“Ghosts and Spectres”: The Burden of History and Artistic Narration

By Elaine Chiew

(1350 words, 10-minute read)

The stitching together of alternative histor(ies) within artistic exploration as a kind of “false radical chic”, to borrow Singaporean artist Ho Tzu Nyen’s term[1], can cloud the tougher question of where lies the artist’s burden of truth when playing with history. The four artists showcased in Ghosts and Spectres — Shadows of History at NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore seek to probe precisely this continuum from seemingly linear truth to fictive constructions. Using film as their medium, and ghosts and spectres as their thematic metaphor, they question the ontological framework of narrative itself as the device in which certain histories are presented.

Ho Tzu Nyen, whose oeuvre frequently grapples with neglected history through film, splices together in his work The Nameless (2015) various popular Asian film vignettes — Lust Caution; In The Mood For Love; Infernal Affairs; Days of Being Wild — to retell the shadowy history of triple-agent Lai Teck, who served as the General Secretary of the Malayan Communist Party from 1930 to 1947. As compared to Chin Peng, the figure of Lai Teck is more mythical; he was at once the nameless (“Wu Ming”) — his real name remaining a mystery — and ironically possessing as many as 54 aliases. To depict Lai Teck, Ho focussed predominantly on footage of iconic Hong Kong actor, Tony Leung (whose eyes contain a mesmerising “ambiguity” for Ho, according to curator Professor Ute Meta Bauer — see film stills 1 and 2 below). The conjunction of these popular Asian films as a single, cohesive narration nevertheless creates a fragmentation that mirrors Lai Teck’s schizophrenic identities, as does the skilful placement by curators Bauer and Khim Ong of two screens back-to-back in different rooms, synchronising the images but with a dual sonic narration in Vietnamese and Mandarin. One room is not traversable to the other, yet the audience can dimly perceive movement in the other room and hear the infiltration of words in another language, thus emphasising the cloak and dagger nature of the life of a spy.

Film still 1: Ho Tzu Nyen, The Nameless (2015), still from synchronised double-channel HD projection, sound, 21 m. 51 s. Courtesy Elaine Chiew
Film still 2: Ho Tzu Nyen, The Nameless (2015), still from synchronised double-channel HD projection, sound, 21 m. 51 s. Courtesy Elaine Chiew

In The Name (2015) (film still 3), Ho sourced more than 20 Euro-American film vignettes from movies directed by luminaries such as Kubrick, Lumet, Polanski, Truffaut to depict the figure of writer and historian Gene Z. Hanrahan, who wrote The Communist Struggle in Malaya (1954). The predominant choice of Western films as well as the spotlighting of Hanrahan are noteworthy. By juxtaposing Hanrahan’s text excerpts (rendered in voice-overs by artists: already an interweaving of fiction with truth) with these movie vignettes (fiction) usually depicting the writer as omniscient narrator bent at his typewriter, these meta-layers of narration uniquely question, as do many of Ho’s other works, the ontology of narrative framing. In foregrounding the authority of the ‘author,’ Ho also symbolically likens him to the ‘ghost’ or spectral demigod orchestrating behind the theatre of history. As the Derrida quote on the wall of the exhibition attests, in looking at the figure of the writer (in this case, a postcolonial Western figure) who excavates the past and organises it into coherent narrative, Ho demonstrates the indeterminacy inherent in trying to differentiate the spectres of the ‘past present’ from the ‘future present’. Together, The Name and The Nameless, become not just an examination of the construction of Communist history in Malaya, but also an East-West commentary on the logic of power (incidentally, a point Ho has made in previous works, namely Utama: Every Name in History is I (2003)). The works are also attentive to the idea of nested filmic narration – the ‘lens within a lens’, where meaning is pursued through the content, ellipses and joins of many film vignettes.

Film still 3: Ho Tzu Nyen, The Name (2015), still from single-channel HD projection, surround sound, 16 m. 51 s. with 16 books by the author Gene Z. Hanrahan. Courtesy the artist.

Park Chan-Kyong’s Citizen Forest (2016) (film stills 4, 5, 6), a three-screen video installation depicting a spirit exorcism, produces a visually arresting and atmospheric sonic encounter through his selection and manipulation of sounds — the rustling of winds, the rhythmic drumming, the elegiac chanting, the elongated bark of a dog — and his acute filmic sensibilities — the tonal black-and-white, the eerie visuality of young maidens walking alone in a forest, garments missing their owners, masked men in brass bands and the somber Korean shaman ceremony gut to appease the dead. Inspired by key minjung artist Oh Yoon’s incomplete, panoramic painting The Lemures (1984) and Kim Soo-Young’s celebrated poem Colossal Roots, Park implicates the various histories of the Donghae Peasant Revolution (1894), the Korean War (1950-53), the Gwangju Massacre (1980) as well as the recent Sewol ferry disaster (2014) as a way to confront the collective numbing and amnesia occurring due to South Korean modernisation. As with his other media works, Park seeks to recuperate shamanism’s reverential function of tradition, as opposed to its more negative superstition and cult connotations, as a tool for collective healing. Bringing to mind Ernest Gellner’s theory that the “uses of history” answer to a social, political imperative[2], Park’s work implies that traditions — the wilder, primordial “low culture” envisioned by Gellner — also fulfil a psychological function where collective trauma is concerned, and film is the unique vernacular of the modern that speaks to the negotiation of past, present and future.

