Jane DeBevoise (JD): We are delighted to have you here. Thank you very much.
Heman Chong (HC): Thank you for inviting me. I have twenty minutes. (laughter)
This is a piece that I made in 2003. I’ve always liked to start with this piece, because I didn’t really make it. It’s kind of an accident. You would read stuff before you go to bed as well as Facebook. I would have this book, and literally stack cups next to it. Really one day when I woke up, it was there, it was made. I think a lot of my work sort of has this tendency to evolve out of small accidents, and how I would like to appropriate those accidents and then adapt them into gestures. So what I have done is to somehow monumentalize the accidents, recreating the format of the accidents over and over again, doing one every year. So it kind of marks the years for me. Like bookmarks for years, you know.
This is a recent project that was produced for the Taipei Contemporary Art Center, for Meiya [Cheng], the curator over there. Basically what I’ve done is to take the entire amount of the production money that was given to me to produce a new piece, and to have it changed down to small bills, and then distribute this money as bookmarks within books in public libraries, but only books from a certain author, which is Roberto Bolaño, a Chilean writer. The news was released through the exhibition. I think a lot of people went for the money. So again the whole idea of chance and accident, and disavowment of any sense of authorship becomes very important for me. As a kind of performativity that was included within my work itself.
This is a project that was commissioned for the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands. What was produced was a very rigorous project that took over five years to produce, which is a series of images, totaling around 6,000, and I edited it down to a set of 550 images, which in my opinion best reflected that process of collecting images over the five years into a postcard shop. What is interesting for me is the process of accumulation that very immediately slips into a process of dissemination of an archive, and how this archive becomes somehow open to its availability. I think for me it’s actually very important that people curate their own viewing experiences, rather than having me to define their experience for them. So people could buy the postcards – It’s very cheap – and through the selection process, create their own ways of seeing; through the postcard itself. This archive is very important because I produced it when I was very young, between 2000 and 2004, so at the very beginning of my artistic practice, and it sort of encapsulates certain themes that would later be found in my work. For example like collectivity, monumentalization, objects, displaced systems, performativity, time, art history, death…
This is a very recent project that I produced with Rossi & Rossi in London. People familiar with the gallery would know that they specifically deal with antiquities, like 16th century to 19th century Tibetan artifacts. I thought it would be really funny to change their role from antique dealers to booksellers. So I made an entire bookshop within that space that sold only science fiction and fantasy books. Sort of inverting the idea of the commercialization of history into commercialization of the future. It’s a complex project because it literally has the sensibility of having a business plan to run a bookshop, and how we would actually collect the books to be sold, and how we would never make a profit because every book was sold for like a pound each, so we were actually losing money.
This is another project that I made between 2004 and 2011. So it took me 7 years to produce. It’s essentially something quite simple. What I’ve made is a set of wall calendars that run from year 2020 to 2096. 77 years of the future depicted like a time code. What I like about it is that every month has been denoted with an image of a publicly accessible space in Singapore that has no one in it, like setting it up to be a stage for different things that could happen or could not happen.
It’s very important for me to somehow also create this ambivalence within my projects where people don’t really understand what this project is actually about or for, but they could use it in a very literal way. Like in this case, you can literally use the calendars for over four generations, for your lifetime or something. A lot of people are reading into the whole project as a novelization of different interior spaces within Singapore, and how these spaces would somehow also touch upon certain issues that I’ve always been looking at, primarily on fantasy and science fiction. Yes, there are different strands of ideas coming together without me having to tie them together. I think that’s how I’ve always wanted people to come into contact with my work, with a certain sense of confusion.
This is a project produced in 2006, when a curator invited me to do a solo show at Projects Art Center in Dublin. I didn’t really want to do a solo show. So I told her that we could somehow assemble a team of people that could help me write a novel. So basically the task was to put this team of people together – well actually they were being asked to collectively write an entire science fiction novel within seven days.
It’s interesting that for me it has something that draws me very close to something I would like very much to see within an art world is always about the construction of community, out of this whole idea of petty politics or something like that, and to move into this realm where this whole gesture, this whole idea of production takes a central role, rather than just talking about art.
So we wrote and we wrote and we wrote, and it just got a bit too much over time. For example, this is Cosmin Costinas, Director of Para/Site.
