Singaporean Artist Heman Chong on His New Solo Exhibition at STPI Gallery
Heman Chong is happy to take on the interview for this story but requests for it to be conducted via email, preferring to respond in writing. The artist’s responses come through with another request: to use them as they are and, where needed, to reconfigure or adjust the questions to fit them.
Wait a minute … is this to ensure that his responses are not subjected to any form of editing? In journalism, text is edited not to change the content but to give structure to a story and enhance the focus and flow of writing, even more so with the finite space in print.
When in fact, Chong himself exercises this right in his monumental new work, Call for the Dead (2020), which was produced in residency at the STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery. He redacts text from the late author John le Carré’s first spy novel of the same name by blacking out with ink all but the verbs of the story, highlighting the secrets Le Carré could have revealed in the fictional work published in 1961 when he was still working for British intelligence. From there, Chong produces 86 silkscreen prints on linen—enough to fill an entire room—which will be showcased as part of his latest solo exhibition, his first at the STPI Gallery, opening February 20.
Titled Peace, Prosperity and Friendship with All Nations—after the controversial Brexit 50-pence coin unveiled by the Royal Mint last January to ironically mark the UK’s departure from the European Union—the exhibition offers a critical, albeit deadpan, look at the current global political and cultural landscape through a series of conceptual gestures based on everyday encounters and objects. From the spy novel and Brexit coin to a series of photographs of embassy backdoors in repeat patterns, Chong offers contemporary artefacts that allow audiences to contemplate a new world order.
The current pandemic has also inspired the series of 56 paintings in The Circuit Breaker Paintings (2020) to mark every day of Singapore’s circuit breaker period from April 7 to June 1 last year. Chong, who has been working from home since 2003 (“I don’t feel like I need to keep a studio I go to in order to be an artist.”), paints over the works from his painting practice dating back to 2009 with an “X”, in reference to the safe distancing measures of cordoning off public spaces.
He also reimagines the ubiquitous QR code, a feature of Singapore’s Covid-19 SafeEntry system, enlarged to epic proportions in Safe Entry Version 2.0–2.7 (2020). This iteration of the public art commission by the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) for its Walking in the City series offers access to a video posted on Chong’s YouTube channel, Ambient Walking, of a recorded walk around Changi Airport Terminal 2 before it was closed for renovations during the circuit breaker period.
Books and literary works remain central to Chong’s practice. He is best known as the co-director and founder (with Renée Staal) of The Library of Unread Books, a mobile reference library of donated books that have not been read by its previous owners, which has been installed in various institutions around the world, most recently at I_S_L_A_N_D_S, an experimental platform in Excelsior Shopping Centre.
“I am interested in how ideas are distributed via these objects we know as books. I started working with books back in 1994, when I was studying at Temasek Polytechnic to become a graphic designer, but accidentally became an artist because I couldn’t stand the idea of anyone telling me what I can or cannot do,” the artist explains.
In the same spirit, we give you Heman Chong in his own words.
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As an artist in Singapore, why did you feel inclined to address the impact of Brexit in Peace, Prosperity and Friendship with All Nations?
Heman Chong We live in a time where people have extremely polarised points of view about things. You don’t have to look very far to realise that everyone is only interested in their own voices, and how loud their voices can be in order to shut the other person up. It seems impossible to even have a conversation about anything without someone getting angry. If you look back, history will tell us that human beings have disagreed with each other for a very long time. The very idea of nations came about because someone said, “These are my people and these other people are not my people.” There’s a lot to think about, and I think Brexit is one of the many situations where we can locate these societal fractures brought about by disinformation.
What is the significance of John le Carré’s Call for the Dead in your work?
HC I love the fact that John le Carré was working for British intelligence when he wrote his first three novels and that MI6 had gone through his novels before they got published. I love the fact that he hates James Bond and had such a deep desire to represent the figure of the international spy is absolutely unsexy. If you think about it, most stuff that gets redacted is written by civil servants. Stuff that state institutions would deem sensitive or confidential, or if they are just downright paranoid. What I’ve done with Call for the Dead is to redact everything in the novel except for verbs; leaving behind only words that represent actions: jump, run, skip, kill, spy, observe. And because you can’t read the novel anymore, I have banished this novel into the realm of secrets.
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Why the fascination with embassy backdoors?
HC I have been searching for the backdoors of embassies since 2018 when I was on holiday in Tokyo. As with every single piece of my work, the starting point is always accidental. I was walking past a certain embassy in Roppongi (I can’t tell you which one) and I thought it would be interesting to look at the architecture of the embassy from all sides, and before I knew it, I found the backdoor to the embassy (which this certain embassy’s ambassador’s wife very kindly told me that “it’s my front door”) and photographed it. I went to the embassy next to it and photographed its backdoor, and the next and the next. And before I knew it, I have now a collection of more than 300 backdoors of embassies in more than 10 different cities around the world.
The pandemic has inspired a number of your works, from public art to YouTube videos, which engage especially with an audience who typically might not participate in traditional galleries or museums. Is it important to you that your work and message reach more people?
HC I don’t see the walking videos I post on my YouTube channel, Ambient Walking, as art. It is certainly a tool to encourage me to walk more (as 4,086 km in a year is not enough), but at the same time, I can share a representation of this experience with whoever is interested in watching these videos. What I like about YouTube is that it is a vast and endless landscape of material that only makes sense when you search for something specifically.
My genre in YouTube is called WalkTubing and it’s basically just a bunch of people who record life via a camera and a gimbal and it’s sort of part of the ASMR genre. My most popular video on Ambient Walking is a walk I made on Telok Blangah Hill Park in a very, very scary thunderstorm and right now, about 250,000 views have been generated from this one video.
I don’t see these videos as art simply because the audience doesn’t see (or doesn’t want to see them) as art. Most of the time, it’s more like visual and aural therapy for them. It’s very hypnotic and soothing to watch something as boring as a guy filming his walks. I like that I am able to relate to people on different levels and that art-making is not the only way that one can produce meaning in this world.
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What are you working on next?
HC I’ve always loved this story told by Benjamin Moser concerning the naming of the first novel written by Clarice Lispector. Apparently, Near to the Wild Heart was suggested by her first (and doomed) love, Lúcio Cardoso. It was lifted from a line from James Joyce, “He was alone. He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life.” I’ve always loved this line from Lispector in this first novel: “The dense, dark night was cut down the middle, split into two black blocks of sleep”, and thought I should literally “cut down” the words in the middle of this sentence and use it as a title for a group exhibition in Lisbon that I’ve been invited to, and this will become a work in the exhibition.
Peace, Prosperity and Friendship with All Nations runs from February 20 to April 18, at the STPI Gallery.