In a decrepit housing estate in a remote corner of Singapore, something is unravelling. Of the denizens enclosed in their private dwellings, some are waiting, others, still absorbed in their revelries. A woman with a mop of curly hair stands by her window, hand heedlessly turning the knobs on her radio. Outside, along the corridor, an older woman opens a door and steps into a foggy room overrun by dense vegetation. In another apartment, a man, wrapped only in a sarong, stands beneath a ceiling of tinkering light bulbs, lost amidst his towering hoard of paraphernalia. Another man retreats to his bed. He lies down, closes his eyes. In a distance, one hears the drummer jamming in his acoustic temple of an apartment washed in the electric hues of spotlights. Then, there is the writer. He sits at his desk, poring over his books and furiously scribbling, driven by the intensity of his ruminations into graphomania.
In Ho Tzu Nyen’s The Cloud of Unknowing, Singapore’s entry to the 54th Venice Biennale, the camera distills presence. Time appears to have been suspended in this world where spaces, objects and characters persist in a state of unmitigated being. But the camera does not penetrate; it doesn’t gaze but graze, picking up and amplifying what is already there: the dented, flaking walls, the maggots squirming on the table top, the dissonant noise of television static, the nakedness of actor Rajagopal’s patchy, Vitiligo-afflicted skin… Through the force of these surfaces – textural, physiognomic, acoustic – emanates the thingness of the world. But the stillness that pervades is not eternal but premonitory. Against the deep bass of the percussion and the drone of domestic life is an ominous sound of heavy breathing, the source of which is eventually revealed as that of the eponymous cloud, embodied in the form of an Albino man – notice again the emphasis upon physiognomy – who is seen rinsing himself in a pool of water. He regards his reflection, following which both body and image dissolve into white fumes. The clouds, radiating with an immanent light, drift into the inhabited rooms. The denizens confront the cloud-as-man, who manifests itself before them in various ways – peeking through the furniture and in one instance, suspended rather ludicrously from the ceiling – but there is no rapture, no shock, only a quietism of recognition. Standing before the microphone in the room of the drummer and decked in a gaudy big wig, the cloud releases its final death growl: “Cloud…”
Undeniably, Cloud presents an arresting and utterly bizarre sequence of images, which can perhaps be made more intelligible (or otherwise, more mystified) by understanding the context of its making. Much of Ho’s past works draw directly from art history, continental philosophy, classical literature and popular culture, and Cloud itself arises from two points of departure: the first, a fourteenth century medieval primer meant to instruct aspiring monastics, in which the doubt experienced in the pursuit of the divine is described metaphorically as “a cloud of unknowing”, the second, Hubert Damisch’s A Theory of /Cloud/: Toward a History of Painting, a semiotic study of clouds across the Western art-historical canon. In the latter, Damisch, beginning from an analysis of Correggio’s paintings, pushes for an understanding of the cloud as a “pictorial graph” that serves not just as embellishment, but also as a signifier that due to its formlessness is decidedly polysemic.
Combining the two references, the cloud in Ho’s work, this nebulous matter that separates the earthly from the beyond, can thus be read as a signifier of the divine, or more generally, the transcendental. Returning to the notion of presence and relying upon the classical model of the sign that equates the signified with presence, the thing itself, one can then perhaps construe the incarnation of the cloud in the fleshy form of a man as the arrival of the transcendental signified – the presence that makes possible all presence – which if taken at the most literal level, must simply mean God. One enters topos noetos, that veritable, Platonic realm of pure ideality.
But, alas, Ho is neither a fantasist nor an illusionist. There is resolutely no interest in recreating a religious experience. One must look to that final growl of “Cloud…”, which with all its mock theatricality, marks the crucial turn from an onto-theological logic of presence to the Derridean logic of différance. Nothing is perhaps more ironic than the invocation by the putative thing itself of its signifier – in this case, the word “cloud”, but also its material form – uttered with all the definitiveness of a self-identification no less. With that terminal invocation, what is thought to be the thing itself, the present thing, exposes itself as no more than another signifier, or according to the logic of différance, a (perpetually) deferred presence.