We also had a small workshop within the space, which then introduced concepts that we would write into the novel. I think the whole process of writing a novel is also a school for each other, where we taught each other things that we didn’t know about before. I think that was also an important process for me within this temporal community. We ate together. What was really interesting was also the construction of a kind of reality, even if it was a fictional reality within a novel itself, because after three days of seven people sitting in the same room, trying to come out with a narrative, you tend to lift the narrative. I think that’s an interesting point of how people start to become a community, by thinking along the syntax that became collective in a very concrete way. As we can see, there was a lot of writing. This is the cover of the novel.
We published it straight after the actual workshop itself as a print-on-demand book. It’s a real novel; you can buy it on Amazon. We actually finished it. It wasn’t like a hypothetical art project that we just left to itself. If you could see the spine, it has names of all the writers, which really drove Amazon crazy.
I also make these small and impromptu performances from time to time. This is called A Short Story of Geometry. I invite a member of the audience to come into the space where they could spend about three hours to memorize the short story that I wrote. It’s really intensive and challenging. It’s mad but people really like it. There was a queue for it. I don’t know why.
The performances also touch upon the idea of literature. For example, how literature would be disseminated. And this is about how literature is being translated.
Someone recommended me to read this book of short stories from Marie Anbrenette from Finland. I couldn’t read it because it’s in Finnish, and I am not going to learn Finnish just to read it. And it’s not translated. So what I did was to form a performance where I hired a translator to translate the entire novel in eight hours.
This is what I did last year at Performa, where I randomly grabbed members of the audience. I would talk to them and ask them to tell me something about themselves. I would use that information to recommend a novel that they should read. But what they didn’t know was that I only recommended the same novel to everybody. (laughter) It’s kind of like a horoscope.
This is something I am working on now. I’ve been working with these 15-year old kids for the last three months. Basically each of them sort of becomes a novel. When you walk into a space, they would literally teach you something that’s based on a novel. But I didn’t script it, so they came up with a whole lesson plan. It’s kind of nice. Because they are all very serious novels, like Le Mort from Jean Paul Sartre, and a 15-year old would explain to you what it is about. It’s totally mad.
This is like a hobby that became a runaway monster. I was really bored at my studio in 2006. So I redesigned the covers of all the books on my shelves. Of course all my dealers went crazy because they could earn money from it. So I took from my reading list and everything else and made them into paintings. So it’s a project that runs on and on and on. What I actually like about them beyond the fact that I could sell them is that it becomes a mash up of every memory of painting I’ve ever had. So it just troves throughout and appropriates and uses every framework of what we understand as primarily the strands of modernist painting. I think it’s kind of interesting as a process. So there are a lot of them. It’s probably the only thing I actually make in my practice, which I kind of like making.
JD: This is how we got 100 slides…
HC: Here… I think it’s important to show everything.
Audience member: Have you read every book?
HC: No, they are my reading list. (laughter) I mean if I read all these books, I would have been crazy. I am not smart at all.
Audience member: So these are paintings based on your redesigns of the book covers?
HC: Yes, but mostly improvisation. I have absolutely no plan for it; [they are] all based on my memory of other things.
Audience member: There is no relationship between the author or [the book’s] content and the painting?
HC: Yeah, just think Youtube mashup you know. It’s totally crazy, but when you hang them, they actually look quite good, and I am happy about it.
Audience member: How big are they?
HC: 18 by 24 inches.
Audience member: All of them?
HC: They are all the same size, the same kind of paint.
This is the same project but blown up to a ridiculous scale, which is like a big wall. It forms a kind of book recommendation.
Audience member: Where is the project?
HC: It was produced for the Singapore Biennial. 2008.
Audience member: Why no author?
HC: I don’t know actually. I just made the decision not to have the author’s name.
JD: Is it a singular piece? Or there are multiple pieces around Singapore at the same time?
HC: Just this one piece.
Audience member: And you have read this Marx book?
HC: Yeah. It is a very monumental book to begin with.
This is another piece that I made recently in which I took 328 spy novels, and shredded all of them. I was really interested in how I could deconstruct all these novels and return them to secrets. In spy novels it’s like everybody is shredding stuff, so I thought I would literally go with the flow. It’s pretty beautiful, because you can actually read it.
Audience member: How was it presented?
HC: I’ll show you. Just like this. It’s a mess. It’s really nice, like a mountain of secrets.
This is another piece that I made in 2008 as well. It’s called Monument to the people we have conveniently forgotten (I hate you). It is the ubiquitous business cards that you find in Asia. I printed black on both sides of the card, and then millions of them were thrown on the floor, and formed a landscape within the space itself. It doesn’t look like much, but in Asia when people are stepping on it, they actually feel bad, because it’s like stepping on people’s identity. I saw a review in Hong Kong saying that this guy is so rude.
