Ho Tzu Nyen – The Cloud of Unknowing

February 14 – March 21, 2015

Opening February 14, 4 PM

Trinity Square Video and Pleasure Dome are pleased to present Ho Tzu Nyen’s immersive and theatrical audio and visual installation The Cloud of Unknowing (2011, 28 min). Commissioned for Singapore’s participation in the 2011 Venice Art Biennale, The Cloud of Unknowing is titled after a fourteenth century mystical treatise on faith, where the cloud paradoxically acts as a metaphor for both an impediment to, and reconciliation with, the unknown or the divine experience.

Shot in a decaying block of vacated apartments in the remote outskirts of Singapore, The Cloud of Unknowing is fittingly flooded with ghostly presences. Ethereal clouds infiltrate and invade the homes of the eight characters, culminating in hysterical confrontations with inscrutable specters. Each vignette is based on characters drawn from Western European artworks by such artists as Tintoretto, Caravaggio, Francisco de Zurbarán, Antonio da Correggio, Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, and René Magritte, as well as the Eastern landscapes of Mi Fu and Wen Zhengming.

This blending of cultural, historical, and philosophical references is prevalent in Nyen’s practice as he speaks to the predicament of representing and interpreting contemporary art discourse through a Southeast Asian lens—more specifically from a Singapore-based perspective (where he was born in 1976). Through this incorporation of Eastern and Western cultural, historical, and philosophical references,The Cloud of Unknowing collapses binaries through a vaporous reinterpretation and integration of cultural narratives.

Drawing from historical events, documentary footage, art history, music videos, and mythical stories, Ho Tzu Nyen’s films and installations investigate the construction of history, the narrative of myth, and the plurality of identities. Nyen often collaborates with theater professionals, and the lighting in his films is meticulously orchestrated, the compositions highly aesthetic. Ho also practices painting, performance, and writing, exploring the many possible relationships between stills, painted images, and moving images. His first feature film, HERE, premiered at the 41st Director’s Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009. He has exhibited widely, including at the Bienal de São Paulo (2004), the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale (2005), the Singapore Biennale (2006), the Dojima River Biennale (2009), and the Singapore Pavilion of the Venice Biennale (2011).


The Cloud of Unkowing

Image: Ho Tzu Nyen – The Cloud of Unknowing (video still from installation), 2011



NOW Magazine review by Fran Schechter

Rating: NNNN

Eastern and Western culture and spirituality meet in The Cloud Of Unknowing, a haunting half-hour video by Singapore’s Ho Tzu Nyen. The original Cloud Of Unknowing was an anonymous medieval Christian guide to contemplative spirituality whose ideas bear similarities to the Eastern meditative tradition.

Ho’s installation was the Singaporean entry in the 2011 Venice Biennale, where it played in a church, but it still packs a punch of otherworldly weirdness in the less spectacular environment of Trinity Square Video.

The dreamlike video visits eight characters inhabiting a derelict apartment building. Caucasians and Asians, all have fleshy bodies that give them an amorphous, cloud-like quality.

To a soundtrack of drumming, heavy breathing and bits of song, Ho presents a long-haired rock drummer, a man with vitiligo whose room is hung with hundreds of light bulbs, another who seems to be sinking into a bed, a woman who watches a staticky TV while plates of food rot, another serene woman whose apartment has been overtaken by vegetation and a man in a book-lined study who writes obsessively. In a water-filled basement, a man who strips down to an incontinence undergarment becomes the agent of the mist that provides the climax.

The characters are supposedly drawn from art historical images. The only reference I could identify was literary rather than visual – to the light bulb room from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man – but spotting references is not the point. It’s more about taking in a series of strange, sometimes disturbing images of life, culture and decay that are open to a range of interpretations.

The Cloud Of Unknowing is memorable but not always comfortable to watch, especially in the end, when it turns immersive as a hidden smoke machine fogs up the screening room, implicating the viewer in the mysteries the video evokes.