How did your long research-based tiger project start?

Ho Tzu Nyen: The idea for this project about tigers started probably in 2003. I made my first film about the pre-colonial founder of Singapore, Sang Nila Utama. He is the person who gave Singapore its name. “Singa” means lion, “pore” means city in Sanskrit. So, Singapore actually means lion city, supposedly because Utama saw a lion on the shore when he first arrived at Singapore. That’s why he named Singapore a lion city. But there were no lions in Singapore. He must have seen a tiger because Singapore was full of tigers. This is just one possibility. The whole story is a myth. I made a film about Sang Nila Utama. At that time, I had a very strong and persistent feeling that I wanted to make a project about the history of tigers in Singapore. So, I started collecting material and researching from 2003 on.

What exactly brought you to start researching the history of your own country?

Ho Tzu Nyen: For me, when you start thinking about Singapore, the tiger is an interesting perspective to take, because you’re looking at history but not from the human perspective. If you use the tiger as a perspective from which to view history, you end up with a different version of it, of what happened with the tiger. In the nineteenth century, after the British came to Singapore, they wanted to create plantations. They went to the forest and created them there. Then tigers started attacking humans. This is because if you create plantations, actually zones are created that are like a transition between forest and non-forest. Tigers don’t like living in the forest as the foliage is too dense. This is why humans met tigers more often and tigers attacked humans more often too. The British started hunting and killing tigers in the nineteenth century.

Some reports say that 300 humans were killed per year by tigers in the plantations. This meant people were afraid of working on the plantations. This is how the tiger became extinct in Singapore. After the tigers were killed off completely in Singapore in the early twentieth century, the tiger returned as a metaphor. During the Japanese occupation of Singapore, the leader of the 25th Army was Tomoyuki Yamashita. He was nicknamed “The tiger of Malaya.” You see, the tiger now returned as a metaphor to describe a group of humans. The tiger is also used often to describe the Malay communists who were hiding in the forests and fighting the British. In a way, for me, the project has been tracking tigers, following the myths about them as well as real tigers, and looking at the way the tiger is used as a metaphor in speech. It’s one way to retell the whole story of Singapore and Malaysia from a slightly oblique angle. It is also about the relationship between humans, nature, and culture.

It’s interesting that you took the animal’s perspective for the work. But in a way you have been critical about taking the human perspective. How did that come about?

Ho Tzu Nyen: Yes, that’s a good question: first, we are defiantly critical about taking the human perspective, but at the same time, we should always acknowledge that we can never totally see things from the animal’s perspective either, because that would be an illusion. So as closely as we could, we worked with the idea of the weretiger—half-tiger and half-human. You have to become a little bit of a tiger. You loose your humanity. It’s a way of being together with another format of life and thinking about history. For example, there is a digital shell and this is entirely computer-generated, but the figure’s movement is not; the animation is created from the performer’s movements and he is the singer.

While he is singing a song, we record his body movement to animate the computer-generated digital shell. So inside the shell there is a human spirit, but the body, the shell, is digital. For me this is part of the idea of Animism. The spirit can move from the stone to another person. Spirit and body are separated. For me the process of how the images are created is very important. On one side of the projection we have a tiger and on the other side of the projection we have a human. But both voices belong to the same being, both movements come from the same being.

The music and the sound effects in your installation are also impressive.

Ho Tzu Nyen: I made this music with a musician friend named Vindicatrix. He is a British singer, but I found out later that he is also actually half-Malay. Having written the lyrics, sometimes I directed how he should sound from my notes. I often gave the restriction for the timing. But for me it was always fascinating to see how he interpreted and transformed my instructions.

Could you talk a bit more about the function of singing, music, and sound in your work?

Ho Tzu Nyen: Actually, it is very important. From 2009 to 2011, none of my works had any language, no text. After 2011, I introduced language into my work, but it appeared as a song. I think of the voice in the same way an animist might think of a spirit, as something inhabiting a body. On the other hand, I am also interested in sound itself as a property. That’s why for this particular work I told the exhibition’s curator, Anselm Franke, in the beginning, “it is going to be loud”. Because of the extreme volume and its specific frequency, a particular intensity is created that some people might experience as heavy or oppressive and others as hallucinatory and beautiful.

One or Several Tigers has been a fourteen-year-long research project. If you look back, what kind of thoughts would you gather from it?

Ho Tzu Nyen: When you say fourteen years spent on this project, you make it sound much more serious. Over these fourteen years, I was often distracted by other obsessions. With the tiger, I worked more than usual because I didn’t feel like I could finish telling the story somehow; or there was something more that I wanted to say. I think the most important thing I understood is that it’s impossible to exhaust the tiger, and all I can do is to walk away from it at a point of incompleteness. But perhaps this is also a way by which I deal with history, by staying in-between and in uncertainty, like someone tracking the story of an elusive weretiger.