Film still 4: Park Chan-Kyong, Citizen’s Forest (2016), still from three-channel video (b&w), 26 m. 6 s. Courtesy Elaine Chiew.
Film still 5: Park Chan-Kyong, Citizen’s Forest (2016), still from three-channel video (b&w), 26 m. 6 s. Courtesy Elaine Chiew.
Film still 6: Park Chan-Kyong, Citizen’s Forest (2016), still from three-channel video (b&w), 26 m. 6 s. Courtesy Elaine Chiew.

Thai artist Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Fireworks (Archives) (2014) (film still 7) uses flashing strobe lights to reveal ghostly glimpses of the surreal sculptures of mythical deities and creatures found within Sala Keoku, a temple inspired by Buddhist and Hindu influences but not officially recognised by Thailand as a historic site because of its nefarious history as a hiding place for communists. Weerasethakul’s deliberate invocation of a dream-like play, in which light and shadow are the main protagonists, is followed by the pyrotechnics of exploding fireworks, the sounds resembling gunshots, and ends with a slideshow of portraits of rebels from northeastern Thailand, killed during the communist revolts of the 1970s. Made in the aftermath of the 2014 military coup, Firework is considered Weerasethakul’s most political work. Light and shadow here take on the grim nuances of official narrative versus repression, and ironically, the word ‘archives’ too becomes imbued with the notion of ‘ruins’ (via an abandoned temple), recalling Gramsci’s “infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory”[3] in that these notorious figures of rebellion, though ignored by History, retain their traces everywhere.

Film still 7: Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, Fireworks (Archives) (2014), still from single-channel video installation, 6 m. 40s. Courtesy the artist.

Squaring this quartet is Vietnamese artist Nguyen Trinh Tri’s Love Man Love Woman (2007) (the title a direct reference to gay men through its original Vietnamese term ai nam ai nu). The film portrays the everyday activities and life of Master Luu Ngoc Duc, a prominent gay spirit medium in Hanoi. This relatively little known segment of Vietnamese gay culture — gay men channeling female spirits as mediums within the Dao Mau community, an ancient religion focussing on the Mother Goddess — triple-layers the idea of the ‘outsider,’ given the marginality of spirit mediums, gay men and Dao Mau within broader Vietnamese society. The notion of ‘outsider’ threads through to Letters from Panduranga (2015) (film still 8), where Nguyen, very aware of her own status as a filmmaker and outside observer, examines the duality of the film essay as documentary and fiction and questions the role of the artist in accessing and reproducing history. The threat of extinction adds special poignancy as Panduranga, now named Ninh Thuan, a province in the south central coast of Vietnam, is slated for the construction of the country’s first nuclear plants. Nguyen employs the format of a pensive letter exchange between a man and a woman, showing how landscape nevertheless emplots the psychic aspects of the ancient culture of Cham, even as Vietnamese history books push such alternative history offstage into the realm of the nebulous and mythical.

Film still 8: Nguyen Trinh Tri, Letters from Panduranga (2015), still from single-channel video, 35 m. Courtesy the artist.

Film as an artistic medium to recover neglected or forgotten history is particularly adroit because film immortalises, film contains; it is a spectacle of surfaces. The work of memory, however, is at once more tenuous and slippery, its relationship to history more complicated. Jean Francois Lyotard forecasted our predilection of “ceding the act of remembering to technology”[4] in the digital age. Here, the artist has done the work of commemorating these salvaged histories to film while the irony remains: is the audience, habitualised in the way we consume film, now free to forget?


[1] Melvin Tan, “In Conversation: Ho Tzu Nyen,” Conditions of Production, accessed September 1, 2017.

[2] Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983), 49-58.

[3] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from The Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (New York: International Publishers, 1995 (copyright 1971)), 337.

[4] As described in Olu Oguibe, “Medium, Memory, Image” in The Culture Game (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1964), 90-92.

Ghosts and Spectres – Shadows of History is a group exhibition that runs at NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore (NTU CCA Singapore) from 1 September to 19 November 2017. Featuring works by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Ho Tzu Nyen, Nguyen Trinh Thi, Park Chan-kyong, the exhibition is curated by Ute Meta Bauer, Founding Director of NTU CCA Singapore, and Professor at the School of Art, Design and Media in NTU, and Khim Ong, Deputy Director of Curatorial Programmes.

Guest Contributor Elaine Chiew is the editor/compiler of Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World (New Internationalist, 2015). She has won prizes for her short fiction and also been shortlisted in numerous other U.S. and U.K. competitions. Her most recent stories can be found in Potomac Review and Singapore Love Stories (Monsoon Books, 2016). She is currently based in Singapore and has just completed an M.A. in Asian Art History at Lasalle College of the Arts.

About the author(s)

Elaine Chiew is the author of The Heartsick Diaspora and editor/compiler of Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World. A two-time winner of the Bridport Short Story Prize, she has been longlisted and shortlisted in numerous competitions (most recently, shortlisted in Cambridge Short Story Prize and Manchester Short Story Prize; longlisted thrice for the Mogford International Food and Drink Prize). Her stories have appeared in numerous anthologies in the U.K., U.S. and Singapore, most recently in Best Asian Short Stories (Kitaab) and Asian Anthology VOl. 1 (Leopard Publishing). Her story “The Seductive Properties of Chiffon Cake” aired on BBC Radio 4 in 2020. She can be contacted through her website www.epchiew.com.

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