Singapore artist Ho Tzu Nyen’s sprawling magnum opus, The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia (2012–), provides an alternative ‘A to Z’ of the region, exploring its neglected histories and the extent to which power and myth have both shaped and distorted our understanding of it. The multimedia piece draws on a diverse range of disciplines – including anthropology, cosmology, indigenous technology and meteorology – as part of this epic retelling, focusing particularly on the story of Southeast Asia pre-European colonisation and revealing various forms of overlooked affinity and heterogeneity between its peoples from before the time of modern nation-states.
Though CDOSEA has been exhibited in various incarnations around the world, its upcoming presentation at Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art in Manchester this spring marks its UK debut and Ho’s first solo show in the country. It also signals a strong start to the gallery’s Diaspora season – a new seven-month-long programme of exhibitions and events that address themes relating to diasporic identity, hypermobility and migration, as well as alternative readings of Chineseness.
Ho certainly is an exciting artist to watch, named among ArtReview’s top 100 most influential people in the contemporary art world and having previously co-curated the Asian Art Biennial in Taichung with Taiwanese artist Hsu Chia-Wei. He’s also a prolific writer and theatre director. His expansive creative output is broadly united by a fascination for how contemporary figures imagine and invent the past in order to serve the needs of the present. As such, though CDOSEA predominantly relates to the history of Southeast Asia, the piece also carries a much broader relevance, perhaps especially in an era described as one of ‘post-truth’.