In this light, the figure of the cloud-as-man becomes reminiscent of Maurice Blanchot’s story of the coming of a Messiah that is often recounted by Derrida in his writings. In the tale, the Messiah arrives outside the city of Rome, dressed in rags meant to disguise his identity. Someone, however, recognises him and poses to him the enigmatic question, “When will you come?” Herein lies the aporia: even when the Messiah is here, he must still be yet to come – a presence that exists in an absolute futurity. Here, one may very well replace “Cloud…” with the exhortation “Come.”
It does not end there. In the final shot of the film, the camera withdraws from the interiors of the apartment block onto its façade. Reflected upon the glass of the windows is the camera crew – the film itself exposed as construction, as signification system. The shot continues as a steady, portentous ascent, only to re-enter the dark abyss that lies behind an opened window. Emphatically marking the end of the film is the profuse spewing of smoke by smoke machines behind the screen, as if summoned into being by that last command. The pomp is deliberately bathetic, for the cloud, here manifested in tangible form, is, ironically, pure affect without presence – a simulacrum.
Even after the entire experience, a perusal of the exhibition catalogue only serves to bring the whole self-referential hyper-conceptuality to another level. In the credits, the names of the characters are revealed: the fervent writer is “The Scriptwriter”, the hoarder compulsively arranging his possessions, “The Editor”, the drummer, “The Composer”… and as for the cloud itself, he is, most befittingly, “The Actor”.
To viewers familiar with Ho’s practice, this self-reflexivity will come as no surprise. In the catalogue essay by Lee Weng Choy, Lee notes how it has become a recurrent strategy of the artist “to substitute the making of the thing for the thing itself”. This can be seen in how Ho incorporated footage from his auditioning process into the final film in The Bohemian Rhapsody Project (2006), the artist’s own version of a music video of the iconic Queen song presented at the inaugural Singapore Biennale, and also in one of the episodes of his television documentary, 4 x 4: Episodes of Singapore Art (2005), which features the making of the episode in place of the episode itself. Lee adds, “[n]ot only does the ‘making of’ replace the thing, but the ‘talking about’ replaces the thing too”. For the latter, Lee is referring to The King Lear Project (2008-09), a trilogy of performances written and directed by the artist and co-directed by Ben Slater, each of which is a “staging” of a canonical essay on the Shakespearean classic. Notably, the third chapter of the trilogy, and possibly its most infamous, involved five repetitions of the ending of the play and its scripted post-show dialogue in which cast members played the roles of the audience posing questions.
Clearly, Ho’s works are, by their very nature, citational. A typical description of any of his works almost always begins with an introduction of the original work that the artwork “references” or is “inspired by”. Cloud itself features an abundance of art-historical references beyond the two texts that serve as its primary reference points, playing at times like a montage of canonical works: Caravaggio’s Narcissus, Corregio’s Jupiter and Io, Francisco de Zurbarán’s St. Bonaventure in Prayer, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Beata Ludovica Albertoni... One may easily dismiss Ho’s works as mere reiterations of the canon, but it is precisely this act of reiteration that forms the core of Ho’s “post-critical” criticality. As Gregory L. Ulmer writes, post-criticism “de-motivates” the original object “only to re-motivate them as signifiers in a new system”. In Cloud, however, with that final exposure of the film as film, the artist adds to that movement yet another turn: the rupture of the sign.
Indeed, one can then conceive of Cloud as a series of movements, each taking the viewer farther away from the thing itself. Such movements are, however, fraught with tension, for the viewer is continually reined back into the now by the intense materiality of the imagery, in which every sensation, carefully sculpted, seems to proffer itself as presence which is immediately graspable. One notes also the use of purely diegetic music with the deliberate inclusion of a musician within the cast, thus maintaining the self-contained state of this world of pure presence. Frustratingly, we are caught between two diametrically opposed poles of experience: the first derived from the thing itself, the here and now, the latter, from its absence, in which the work itself is always elusive/allusive, always slipping away, always “to come”.
Perhaps then, the cloud of unknowing, with its indefinite ontological status, is a metaphor for this tension. In face of that which is the harbinger of what is to come, one must make the decision to either remain here or to venture into the absolute elsewhere. The movement, if undertaken, is unidirectional: one can never come back.
The Cloud of Unknowing was an event of the 54th International Biennale of Art, Venice, which took place from 4 June to 27 November 2011. The work was exhibited at the Singapore Pavilion at Museo Diocesano di Venezia, Salone dei Santi Filippo e Giacomo, throughout the duration of the Biennale.