'All the works I make revolve around the writing of fiction,' said artist, writer, and curator Heman Chong in a 2017 video for Swiss Institute. Spanning installation, painting, performance, photography, and writing, Chong's practice is largely concerned with interrogating the everyday mediums of politics through language, seriality, infrastructure and exchanges of information.Read More
Chong was born in Muar, Malaysia, in 1977 and raised in Singapore. In 2003, he was selected to represent Singapore at the 50th Venice Biennale, where he mounted the video and light installation Murmurmurmurmurmur (Venezia/Accademia Remix) (2003), which was inspired by a short story by Singaporean writer and poet Alfian Sa'at. This relatively early literary citation foretold the motivation that still drives the artist's work today.
Heman Chong's preoccupation with texts materialises in social projects such as 'The Library of Unread Books': his ongoing collaboration with Renée Staal. For the project, Chong and Staal invite participants to donate books from their personal collections that, as the title suggests, have yet to be read. The resulting collection of second-hand volumes are made available at pop-up sites to encourage redistribution.
Similarly concerned with open-ended exchanges of knowledge, Chong's Everything (Baike) (2016) saw a performer read from Baidu Baike: a Chinese-language online encyclopaedia similar to Wikipedia. Upon reaching the end of an article, the performer clicked on the fifth hyperlink on the page and continued to read from the subsequent entry.
Books are also often integral to Heman Chong's solo exhibitions. As part of his solo presentation Ifs, Ands, or Buts at Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai (2016), Chong invited lawyer, author, and translator Ken Liu to select fiction and non-fiction books that were loosely related to the law for a site-specific installation titled Legal Bookshop (Shanghai) (2016).
In another book-related artwork, for his exhibition LEM 1 at Rossi & Rossi in London (2012), Chong created a functioning bookshop that sold fantasy and science fiction books for £1 each. Also exhibited were paintings from Chong's series 'Cover (Versions)' (2009–ongoing), for which the artist paints imagined covers for books that for the most-part he has not read.
Heman Chong not only uses books as conceptual and physical material, but also produces them. In 2006, the artist collaborated with a group of eight critics, curators, and artists to write an experimental science fiction novel titled Philip in seven days. Named after the pioneering science fiction author Philip K. Dick, the chaotic narrative full of sex and violence is set in the fictional Philipville in 2019.
This ethos of cooperation and experimentation extends to Chong's curatorial practice. Between 2012 and 2014, he produced Moderation(s): a programme held largely between Spring Workshop, Hong Kong, and Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art (now known as Kunstinstituut Melly), Rotterdam, that brought together artists, curators, and writers, and culminated in a conference, three exhibitions, three residencies, and a book of short stories.
One of Singapore's most celebrated artists, Heman Chong is also known for his artworks about Singapore itself. In 2020 at the Singapore Art Museum, he mounted Writing While Walking and Other Stories (2020): an enormous mural comprised of a dense stream-of-consciousness text inspired by a meandering eight-hour stroll the artist took around the city.
When Heman Chong's artworks relate directly to Singapore, they often examine the city-state's public infrastructure as evidence of excessive behavioural regulation. His vinyl-on-aluminium work THIS PAVILION IS STRICTLY FOR COMMUNITY BONDING ACTIVITIES ONLY (2015), for example, takes its absurd text from signage the artist witnessed in a real public space in Singapore.
Similarly concerned with photography and symbols of control, Heman Chong's 'Foreign Affairs' is an ongoing series that consists of hundreds of pictures he has taken of embassy back doors. For the solo exhibition Foreign Affairs at Amanda Wilkinson Gallery in London (2019), Chong printed the images onto canvas sheets that were hung like curtains visitors could walk through, offering an unusually intimate encounter with visions of nationalism.
In response to global upticks of ultranationalism, Chong drew the title of his 2021 exhibition at STPI in Singapore—Peace, Prosperity And Friendship With All Nations—from the text on the 50-pence coin the United Kingdom's government released to commemorate Brexit. Exhibited works such as the silkscreen series 'Call for the Dead' (2020), in which Chong blocks out most words of a British spy novel, are wry gestures towards post-colonial reclamation.
Heman Chong lives and works in Singapore.
Elliat Albrecht | Ocula | 2020