JD: It’s quite spongy when you step on it.
HC: Because there are millions of them, it becomes like a carpet. This is in the Stedelijk Museum Bureau, Amsterdam.
It works well in group shows. Everything is black. (laughter)
Audience member: Can you take one?
HC: Yeah. You can take a box of it if you want. I saw people literally taking bags of them.
JD: It’s interesting, because in Asia you get stacks and stacks of cards and I don’t know what to do with them. I don’t hate those people, I’ve just forgotten them.
HC: I showed it to one of my friends who works at Philips de Pury, and she was like, ‘It’s a nice piece, but it could be better if you go around collecting people’s business cards and black [the contact information] out.’ I said, ‘no, it’s too mean.’
That’s it. I’ll leave you with this page that has influenced me a lot, which are eight rules that Kurt Vonnegut used for writing short stories. In many ways I try and stick to these rules as well when doing my work.
Audience member: Can you read it for us? I am getting old.
- Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
- Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
- Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
It’s great, no?
JD: Yes. Thank you so much. One of the things that I am interested in is that at one level your work is extremely diverse, and at the same time there are certain threads that run concurrently throughout it. Also, while your work is conceptually strong, it is from my point of view, beautiful. You actually use the word beauty, which is not common among-
HC: Really? I am from Singapore. Have you seen my city? (laughter)
JD: I find it, not surprising, but reassuring that it’s not something we can’t talk about.
Audience member: For the cards on floor, they look like sequins in the gallery space.
HC: I don’t know. There is some kind of sensuality to this sort of action.
Audience member: It’s also terrifying, because there are so many.
HC: Totally, in a way. It’s like quicksand; there is an immediate confrontation with the materials, because you literally step on it. I don’t know, it kind of works when you see it.
JD: It’s interesting in this picture, because in my experience they are primarily a matte color, and barely had a sheen to them. So they don’t sparkle, but actually draw in the light.
Audience member: So the physicality…
JD: And you use the word sensuality. There is a physicality to that experience. It is in fact black, absorbs the light and noise, injecting it with a certain intimacy of experience. Maybe it also had to do with the [small size of] the space.
HC: I think the key is the actual object itself.
Audience member: Do they make a noise like walking on leaves?
HC: Yes, like snow.
Audience member: What made you return to Singapore from Berlin?
HC: I wanted to go home, I guess. There is no traumatic experience whatsoever. Maybe the one thing I am concerned about is that if I stay in one place for too long, I get stuck there. Berlin is kind of like that. Everyone is happy, showing the same work for ten years. I didn’t want to be stuck. I thought it would be nice to move around. It was nice, for a while.
Audience member: I am curious because many of my friends are writers and publishers. To people outside the discursive world of art, these are aesthetic objects. But for writers who love novels, how do they respond to your work?
HC: Right now, I am writing the third draft of my first real novel. So my publisher was concerned and literally put a lid on my art side of things, like a sheet on a furniture or something. It’s pretty hard to sell a contemporary artist in the literary world, because people would go, ‘This is just another contemporary art project.’ But at the same time I think, I don’t know, I am only speaking from my shallow and short experience with the publishing world. That’s probably easier if you angle it like you are a science fiction writer or something. I don’t know, it’s hard. I mean even to get to the point where I have someone to actually read it from a publishing house, it’s crazy.
Audience member: So the work is science fiction?
HC: Kind of. It is set in the future, but its not exactly science fiction. It doesn’t purport new technologies or something. The entire novel happens in three hours; its like a really long conversation between two people.
Audience member: Have you always wanted to write a novel? Did you want to become a writer before becoming an artist?
HC: I don’t know. It just happened. There are more and more invitations that I take on in group shows where I just write something rather than make work. For example, I was invited to a show in Paris, and basically I just told them that my work for the group show would be to write the press release. And I am just going to write a story and they are going to have to release that. You see what I mean? It comes to a point that there is no more border between the visual work and writing, which is the same thing really. Just producing.
Audience member: I have a question. I am intrigued by your choice of Roberto Bolaño for your latest project. Does it have anything to do his rising popularity in Asia?
HC: It’s a very complex situation with regard to production itself. For the show, Meiya curated it with Pauline Yao at the Taipei Contemporary Art Center. The whole show was paid for immediately by a collector.
