) (2009), which was screened in the Corto Cortissimo section of the Venice International Film Festival in 2009. EARTH consists of three long takes that pan horizontally and vertically in excruciatingly slow motion, revealing a mound of human bodies that seem to have been piled up in the wake of an unspecified catastrophe along with a tangle of wires and cables, stacks of wooden pallets, cardboard boxes, dead fish and fluorescent light tubes. Slowly, some of the bodies begin to stir, and several scenes that unfold bear a distinct resemblance to well-known religious paintings. One of them shows a man poking a finger into the chest wound of a fellow victim, perhaps incredulous that he is still alive—a direct reference to Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1601–02),
in which Thomas the Apostle has to touch Jesus’ wounds before he can believe in his miraculous resurrection.
The film’s art direction and the compositions of certain scenes, on the other hand, were inspired by the work of post-French Revolution painters such as Théodore Géricault, whose The Raft of the Medusa (1818–19) depicts shipwreck survivors clutching desperately to a makeshift raft adrift on a stormy sea, and Eugène Delacroix, whose Massacre at Chios (1824) was also strongly inspired by Géricault’s painting. Ho collaborated with theater professionals to achieve carefully orchestrated lighting effects based on the dramatic chiaroscuro found in paintings by Caravaggio and Rembrandt.
While the imagery and iconography of EARTH is derived from a largely European canon of French and Italian painting, its soundtrack is inspired by another very specific set of rock-music staples from the 1970s and 1980s that members of Ho’s generation grew up listening to. Riffs and extracts from Billboard Top 100 hits by Guns N’ Roses, Queen, Metallica and Def Leppard swirl distortedly through the soundtrack. In one scene, a disembodied hand clutches a decapitated head and bobs it slowly up and down, making it nod to the sound of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” slowed down almost to a grinding halt. The effect is both pathetic and ghoulish: in addition to echoing Caravaggio’s David and Goliath (c. 1599), this scene evokes the universally felt agony of a protracted death, as well as the incredible resurrections of creatures seen in cult zombie movies of the 1970s.
When asked if this latter reference was intentional, Ho replied with characteristic wit: “Sampling—reviving things from the past—is a kind of zombie activity. There’s a vague nostalgia about it but also a sense of decay.” While drawing direct connections to works from distant eras and geographical contexts, EARTH is itself a “zombie” film that is orchestrated according to its own self-contained sense of time and space, a perception that is enhanced by Ho’s use of slow pans and altered sound samples that warp the original references, defamiliarizing them. “When you hear these songs, they automatically open up a portal to the past,” Ho says. “And because almost all the samples were slowed down, your process of recognition is delayed.”
The artist also cites the pervasive influence of drone, doom and black metal music by bands such as Sunn O))) in the making of the film. In these genres, the extremely low frequencies, lack of percussive rhythms and high volume combine to create a distinct physical experience that numbs the senses, effectively “transforming the body into a giant ear,” as Ho puts it. Compared with the relatively detached, placid experiences that most visual art provides, EARTH attempts to insinuate a more visceral experience, with the music and the anguished throes of the heaped bodies. One of the film’s runs took place at Sydney’s Artspace in January, where the Australian musician Oren Ambarchi performed a live, heavily distorted guitar accompaniment that intensified the physicality of the experience.
This predilection for thoroughly immersive sensory stimulation shows up again in Ho’s other major film from 2009, HERE. Selected for the prestigious Quinzaine des Réalisateurs showcase at the Cannes International Film Festival that year, HERE tells the story of psychiatric patients at Island Hospital, filmed in a mock-documentary style. The unseen director interviews the patients about their lives and thoughts on the rehabilitation program, getting each of them to sign a disclaimer for their willing participation in the film. Nimbly self-referential and multilayered, the film also documents the progress of an experimental psychiatric “videocure” treatment that is being tested on a number of the asylum’s residents. Apparently inspired by the writings of French psychiatrist Félix Guattari, the videocure involves each patient reenacting a scene from their past (typically the criminal act for which they were prosecuted) with a different, “happier” ending. The footage of this alternative outcome is then played back to the individual in a cinema where his or her fellow inmates offer encouragement and endorsement of this supposedly redemptive act.
At its most basic level, HERE is a superficial caricature of several Singapore institutions. “Island Hospital” is an obvious reference to the nation-state itself, whose inhabitants are cared for and chaperoned by attendants dressed all in white—the unofficial uniform of the ruling People’s Action Party, whose members have faithfully taken care of their wards since independence in 1965. When asked about these specific local analogies, Ho replied that Island Hospital “was just a blunt way in which I could stage a facet of Singaporean experience. I mean, HERE belongs to the genre of asylum films, and the rule of all asylum films is that the asylum is a microcosm of the society at large.”
In the same way that Utama operates deftly (and, according to Ho, “densely”) on a number of different levels, ostensibly dealing with local folklore and history only as a pretext for broaching larger, universal questions of historiography and fictionalization, HERE works most effectively when it conflates documentary with fiction, and far-reaching themes with something that might best be described as “atmosphere.” Ho confides: “What interested me most in HERE was the attempt to construct a rhythm in the film that could express how I feel on one of those lazy, hot and humid Singapore afternoons, and communicate it at the level of one’s ‘nervous system.’” The sensuousness and languor of the tropical heat is conveyed not just by the film’s visuals but also by its accompanying soundtrack. Designed, engineered and mixed specifically for 5.1 surround-sound systems in movie theaters by Singaporean musician George Chua, HERE’s soundtrack rumbles and drones through a whole range of frequencies in an attempt to create a transportive yet fully present cinematic experience that makes a direct appeal to the senses. “I love it when the lower frequencies cause the metal structures in the cinema theater to vibrate. It’s a great sound—really ‘here,’ I think.”
Having won himself a strong following among both art-house cinema fans and contemporary art circles with these two films, Ho is currently busy preparing for two important shows in the next year. In addition to a solo exhibition slated to open at Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum in February next year, Ho will also represent Singapore at the Venice Biennale in June with The Cloud of Unknowing (2011), a video and sound installation that examines clouds as an art-historical motif symbolizing transience, emptiness or, in the case of Chinese landscape painting, phenomena that elude representation altogether. Like EARTH, the work draws on a wide array of references to European paintings by artists including El Greco, Francisco Zurbarán and John Constable, in addition to expanding his explorations into fusing image with sound to conjure up diverse sensations.
Clouds, incidentally, may provide a useful metaphor for thinking about much of Ho’s work. These dense constellations of particles—constantly shifting shape like the multiple, fluid identities in Utama, or swirling around like a thick fog of droning noise in EARTH—are caught in a state of perpetual suspension that eludes neat conclusions or resolutions. Yet his films also offer viewers an unusually lucid experience, comprehensible on a number of levels without any of these interpretive layers obscuring or overwhelming the others—as he describes it, “a kind of density that cancels itself out.”