Singaporean artist Ho Tzu Nyen's exploration of the human-tiger relationship in Southeast Asia, particularly through his series of tiger-themed artworks, offers a profound commentary on the region's post-colonial history and ecological challenges. The culmination of his series of explorations into tigers in Southeast Asia, a video titled One or Several Tigers, serves as a lens to unravel the complex interplay of symbolism, colonialism, and environmental impact, reflecting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of Life on Land.

Ho's journey into the life of tigers is embedded in his broader research project, the Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia. This extensive artistic platform, organized by alphabetic order like a common dictionary, seeks to encapsulate the essence of Southeast Asia. By employing various art forms that dialogue with each other, Ho challenges binary ways of thinking and sheds light on the often neglected aspects of the region.

A photograph of Ho Tzu Nyen in front of his piece One Or Several Tigers by Shintaro Tay. Image courtesy of The Straits Times. 

Through it, Ho discovered that Indigenous cultures of the Malay world considered tigers as ancestral figures, central to their cosmology. For them, tigers embody invisible forces like spirits, that alternate between being friends and foes, invoking both fear and respect. However, with the onset of colonization, these majestic creatures soon faced threats as their habitats were destroyed, and they were hunted for bounties, contributing to their current near-extinction state.

The arrival of the British in Singapore in 1819 marked a turning point for Tigers in the area. Tigers who were previously living at the edge of forests, were suddenly perceived as a threat to humankind as land was cleared for plantations. Indian convicts, brought in to address labour shortages, encountered these tigers at the jungle frontier. In One or Several Tigers, Ho draws attention to the ghostly labour that built early colonial Singapore, connecting it to the extinction of tigers and emphasizing the plight of convicts, who lived a life akin to animals in the name of clearing the land for settlement.

The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia by Ho Tzu Nyen, entry W for Weretiger. Image courtesy of the Asia Art Archive. 

Anthropologist Robert Wessing highlights the symbolic power of tigers in Southeast Asia, representing the ambiguous relationship between man and nature. Tigers, despite nearing extinction, persisted as myths and metaphors, embodying historical figures like General Tomoyuki Yamashita and communist guerrillas, who are present in One or Several Tigers. These figures disrupt linear narratives within the piece, revealing connections and events overlooked in traditional histories.

Ho's exploration in One or Several Tigers delves further into the ecological violence of colonization, where nature was tamed, and people were severed from it. The extinction of tigers signified a rupture in local culture. By focusing on weretigers and the symbiosis between tigers and men within the piece, Ho critiques Western dualisms and emphasizes animism's inclusive and ambiguous forms of thinking, where humankind is not considered separate from nature and is just another component within its ecology.

Still from One or Several Tigers by Ho Tzu Nyen. Image courtesy of the Trans - SEAsia Triennial.

One or Several Tigers serves as the culmination of Ho's research findings. Through a blend of sounds and visual expressions, the artwork exemplifies his process of deconstructing and reassembling data into a constellation of sensory experiences. Ho's artistic language aims to bridge the gap between verbal discourse and sentient forms, creating alternative modes of knowledge that challenge conventional perspectives.

Ho's non-linear and fragmented expression embraces uncertainty and confusion and opens up spaces for creativity. The excessiveness of his narrative, both verbal and visual, aims to create a sense of emptiness, inviting viewers to wander freely in a living space open to imagination. This aligns with a form of knowledge as a trajectory, emphasizing the transformative nature of understanding.

Still from One or Several Tigers by Ho Tzu Nyen. Image courtesy of the Trans - SEAsia Triennial.

In conclusion, Ho Tzu Nyen's artistic journey through the human-tiger relationship in Southeast Asia encapsulated in One or Several Tigers, goes beyond visual exploration. It becomes a profound commentary on history, colonization, and ecological impact, resonating with a need for tiger conservation. His interdisciplinary approach challenges traditional narratives, fostering a deeper understanding of the intricate connections between humanity, nature, and the consequences of historical actions in the region.

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