“Portals, Loopholes and Other Transgressions”: Singaporean artist Heman Chong at FOST Gallery

Heman Chong’s latest exhibition “Portals, Loopholes and Other Transgressions” runs until 29 December 2016.

Now on show at FOST Gallery, Singapore, Heman Chong’s latest exhibition follows up on many of the conceptual and formal concerns found in his first show “Of Indeterminate Time or Occurrence” in 2014, and his interest in interrogating the functions of producing narratives in our everyday lives. 

Heman Chong, “Cover (Versions)”, 2009 - present, paintings. Installation view (detail) at FOST Gallery, Singapore, 2016. Image courtesy FOST Gallery.

Heman Chong, “Cover (Versions)”, 2009 – present, paintings. Installation view (detail) at FOST Gallery, Singapore, 2016. Image courtesy FOST Gallery.

Whereas the title of Heman Chong’s last solo exhibition at FOST Gallery “Of Indefinite time or Occurrence” called to mind some nebulous state hovering between definite existence and its opposite, “Portals, Loopholes and Other Transgressions” suggests something rather more transitive in character: the most prosaic sense of which might be the continuation or evolution of bodies of work from the previous exhibition, or of opening doors to new series.

Visually, one of the most striking elements of the show is a wall of riotously colourful canvases, roughly five metres across. Hung in tight formation, the paintings are largely drawn from “Cover (Versions)” (2009 – present), as well as what could be taken as its heir apparent or parallel universe doppelganger, the series “Things That Remain Unwritten” (2015 – ongoing), which departs from the former in lacking text.

Heman Chong, "Portals, Loopholes and Other Transgressions", 28 October - 29 December 2016, FOST Gallery, Singapore. Installation view of “Cover (Versions)”, 2009 - present, paintings. Image courtesy FOST Gallery.

Heman Chong, “Portals, Loopholes and Other Transgressions”, 28 October – 29 December 2016, FOST Gallery, Singapore. Installation view of “Cover (Versions)”, 2009 – present, paintings. Image courtesy FOST Gallery.

Heman Chong, 'This is a dynamic list and may never be able to satisfy particular standards for completeness', 2016, appropriated text, site-specific wall installation, dimensions and materials adaptable per site, edition 1 of 5 + 1 AP. Image courtesy the artist and FOST Gallery.

Heman Chong, ‘This is a dynamic list and may never be able to satisfy particular standards for completeness.’, 2016, appropriated text, site-specific wall installation, dimensions and materials adaptable per site, edition 1 of 5 + 1 AP. Image courtesy the artist and FOST Gallery.

One suggestive link between the two series might be found in one of the artist’s appropriated text works, entitled This is a dynamic list and may never be able to satisfy particular standards for completeness (2016). There is in this phrase a Borgesian scope of infinitude somehow coded into the simultaneously pompous and terse verbiage of the Wikipedian, an effect neatly doubled by dispersing the text into two left-aligned columns with a single word per row.

Supposing, then, that the entire list of possible books for which Chong might want to paint covers for satisfies the above description, it seems a logical extension to cast the net wider and examine that vast, hypothetical corpus of books which have never been written, or may never be written. In the profusion of these paintings, their identical sizes and the repetition of certain motifs (starbursts, irregular patterns of crossed lines, what might be washes or thin applications of paint by roller, and so on) there is some suspicion of programmatic seriality, but perhaps one with more in common with the anarchic roiling of evolutionary forces.

Heman Chong, "Portals, Loopholes and Other Transgressions", 28 October - 29 December 2016, FOST Gallery, Singapore. Installation view with (left) “Cover (Versions)”, 2009 - present, paintings, and (right background) '2001', 2016, acrylic on canvas, 61 x 46 x 3.5 cm. Image courtesy FOST Gallery.

Heman Chong, “Portals, Loopholes and Other Transgressions”, 28 October – 29 December 2016, FOST Gallery, Singapore. Installation view with (left) “Cover (Versions)”, 2009 – present, paintings, and (right background) ‘2001’, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 61 x 46 x 3.5 cm. Image courtesy FOST Gallery.

Heman Chong, "Portals, Loopholes and Other Transgressions", 28 October - 29 December 2016, FOST Gallery, Singapore. Installation view with '1819', 2016, acrylic on canvas, 61 x 46 x 3.5 cm. Image courtesy FOST Gallery.

Heman Chong, ‘1819’, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 61 x 46 x 3.5 cm. Image courtesy FOST Gallery.

