Heman Chong's serial exhibition in 3 cities

SINGAPORE - Artist Heman Chong has launched a serial exhibition in three Asian cities that goes on show around the same time, but his ambition is not domination.

Instead, the shows, which recently opened in Hong Kong and Singapore and will debut in Bangkok in September, are centred on the launch of the first monograph about his artistic practice.

Chong, 36, who represented Singapore at the prestigious Venice Biennale art exhibition in 2003, says: "The book is the starting point for all three shows, but with each of the shows, I am also using it to relook how I would display these things I've done in the last 10 years. It's not for world domination."

The monograph, The Part In The Story Where We Lost Count Of The Days, is published by ArtAsiaPacific Magazine and edited by curator Pauline Yao of Hong Kong's M+ museum.

The book delves into the myriad subjects and artistic practices in Chong's body of work, which includes notions of time, language and image-making and spans genres such as the visual arts, performance and writing.

The series of shows shares the same title as the monograph, but the exhibition in each city highlights a different practice - painting in Hong Kong, photography in Singapore and performance in Bangkok. The decision is deliberate and market-oriented.

He says: "People in Hong Kong love paintings, people in Singapore love photography and in Bangkok, you don't sell nothing so it's fine."

The show here opened at Future Perfect last Friday. It features five works of art and is his first solo exhibition that focuses purely on his use of photography.

The works are for sale and priced between $600 and $8,000.

Chong, who works with a frills-free digital pocket camera, says he is "not interested in being a technician" or fetishising the technical aspects of the medium.

"I still believe in strict photography rules. The lines have to be straight and the light has to be good," he says. "But it has always been about the snapshot, about collecting, about coming across something and using a method of documentation and transforming that documentation into a representation of an idea."

The work, A Short Story About Singapore (Volume 1), embodies this fully and it is the crux of the show. It comprises 100 photographs drawn from his personal archive of some 5,000 pictures snapped between 2003 and last year.

He photographs out of habit whenever he goes on long, random walks around Singapore. The images he captures are typically banal, everyday sights but with a touch of quirky; a replica of the Statue of Liberty against a Chinese pagoda in Haw Par Villa, a wall clock stored in a transparent plastic box that is sealed with tape.

The set of 100 pictures were selected from 50 other sets that he assembled - "drag and drop, drag and drop" - on his computer over the period of a year to form loose, random narratives.

The final 100 chosen for the show were the ones that popped up most frequently across the sets.

The images are meant to be "read" by the viewer, but there is no fixed way of constructing the narrative. They are ordered randomly and the viewer is free to make associations between the photographs.

This idea of conjuring a narrative from images similarly forms the conceptual spine of the photo-essay book, Telok Blangah Hill Park: A Survey.

The work, bound like a book, comprises black-and-white photographs of the park and its surroundings. The images go from close-ups of the terrain and foliage, to the ramp that traverses the park and the wider surroundings before cycling back to the zoomed-in views.

He says: "The ramp that goes across it is a beautiful metaphor of how Singapore deals with nature. It cuts through the park and completely changes our relationship with the surroundings.

"It becomes a visual relationship rather than a tactile one; you don't step on the ground and the branches around you are all trimmed so you can't touch them... It transforms the space into an image, much like photography."

A new work, Monument For A Mystical Reality, also draws on photography, albeit in a different way.

It is inspired by photographic documentation of three works in the seminal exhibition, Towards A Mystical Reality, which were destroyed and discarded after the show. The 1974 exhibition in Malaysia featured Malaysian artists Redza Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa, who put forward a manifesto for a Malaysian art that is freed from Western influence and based on Asian values.

Chong chose to recreate the three conceptual works of art - Empty Canvas On Which So Many Shadows Have Already Fallen, Empty Chair On Which Many Persons Have Sat On and Burnt-out Mosquito Coils Used To Keep Away Mosquitoes On The Night Of 25 March 1974 - via a fictional story that fits on three sheets of A4-size paper.

He says: "I felt that it might be interesting to fictionalise these works so that people can imagine it for themselves because words sometimes fail to describe art. Someone's imagination may be better at describing these works than words can."

The two-part monograph on his practice, however, comprises essays and texts. The first portion features essays on the artistic disciplines in his oeuvre while the second half documents 35 works. Yet the book resists the conventional approach of a monograph and spurns a single, cohesive analysis for accounts by different arts writers, penned in different styles and on various themes in Chong's body of work.

The contributors also had to work around a rule - to not mention Chong's name or his artworks.

He says: "I wanted to challenge the writers to write like I do, in a fictional way rather than a descriptive way."

Not all abided by the rule, but the result is nonetheless revealing of his practice.

The essay by Mr Ahmad Mashadi, head of the National University of Singapore Museum, for example, is a compilation of excerpts of texts on Singapore.

Chong says: "It becomes like A Short Story About Singapore (Volume 1), so that's very clever. I like this a lot.

"When someone writes an essay about me that's not about describing me, but still mirrors me, it's so much more interesting."

 

lijie@sph.com.sg


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