The Futura 89+ series features interviews with artists, writers, activists, architects, filmmakers, scientists and entrepreneurs who were born in or after 1989. In this issue, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Simon Castets interview Ho Rui An.
You are both an artist and a writer, with your practice operating across many different platforms, including texts, moving images, still images and lecture-performances. How did you come to art? How did you come to writing? Which came first?
I’ve always called myself an artist before all else. But having said that, even when I was in art school and operating largely within the context of contemporary art, I never identified fully with its points of reference. I took my coordinates more from cinema, literature, anthropology, philosophy, cultural studies and media theory. My most formative encounters happened in these parallel fields, with contemporary art being more of the site to negotiate and collide these different influences. I was more interested in thinking about the form of the exhibition through these different lenses than actually mounting a work in one. So in that sense, I never really did come to art, which has always been more of a place from which to depart. My relationship to writing has a clearer history. I started writing quasi-seriously when I was doing my National Service in Singapore. I wanted to continue to engage in creation and under the circumstances writing was the most practical way of doing so. I primarily wrote what you would call “criticism” but also dabbled in fiction, publishing a novel, Several Islands, in 2011. In any case, I approach all writing I do as literature. Within those two years, I read and wrote voraciously about everything that interested me—art, film, theatre, dance, theory, politics. As a writer you have the mobility to traverse these different fields. It opens you to a kind of runaway topography in a scene that could otherwise be quite fragmented. But that was also the only way I knew how to write. I couldn’t see how one could talk about cinema without broaching the question of theatre, or how one could speak of politics without considering ontology.
Your talks often demonstrate your artistic approach to research. At the Serpentine 89plus Marathon in London in 2013, you presented your research into the sometimes-problematic subject of “the wave.” What inspired you to start thinking about the wave as a research subject?
All my talks can be seen as an extended exercise in cinephilia. Whenever I perform, I am beside a slideshow of images that I speak from, to and around. It’s cinephilic because of how deeply my writing is influenced by the radical traditions of film criticism, where there was always this excruciating attentiveness to what was happening at the phenomenal level, to how the cinematic itself rearranged the sensible and opened up new horizons of political becoming. You don’t get a lot of that in contemporary art writing these days, where the rush is always to theorise at the expense of sense. The Waves came about as I was thinking about the expression “the New Wave” that is often invoked in cinema. As the talk was held on the occasion of the 89plus Marathon at the newly opened Sackler Gallery, which architecturally took the form of a wave, it was only natural that I started thinking about the wave in relation to newness and futurity. I wanted to move away from thinking of the wave as this chic sign for contemporaneity to approach it as a pure movement perpetually unwinding itself towards an unknowable future, as with the spirit of the cinematic “New Wave.” To an extent, I was also proposing the wave as an alternative to the “turn” that is more often used in contemporary art discourse. The problem with the turn is that once we start to speak of it, it has already been completed. We have to turn back to recognise the turn that we’ve made. It is the new made already past. The wave, in contrast, always exceeds the moment of recognition, simply because it’s always ongoing, carrying us along with it. The talk itself took the structure of me getting “carried away” with the concept of the wave. The turn is retrospective, the wave projective.
In January 2014 you presented a performative talk as part of the opening of the exhibition “89plus / Poetry will be made by all!” at LUMA, Zürich. The talk in Zürich unraveled itself around the doubleness inscribed within the word “spectacle.” How do you approach unpacking a subject like this?
The Spectacle was addressing the current age of mass art production, where “prosumers” consume images by producing more images. I was also interested in how, with the attention economy in which the very act of spectatorship becomes a form of unrecognised labour, consumption can become exhausting, consuming itself as it consumes. This is why we now have the strange phenomenon of new medial forms defined not by their capacity but their limit, as you see with Twitter, Instagram and Vine. It comes with the recognition that attention, like the body upon which it feeds, is a finite resource. Within this framework, I was interested in unpacking another meaning inscribed within the word “spectacle(s)” that refers instead to the optical aid that we put on to see better. I wanted to approach contemporary spectatorship as a heavily supported activity, in which one is pressed to keep on looking even as the capacity to do so diminishes.
I never really did come to art, which has always been more of a place from which to depart.
Can you tell us about your latest piece, Sun, Sweat, Solar Queens: An Expedition, which you presented at the opening of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale?