A notable exception to the rule governing the composition of this wall of paintings is 0828 (2016) an acrylic painting of the same dimensions as its bedfellows, which consists simply of the numerals 0828 painted, as if hand-written, off-white on a field of deep red. With the numerals in a two-by-two configuration, lacking knowledge of the title, it’s plausible to assume that the intended sequence could have been 0288, or perhaps 8082, for those accustomed to reading right-to-left.

The relative non-orientability of a two-by-two grid seems calculated to play into culture-bound assumptions of reading direction, and the choice of 4-digit numerals presented without context seems also to elicit similar assumptions as to their significance–it’s simple enough to assume that 2001 and 2359 refer to measurements of time, and 1819 suggests, to any nearby Singaporeans, the year of modern Singapore’s founding. It may also be noteworthy that a popular lottery in Singapore is based on the randomisation of 4-digit numbers.

Heman Chong, "Portals, Loopholes and Other Transgressions", 28 October - 29 December 2016, FOST Gallery, Singapore. Installation view with (background centre) 'Low Res 1982 Tron', 2007, appropriated video, 1h:35m:55s, edition 1 of 5 + 1 AP, and (on the walls left and right) 'WHY NOT #1', 'OH MAN #1', 'HELP #1', 'THE END #1', 'BYE BYE #1', 'SHIT #1', all 2016, acrylic on canvas, 61 x 46 x 3.5 cm. Image courtesy FOST Gallery.

Heman Chong, “Portals, Loopholes and Other Transgressions”, 28 October – 29 December 2016, FOST Gallery, Singapore. Installation view with (background centre) ‘Low Res 1982 Tron’, 2007, appropriated video, 1h:35m:55s, edition 1 of 5 + 1 AP, and (on the walls left and right) ‘WHY NOT #1’, ‘OH MAN #1’, ‘HELP #1’, ‘THE END #1’, ‘BYE BYE #1’, ‘SHIT #1’, all 2016, acrylic on canvas, 61 x 46 x 3.5 cm. Image courtesy FOST Gallery.

In their hand-written informality, this series seems also tied into another set of paintings that, while aesthetically similar, diverge from the previous numerical paintings by presenting simple verbal ejaculations: “why now”, “oh man”, “fuck”, “bye bye” and the like, potentially resembling protest signage. More so even than his book covers, this series of paintings looks set to bait dismissals of them being insufficiently serious or painterly, with their own dismissive brevity suggesting the artist’s own, unfiltered acerbicness.

Heman Chong, "Portals, Loopholes and Other Transgressions", 28 October - 29 December 2016, FOST Gallery, Singapore. Installation view with 'Low Res 1982 Tron', 2007, appropriated video, 1h:35m:55s, edition 1 of 5 + 1 AP. Image courtesy FOST Gallery.

Heman Chong, ‘Low Res 1982 Tron’, 2007, appropriated video, 1h:35m:55s, edition 1 of 5 + 1 AP. Image courtesy FOST Gallery.

The links and associations between each series of paintings draws us down the narrower spaces on either side of the main gallery floor, fulfilling, in at least one sense, the notion of transition and transgression indicated in the exhibition’s title. One of the notional end-points of both spatial paths, however, suggests either byzantine opacity, or further conceptual layers to pare away: a blurry, low-resolution copy of the 1982 film TRON. The other, in keeping with the reversible transitions of the exhibition, consists of the words “NO” and “ON” in spray painted aluminium, at opposite ends of a corridor.

Heman Chong, "Portals, Loopholes and Other Transgressions", 28 October - 29 December 2016, FOST Gallery, Singapore. Installation view of 'No or On', 2016, aerosol paint on aluminium, 49 x 42 x 10 cm, edition of 2 + 1AP. Image courtesy FOST Gallery.

Heman Chong, ‘No or On’, 2016, aerosol paint on aluminium, 49 x 42 x 10 cm, edition of 2 + 1AP. Image courtesy FOST Gallery.

Heman Chong, "Portals, Loopholes and Other Transgressions", 28 October - 29 December 2016, FOST Gallery, Singapore. Installation view of 'No or On', 2016, aerosol paint on aluminium, 49 x 42 x 10 cm, edition of 2 + 1AP. Image courtesy FOST Gallery.

Heman Chong, ‘No or On’, 2016, aerosol paint on aluminium, 49 x 42 x 10 cm, edition of 2 + 1AP. Image courtesy FOST Gallery.