Meiya Cheng (MC): No, it’s not like that…
HC: Whatever. (laughter)
MC: The title of the show is ‘Trading Futures’, and it’s sort of like the ending show for an institution, TCAC, which is a two-year project by a group of artists, curators, and activists in Taipei. Firstly, of course we don’t have money for the show as usual. Also the institution is going to be closed for financial reasons among others. The financial model is that I talked to the collector, [said] I want to do a show with some artists, and we were going to commission new projects, but you don’t know what these projects will be. Are you going to buy them? The collector said yes, alright. I also said, I am not sure if all these projects would happen, new commissioned works are always risky. So some projects don’t happen at all. This project is dealing with all the struggles with art, artists, collectors…. Well.. that’s your part.
HC: Basically why I chose Roberto Bolaño is that he has done an interview, which is totally insane for me. Someone asked him, why did you become a novelist? He said, well, I have a son, I have a family now, so I am really responsible, and I became a novelist to earn money. I was like what? Are you serious? It’s just these kinds of radical statements about money and novels and nobody would think that way. You know what I mean?
Audience member: Okay. He just became really hot in China over the last year or something…
HC: Yes, because someone translated 2666.
Audience member: Yes. I have a friend who even opened a library in Shanghai named 2666. Maybe you can do a project there.
JD: What is so interesting? Why has he suddenly taken off in China?
HC: Bolaño? If anything he is a great writer.
JD: Is there something about his work that resonates with the Chinese audience other than the fact that he’s just been translated?
Audience member: I have no idea. He writes beautifully and builds suspense. I guess people feel that he has to be introduced.
Audience member: He became hot here a little earlier. The first wave was in the United States. He became a writers’ writer.
HC: I think it started with a small group of cultish followers. And got traced immediately by the mass media. There is always this kind of obsession about certain writers.
Audience member: When you did the project, you had to buy all these books to…
HC: No, they are all in public libraries. I just took the money and went to the libraries.
Audience member: What’s the equivalence in US currency?
Audience member: 60 – 70 USD.
HC: I literally took all the money and put it in all different books. So there is a lot of money involved.
Audience member: Where are the libraries located?
HC: In Taipei. Do you want to fly over to get the money? (laughter)
JD: So Meiya, what kind of press release was there on this?
MC: There was a press release, not written by him. I realized it was kind of hard for curators to work with artists like Heman, who can always write better than me.
Audience member: Some of the money will stay there for some time. So some time in the future, it will be discovered. Is there any way that [the finder] could relate to it as art? Or it will just be like mana from heaven.
HC: Exactly. I like that kind of encounter, which is totally anonymous.
Audience member: Maybe your assistant took it all.
HC: You know what… I went with an assistant, and she disappeared the next day. (laughter)
Audience member: How did the collector respond?
MC: When we explained how Heman spent his production fee, he was like, ‘Alright, how generous you are to spend my money.’ (laughter) ‘He just made money disappear.’
Audience member: So in the end he would be just collecting the concept, right?
HC: No, I gave him a set of the documentation. I didn’t want to just give him a certificate. I think he would freak out.
Audience member: When doing things like doing press releases or spending collector’s money for an exhibition, do you consider it as institutional critique?
HC: No, I don’t. Let me explain myself very clearly. I come from a fascist totalitarian country. So this idea of institutional critique is a very strange matter for me, because there is absolutely no space for negotiation within my context itself. But at the same time, I think such forms of resistance or critiques occur even if you don’t name it. Like in Singapore, if you do something but you don’t name it, you get away with it. It’s like the Marcos era. I don’t know, it’s kind of like that for me. I would rather do things and not say that it’s like that than to not have to do it. It’s conceptual, which becomes a strategy within my work.
JD: Have you ever run against any ‘walls’ in Singapore?
HC: Yes, a lot actually. I think the most immediate thing that you would be conscious of is that you have to censor yourself; you have to know which fight to pick. That’s about it. I think that’s the general sort of thing. Most artists and curators are involved in some form of activism anyway, because everything is political if you are living in that situation even down to the very detail of the everyday. It is political. But we don’t see it as political anymore, it’s just part of life. For example a friend of mine was in Singapore, and he was like, ‘Wow, this place is great because you never see a policeman, so safe.’ And I was smiling and waiting for him to understand why. ‘Oh, you mean they don’t wear uniforms?’ I was like, ‘Dude, seriously, did it really take you that long?’ (laughter)
Audience member: I was even wondering if the blackened business cards have allusions to some kind of self-censorship, and it’s more effective if you don’t spell it out.