Sun, Sweat, Solar Queens: An Expedition is my most substantial piece to date in terms of bringing together a set of inquiries surrounding labour, imperialism, communication and exteriority within the frame of global cultural production. As with my previous talks, it was also scripted around a series of images, the first being that of the sweaty back of a mannequin I encountered in the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam. The mannequin was depicting a colonial officer, the Dutch anthropologist Charles le Roux. It was a gesture of reflexivity, the museum acknowledging its colonial past, but the lengths to which they went to represent the colonial man as a sweaty, laboring body sent me into a kind of conceptual high. I had been grappling with the relationship between Empire and the Sun for the longest time and encountering that sweaty back just made everything come together. The talk became an attempt to get to the “behinds” of Empire and the Sun that was behind it, beating down the colonial man as he conquers the land, the sun being the final frontier the colonial project failed to master. In turn, the solar queen in the title refers to the figure of the colonial mistress who enters the colonies as a solar management device. The white woman in the tropics created domesticity within the wilderness, setting up a protected interior within the Great Exterior. More importantly, her appearance marked the beginnings of the maternalisation of the imperial project, when suddenly we are no longer speaking the language of territoriality but hospitality, “free trade” et al, as if we are all now part of a great global domestic created by the solar queen extending her maternal force the world over. The colonial mistress, in this sense, is the originating figure of contemporary globalisation as we know it, in which cultural liberalism feeds economic neoliberalism. But the name “solar queen” is not my invention. Like the sweaty back, it came to me, quite serendipitously, when I stumbled upon a solar-powered toy of Queen Elizabeth in a souvenir shop in New York, where I live. It is a ridiculous object in a deadpan sort of way. You have this queen, a very unsweaty queen if I may add, who’s sapping the energy from the sun to power the performance of a single movement, that of the royal wave. It’s such a compelling object that speaks to how solar energy is transformed into social currency, how the cosmic exterior is appropriated to forcefully inaugurate a self-contained world of exchange and reciprocity.
What is it about words and language that interests you and compels you to dissect and analyse them?
I would say that I’m working not so much with words as with concepts. And concepts arise not just from words but also from images. In fact, a lot of the concepts in my talks are engineered by an encounter of word and image. So effectively all my talks can be seen as projects in abstraction. When I speak of “Empire,” the “colonial man” or the “solar queen,” it becomes clear, I hope, that at some point I’m no longer referring to empirical realities but some kind of conceptual conceit that makes possible certain ways of thinking. But just because concepts are abstract, it doesn’t mean they don’t have political effects. Concepts can work to create realities that never existed, which is why it’s pertinent to attend to the ways they are formed to begin with by attending to their “materiality.” This “materiality” is not words but rhythm, how something is unhinged from itself stand in for something else. I try to push this movement as far as possible such that nothing is allowed to settle.
Just because concepts are abstract, it doesn’t mean they don’t have political effects.
Do you write mostly in English? Which languages can you speak?
I write in English. I grew up speaking English and Mandarin, in an environment where there was a lot of Hainanese and Hakka flying over my head. On the one hand, this means there was a lot of fluidity between the languages. But owing to decades of state regulation, my experience of language, at least as a young Chinese Singaporean, is also very fragmented. So I would think in English and dream in Mandarin. Recently I realised I actually have quite a functional command of Hainanese. I never really spoke it but it came to me, like the surfacing of a bodily unconscious, as I was looking for directions in Bangkok and the only person I could find could speak to me in only that. Or maybe I was dreaming.
You told us that you’ve recently been researching the circulation of digital media in Southeast Asia. What have you discovered so far?
My research was inspired by an observation made by Rosalind C. Morris on how so many political movements in Southeast Asia through the eighties and nineties were sparked off by accidental convergences around images. That is, it is not the image itself that holds political meaning but how the very act of gathering around what could very well be an ideologically vacant ground that opens up new possibilities for the political. I was interested in how this dynamic would play out in a contemporary media climate where such gatherings are happening online, where the image gathers new meanings as it circulates rapidly through virtual transnational circuits. The first manifestation of this research took place at the recent Singapore International Festival of the Arts, where I convened a panel with the participations of artists and activists in the region with a large presence on social media, such as Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal and Fahmi Reza. It was fascinating to me how within tightly policed media environments, where the very act of producing an image holds you up to scrutiny, the tendency is to latch onto existing, easily recyclable images floating in the global imaginary and investing them with your own political meanings. You see that with the Hunger Games salute that was claimed by the protesters in Thailand. The Internet facilitates this to a large degree because of how quickly image and text stick, unstick and restick to each other. Images become memes as quickly as hashtags become insignias.
Ho Rui An is an artist and writer working in the intersections of contemporary art, cinema, performance and theory. He has presented projects at Serpentine Galleries (London), Singapore Art Museum, LUMA/Westbau (Zürich) and Witte de With (Rotterdam).
Images: The Waves, 2013-14. Performative Talk. Photo credit: Lewis Ronald and Pierrick Mouton; Self-Reliant Girl, 2014; Sweat, Sun, Solar Queens: An Expedition, 2014. Performative talk. Courtesy of the artist.