Created by Singapore-born artist Ho Tzu Nyen (b. 1976), The Cloud of Unknowing (2011) is an immersive multichannel video installation that explores the representation of the elusive and amorphous cloud. The piece is titled after an anonymous mystical treatise from a 14th-century medieval English text, which was written in the tradition of Christian Neoplatonists and intended to be used for contemplative prayer. The artist also drew inspiration from French philosopher Hubert Damisch’s (b. 1928) book A Theory of /Cloud/: Toward a History of Painting, first published in 1972, in which the author uses symbology (interpretation of symbols) and semiology (study of signs) to examine the significance of cloud imagery in art history.
The Cloud of Unknowing—which the artist created to represent his country at the 2011 Venice Biennale—is set in a deserted, low-income public housing block in Singapore and incorporates eight compartmentalized vignettes, each centered on a character who is met by an unexpected ethereal cloud permeating their immediate surroundings. The vignettes allude to historically significant works by Western European and Eastern artists, such as Caravaggio, Francisco de Zurbarán, Antonio da Correggio, Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, René Magritte, Mi Fu, and Wen Zhengming. This incorporation and blending of both Eastern and Western artistic, cultural, historical, musical, and philosophical references is prevalent in Ho’s practice. The installation includes a soundtrack comprised of fragments of musical compositions, which the artist compiled from a selection of approximately 200 songs that mention clouds in their lyrics. Additionally, four screens envelop the viewer in a dense, theatrical atmosphere that further enhances the sensorial impact of the installation. (The artist even used smoke machines in the 2011 Venice Biennale installation.) Ho wanted to make a film that contains a multitude of audio and visual references in order to provide viewers with the opportunity to have unique experiences of the same work. By employing cloud imagery as a metaphor for transience and spirituality and fusing together image and sound to conjure up diverse sensations, The Cloud of Unknowing creates dream-like realities for spectators.
The Cloud of Unknowing was acquired through Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, a multiyear cross-cultural collaboration in support of art, artists, and curatorial talent from South and Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East and North Africa, featuring curatorial residencies, acquisitions for the Guggenheim’s collection, international touring exhibitions, and extensive audience-driven educational programming.