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Ho Tzu Nyen »No Man II«. Courtesy of the artist, Edouard Malingue Gallery and Galerie Michael Janssen
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Ho Tzu Nyen »No Man II«, Kärntnertorpassage, Wiener Festwochen, Vienna, 2020. Photo by Franzi Kreis
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Ho Tzu Nyen »No Man II«, Kärntnertorpassage, Wiener Festwochen, Vienna, 2020. Photo by Franzi Kreis

Ho Tzu Nyen’s Symptomatic Haunting of Public Space

June 26, 2020
Text by Wera Hippesroither
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Ho Tzu Nyen »No Man II«. Courtesy of the artist, Edouard Malingue Gallery and Galerie Michael Janssen

Ho Tzu Nyen’s installation No Man II fatefully embodies this year’s Wiener Festwochen and thus becomes the symbol of a ghostlike festival that’s both present and absent.

In the middle of one of the most frequented subway stations of Vienna and the never-ending stream of people, voices emerge that are unfamiliar in public space. Sometimes they sing in a high and isolated voice, sometimes deeper and in a choir. The barely comprehensible vocal lines attract spectators like a siren song wafting through the dense clouds of public noise. If you come closer, you are facing larger-than-life digital figures. The installation, created by the Singaporean multimedia artist Ho Tzu Nyen, gathers countless figurations of a collective Southeast-Asian culture, which, projected onto two-way mirrors, become part of the traffic flow within the station. The different characters are all unique and merge references of a collective identity that is so complex that it almost overwrites itself: a soldier, a one-eyed man, a dancing ballerina, a crawling baby, even a terminator and several skinned people or a tiger – a recurring symbolic figure in Ho’s work. But their movements and facial expressions are odd. It’s hard to follow these whimsical figures which keep fading out and disappearing in the background, then appearing again. They stand still, and yet they wriggle, start to move in the way you would expect them to, only to stop trembling on the spot. Nothing seems logical, even if their singing swells to a chorus, the lines, borrowed from a poem by John Donne, remain difficult to understand.

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Ho Tzu Nyen »No Man II«, Kärntnertorpassage, Wiener Festwochen, Vienna, 2020. Photo by Franzi Kreis

In developing the piece, Ho, who often uses film and multichannel technology in his installations, worked with customizable characters commonly used for gaming software and digital pornography. with motion software for human gestures, he created characters that incorporate popular algorithms and sought-after attributes. These figures embody both current standards in computer programming and cultural trends. The installation can be seen as an assemblage of a collective imaginary, as it explores the connection between cultural narratives and (digital) images. In an interview with Naima Morelli, Ho described these figures as literally digital hollow shells, being fascinated by the possibilities of figuration: »They can be used, augmented or possessed for different meanings«.

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Ho Tzu Nyen »No Man II«, Kärntnertorpassage, Wiener Festwochen, Vienna, 2020. Photo by Franzi Kreis

Possession is an accurate expression, because this is exactly what the characters in »No Man II« radiate, which is what makes them so odd. The figures act as hollow reference carriers, seemingly possessed by the idea of a deeper significance that they cannot bear. Their special attraction is based on the impression that they are everything and nothing at the same time. The installation resembles a ritual that summons the ghosts of mythical figures and characters of pop culture. In the same way, this full-yet-empty referential construct haunts the space in which it is shown. »No Man II« is part of the public and thus becomes a symptom of a cultural institution that has a particularly rich cultural heritage: The Wiener Festwochen, whose 2020 edition was affected by the pandemic, yet still takes place in gestures, insisting on its ephemeral character. By placing the oddly ghostlike choir in the city, the characters come close to us and invade our everyday lives. Fatefully, Ho’s work becomes a haunting embodiment of a festival that cannot take place. Literally Festwochen for No Man.

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PW-Magazine is a bilingual online magazine for contemporary culture.