Not all dictionaries are books. Ho Tzu Nyen’s The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia is a moving image installation that questions generalized ideas about a complicated part of the world. The U.S. premiere of the work is now on view through January 30 at the Crow Museum of Asian Art of The University of Texas at Dallas.
The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia is an ongoing project Ho has been developing over several years. “It really just stems from one question: what do we think of when we think of Southeast Asia? How do we define Southeast Asia?” said Dr. Jacqueline Chao, the museum’s chief curator and curator of this exhibition.
A quick glance at a map shows the diversity of the region. Southeast Asia includes 11 countries: Brunei, Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. “Southeast Asia is an umbrella term to group of a large cluster of countries and cultures and regions that are not necessarily unified at all by language, by politics, by religion. They’re all very different,” Chao said.
The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia investigates the region’s distinctive qualities. “The beauty of Ho’s work is his thoughtfulness to take this on, deconstructing a term like Southeast Asia is an invitation to see the individual rather than the habitual action of grouping individuals, cultures and meanings,” said Amy Lewis Hofland, Senior Director of the Crow Museum of Asian Art.
The constantly changing video features a series of images representative of specific keywords and concepts significant to Southeast Asian culture. “It’s a mixture of found footage from the internet, movies, pop culture. He’s also looking at terms from mythology, legends, mythical creatures like the weretiger or other things that have an interesting twist in a Southeast Asian context,” Chao said.
The keywords including anarchism, buffalo, corruption, decay, epidemics, forest, ghosts, and humidity are organized alphabetically. An algorithm created by the artist with software developer Jan Gerber and media artist Sebastian Lütgert generates different permutations with every screening.
The video is narrated in English with texts and notes Ho accumulated through extensive research. The narration varies from a whisper to a quick tempo repetition. Singaporean musician and vocalist Bani Haykai sings a series of Ho’s notes, combining vivid imagery, music and spoken text.
The video is accompanied by an LED light installation. “The computer itself will trigger flashes behind the screen that will wash out the image periodically. It’s randomized when the lights do that,” Chao said.
The random flashes ensure the viewer never becomes a passive observer while sitting on socially distanced benches. “Some of that is to think about our desensitization to media and how we absorb a lot of information,” Chao said.
The video runs on an infinite loop with the alphabet beginning again just when it ends. The concept of a dictionary as a video defies the construct of a tangible dictionary and the definitions within it. “I think what he’s trying to do is mess with that a little bit,” Chao said. “It’s the questioning of truth and fact, what we know and what we think we know.”
The exhibition features additional texts related to the work, including an index of dictionary terms and a selection from Ho’s research notes.
Ho continues to develop this project, creating more nuanced definitions of a multifaceted region. “Southeast Asia is a region of dazzling heterogeneity, characterized by an unruly plurality of languages, ethnicities and belief systems, and this project can, in some sense, be regarded as attempt to find, or to create, a form for this region which is not one,” Ho said.
The Crow Museum of Asian Art’s exhibition is the fullest iteration of the project, enveloping the viewer in an immersive reading of a dictionary. “It’s a full sensory experience,” Chao said.