HC: I guess yes, exactly. people can use it and think about it, but I don’t have to say it.
Audience member: Who designed the cover of Philips?
HC: David Reinfurt from Dexter Sinister. He was one of the writers as well.
Audience member: The comment you just made about politics and daily life may be a different answer to a question I asked about your decision to move back from Berlin, because it seems to me you wouldn’t make such a decision without knowing the difference between these environments.
HC: I guess, to a certain degree.
Audience member: Do you find it more interesting to operate with your aesthetic in that type of environment?
HC: With certain projects I guess, but not all. Some projects I would only produce in let’s say Europe, simply because it just matters more to do that, you know the quasi idea of the audience.
Audience member: Did anything you did abroad effect the censorship issue in Singapore? Does censorship extend beyond the border of the nation state?
HC: The thing about Singapore is that it’s an extremely sophisticated country. If we talk about foreign policy, today it’s not about right or wrong, but about establishing a sense of moral high ground. So they are not going to put you in prison, they would just cut your funding. It just got to such a ridiculous situation where for example if you make a piece that has any kind of commentary on politics in Singapore, they would give you the money, but tell you not to put their logo on their brochure. It’s a totally strange situation.
Audience member: Even your reading list is a way to profile you.
HC: It’s sort of autobiographical to a certain extend, as with all bookshelves.
Audience member: When I see your work, I think you are very relaxed. But do you find the creation process relaxed or difficult?
HC: It’s difficult, like 60 cigarettes, two bottles of vodka… (laughter) No no, it really depends on the projects. For example I am doing this piece now for the Kadist Foundation in San Francisco, which is the most difficult piece I’ve ever done in my life… a musical score. I am trying to rescore Steve Reich’s clapping music, which is totally crazy. I am spending endless nights trying to do the notations, which I have no idea how to do. Then I have to train a twenty-man quartet. But I actually like doing different things. I am also revealing that fact that I don’t know how to do it, and I just do it, and we just go from there. It’s kind of difficult, but at the same time I am quite relaxed about it because I don’t really care. Whether it’s a failure or not, I don’t really see it in that way.
Audience member: Which is your favorite piece?
HC: I kind of like the piece that I didn’t make, which is the stacks, out of all these things. (laughter) I truly believe that things around us have a life of their own that could sort of come together, and I like it if they do. For me my work as an artist is not so much about introducing new things to the world, but about making sense of things that are available. The whole idea of this crazy genius hiding at home trying to think… it’s great, but I am not that person.
JD: This has been great. Thank you so much. We can continue the discussion downstairs.
All images courtesy of the artist.
Transcribed by Xiaofei Mo, edited by Daisley Kramer.
1977 Born in Muar, Malaysia. Raised in Singapore. Lives and works in Singapore
2000-2002 MA in Communication Art and Design, Royal College of Art, London
1994-97 Diploma in Visual Communication, Temasek Polytechnic, Singapore
Heman Chong is an artist, curator and writer. His art practice involves an investigation into the philosophies, reasons and methods of individuals and communities imagining the future. Charged with a conceptual drive, this research is then adapted into objects, images, installations, situations or texts.
He has developed solo exhibitions at Rossi & Rossi (London), SOTA Gallery (Singapore), NUS Museum (Singapore), Kunstverein Milan (Milan), Motive Gallery (Amsterdam), Hermes Third Floor (Singapore), Vitamin Creative Space (Guangzhou), Art In General (New York), Project Arts Centre (Dublin), Ellen de Bruijne Projects (Amsterdam), The Substation (Singapore), Kuenstlerhaus Bethanien (Berlin), Sparwasser HQ (Berlin). Group exhibitions include San Francisco Asian Art Museum, Kumho Museum of Art, Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, Kroeller-Muller Museum, Stedelijk Museum Bureau, Nam June Paik Art Center, Gertrude Contemporary, Arnolfini, Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami, Hamburger Bahnhof, Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Kadist Foundation, Daejeon Museum of Art, among others. He has participated in numerous international biennales including Asia Pacific Triennale 7 (2012), Performa 11 (2011), Momentum 6 (2011), Manifesta 8 (2010), 2nd Singapore Biennale (2008), SCAPE Christchurch Biennale (2006), Busan Biennale (2004), 10th India Triennale( 2000) and represented Singapore in the 50th Venice Biennale (2003).