As Singapore Art Week returns for its 12th edition from January 19 to 28, 2024 with more than 150 art exhibitions, talks and programs by over 400 artists, curators and partners from Singapore, Southeast Asia and across the world, the Singapore Art Museum is highlighting Singaporean talents including Ho Tzu Nyen, among the country’s most exciting artists today, having represented Singapore at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011. Running until March 3, 2024, “Ho Tzu Nyen: Time and the Tiger” is a mid-career survey of the artist’s practice bringing together two decades’ worth of paintings, films, theatrical performances and video installations. Co-organized with Art Sonje Center in Seoul, the exhibition showcases a new commission, “T for Time”, a two-channel video installation that explores the embodied and heterogeneous experiences of time. Inspired by historical events, documentary footage, art history, music videos and mythical stories, Ho questions the construction of history, the narrative of myths and the plurality of identities. I sit down with the artist to discuss his creative process.
What is the most important consideration when you first start creating an artwork? How do you come up with the themes and subjects for your artworks?
Some of my projects begin as questions. Sometimes they come out of an encounter with another work of art, a piece of music or a book. I begin my day in the morning by reading. It sets the tone of the day for me. I do not quite know how I come up with the themes and subject matters for my work. Perhaps my works are more like constellations of themes and subject matters. Sometimes, I think that I did not choose, but was perhaps chosen to serve as a conduit.
What role do words, music and lighting play in your films, and how do you incorporate them?
Words are critical starting points, but also that which has to be resisted. Music is a huge inspiration for me. I listen to music almost the entire day, and I can only work in an environment with music of my choice. And sometimes I listen to the same record for days, or even weeks, on end. It has become a way to tune my nervous system. There are times when I think I made videos just so that I can have an excuse for making a soundtrack. As for lighting, when I used to work more with the camera, I was obsessed by chiaroscuro, extreme contrasts of light and darkness. So what interests me, I think that all moving images are essentially light. For me, the light is interesting only when there is darkness.
Why have you chosen to explore the histories of Singapore, Southeast Asia and the wider Asian region in videos that weave together fact and fiction, investigating how histories are constructed?
I think my interest in histories emerged solely out of my attempt to understand my present. And when I start researching the past, what interests me for my work is neither fact nor fiction, but very much this line between them.
What are the greatest challenges you face when creating your artworks?
Knowing when to stop.
How has your work evolved over the past two decades, and what keeps you going?
I suppose my works have grown in complexity, in terms of their processes and technique. I seem less and less able to sum up what my works are about. So I think I have become worse than ever in delivering elevator pitches about them. But this indescribability is something that I find quite interesting… interesting enough to keep me going!
What do you feel is the role of the artist in society? What do you hope to achieve or what message do you hope to convey through your art at the end of the day?
I think that artists exist to channel other realities into this one. Artists are like mediums for other worlds. But I don’t think they necessarily need to have messages.