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What the Asian tiger teaches us about ourselves

Farhad Mirza
May 3, 2017

In Asian symbolism, tigers can shape-shift as friends or enemies or even gods. A Berlin exhibition reveals how a closer look at the Asian tiger uncovers untold aspects of history - and our own identities.

Tiger in Sundarbans
Image: Jahangir Alam Onuchcha /imago images

The tiger is enigmatically woven into Asian folklore, as an ancestor, companion, competitor, protector, destroyer, or even a god.

The Chinese associate it with kings. In India, Shiva, the god of destruction and transformation, is almost always depicted as wearing a tiger skin and riding on a tiger. It is also a common fixture in the cultures of other Asian countries, including Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan and Cambodia, where it serves as a symbol of national power, military prowess and economic development.

Tigers also represent the spaces between the known and the unknown. Shamans used to invoke tigers to move between worlds and communicate with the dead. As a creature of mountains and borderlands, the tiger occupies a transitory zone separating civilization from wilderness, the living from the ancestor-spirit world, and possesses the ability to shape-shift. The tiger is a master of metamorphosis.

In such a way, the tiger also serves as a mediator between the familiar and the exotic. It is this process of mediation, and the experience of otherness that an exhibition in Berlin aims to dissect.

"2 or 3 Tigers," on view at the Haus Der Kulturen Der Welt through July 3, 2017, is an exploration of the historical insights rendered in the iconic symbol of the Asian tiger.

HO Tzu Nyen's "One or Several Tigers"
HO Tzu Nyen's "One or Several Tigers" was inspired by a 19th-century lithographImage: HKW/National Gallery Singapore/Ho Tzu Nyen

Silenced histories

According to co-curators Hyunjin Kim and Anselm Franke, the exhibition is "about the re-signification of meaning and the different ways in which history is mediated." That is to say, it explores how one thing comes to mean different things, at different times, to different people.

The exhibition derives its title from its center-piece, a 3D animation by Singaporean artist and film maker HO Tzu Nyen. "One or Several Tigers" (2017) is a mesmerizing installation that portrays various encounters between humans and tigers, from the perspective of a shape-shifting tiger.

The work is inspired by a Heinrich Leutemann lithograph, titled "Road Surveying Interrupted in Singapore" (c. 1865-1885). This lithograph depicts an actual incident in which a colonial surveyor, G.D. Coleman, and a group of Indian convict laborers were attacked by a tiger while constructing a new road through the jungle in 1835.

It shows the survey team, swept off their feet, suspended in mid-air; the tiger is leaping to the center, destroying the equipment used to contain, conquer and control political geographies.

Heinrich Leutemann lithograph, "Road Surveying Interrupted in Singapore" (c. 1865-1885)
Heinrich Leutemann's lithograph depicts colonial human rights infringements in the 19th centuryImage: National Museum of Singapore/National Heritage Board

How prisoners became their own warders

The scene primarily draws our attention to the relationship between Coleman, the tiger, and the theodolite, but a more thorough glance illuminates eight other figures, sprawling and shielding themselves from the tiger's strike.

As art historian Kevin Chua argues, these figures remain nameless and, in part, faceless, serving only to emphasize the self-control observed in Coleman's reaction: He remains "so calm and secure on the left. So free," says Chua.  

The figures depicted in Leutemann's lithograph are supposed to be Indian convict laborers, shipped out to assist with infrastructure development in Singapore. More often than not, the convicts were political prisoners, subjects of a rather peculiar social engineering project - the impact of which still resonate with Singaporeans like HO Tzu Nyen.

In 1857, J.F.A. McNair was appointed executive engineer and superintendent of convicts in Singapore. He transformed the prison labor system into an industry, introducing a hierarchical class system based on the obedience of convicts, and the productivity of their labor. Privileged prisoners received promotions, turning them into an instrument of the colonial project. Prisoners, then, became the guarantors of their own slavery.

McNair later wrote a book, titled "Prisoners Their Own Warders," and for HO Tzu Nyen, the title succinctly describes the present-day structure of Singaporean society. Contemporary Singapore, according to Nyen, is largely modeled around McNair's idea of a colony that could be made to govern itself in accordance with the wishes of the colonialists.

Man-made extinctions, self-inflicted wounds

The encounter depicted in Leutemann's lithograph signifies the beginning of an ecological upheaval in which Malayan tigers would be massacred into near extinction - their erasure itself a symbol of colonial power. Indeed, the tiger now permeates our consciousness as a victim of man-made extinction.

Endangered tigers have come to represent the self-inflicted wounds of human hubris. As film scholar Akira Mizuta Lippit puts it, "Everywhere one looks, one is surrounded by the absence of animals."Their absence bears the stamp of our isolation and alienation from the world we dominate.

Park Chan-Kyong's "Kyoto School"
Park Chan-Kyong's "Kyoto School" explores the private lives of kamikazi fightersImage: Park Chan-kyong

This isolation from others - from ourselves - is the subject of another notable contribution to the Berlin exhibition. Park Chan-Kyong's newly produced work, "Kyoto School" (2017), takes the private notes of young kamikaze pilots inspired by the Kyoto School, a philosophical movement that incorporated Western religion and philosophy into East Asian culture. He juxtaposes it with various views of the Kegon Falls, a landmark nominated by the Kyoto School as a representative image of Japan.

As the water from the Kegon Falls violently clamors its way down, it not only serves as a perfect metaphor for the emotional vortex of self-sacrifice, it also underscores the fluid and incongruous identities of kamikaze pilots.

Kamikaze tigers

In contrast to the view of kamikaze pilots as products of an arcane and isolated Japanese culture, we find them here expressing affinity with Western culture, discussing the poet Rimbaud and the philosopher Heidegger, and talking about the immaculate beauty of French cities.

The personal notes of the pilots betray Western perceptions. The pilots appear well-versed in the canon of Western traditions, often expressing a strong desire for international reciprocity.

Much like the Tiger, the kamikazes appear to be the embodiment of extreme contradictions; they are ferocious, but also gentle. They speak of life to justify death. They move between different worlds, communicating with the dead.  

The motif of the tiger is an astonishingly rich wellspring of historical insight, reminding us that history - like the humans who animate it - is full of contradictions. More often than not, history manifests itself as a fragile thing - a malleable reference point rather than a concrete fact of life, a process just as much anchored in symbols as in facts that is shaped by power rather than truth.