Although not, strictly speaking, part of the exhibition at FOST Gallery, one new, ongoing series is alluded to in “Book Swap!” (2016), which takes the form of a number of books stacked on the gallery floor along a wall. It seems like a fairly apparent link to his residency at the nearby NTU Centre for Contemporary Art, at which Chong is presenting “The Library of Unread Books” (2016 – 2026).

As the title suggests, the notion of Tsundoku is involved: the condition of acquiring books without getting around to reading them – perhaps permanently, or it might just be that your hunger for new books simply outstrips the speed at which you read. Wherever you fall on the spectrum, however debilitating your bibliomania, Chong’s project is likely to strike a chord.

Heman Chong, "Portals, Loopholes and Other Transgressions", 28 October - 29 December 2016, FOST Gallery, Singapore. Installation view with (left) 'To think is an act. To feel is an act. Put the two together – it is me who is writing what I am writing. God is the world. The truth is always some inner power without explanation. The more genuine part of my life is unrecognizable, extremely intimate and impossible to define. My heart has shed every desire and reduced itself to one final or initial beat.', 2016, acrylic on unprimed linen, 200 x 130 x 3.5 cm, and (background centre) 'Let no one be mistaken. I only achieve simplicity with enormous effort.', 2014, acrylic on unprimed linen, 200 x 130 x 3.5 cm. Image courtesy FOST Gallery.

Heman Chong, “Portals, Loopholes and Other Transgressions”, 28 October – 29 December 2016, FOST Gallery, Singapore. Installation view with (left) ‘To think is an act. To feel is an act. Put the two together – it is me who is writing what I am writing. God is the world. The truth is always some inner power without explanation. The more genuine part of my life is unrecognizable, extremely intimate and impossible to define. My heart has shed every desire and reduced itself to one final or initial beat.’, 2016, acrylic on unprimed linen, 200 x 130 x 3.5 cm, and (background centre) ‘Let no one be mistaken. I only achieve simplicity with enormous effort.’, 2014, acrylic on unprimed linen, 200 x 130 x 3.5 cm. Image courtesy FOST Gallery.

Heman Chong, "Portals, Loopholes and Other Transgressions", 28 October - 29 December 2016, FOST Gallery, Singapore. Installation view with (left) 'So long as I have questions to which there are no answers, I shall go on writing. How does one start at the beginning, if things happen before they actually happen? If before pre-prehistory there already existed apocalyptic monsters? If this history does not exist, I will come to exist.', 2015, acrylic on unprimed linen, 200 x 130 x 3.5 cm, and (right) 'Book Swap!', 2016, books, a secret endless edition distributed via the books, Not For Sale. Image courtesy FOST Gallery.

Heman Chong, “Portals, Loopholes and Other Transgressions”, 28 October – 29 December 2016, FOST Gallery, Singapore. Installation view with (left) ‘So long as I have questions to which there are no answers, I shall go on writing. How does one start at the beginning, if things happen before they actually happen? If before pre-prehistory there already existed apocalyptic monsters? If this history does not exist, I will come to exist.’, 2015, acrylic on unprimed linen, 200 x 130 x 3.5 cm, and (right) ‘Book Swap!’, 2016, books, a secret endless edition distributed via the books, Not For Sale. Image courtesy FOST Gallery.

The premise is simple enough – most of it is summed up in its name, in that it consists of a library of books left unread by their donors. Details not captured in its title are largely administrative in nature, such as participation (through donation) being the price of a library membership, or its planned 10-year run. The flip-side to the project, and one of its many sources of humour, is that being so included and highlighted in such a project increases these books’ chances of being read by several orders of magnitude – the typical scene, upon visiting, is of Chong and a handful of visitors, some chatting, some reading.

Heman Chong, "Portals, Loopholes and Other Transgressions", 28 October - 29 December 2016, FOST Gallery, Singapore. Installation view with (left) 'Book Swap!', 2016, books, a secret endless edition distributed via the books, Not For Sale, and (right) 'Everything in the world began with a yes. One molecule said yes to another and life was born. But before prehistory there was the prehistory of prehistory and there was the never and there was the yes. It was ever so. I do not know why, but I do know that the universe never began.', 2013, acrylic on unprimed linen, 200 x 130 x 3.5 cm. Image courtesy FOST Gallery.

Heman Chong, “Portals, Loopholes and Other Transgressions”, 28 October – 29 December 2016, FOST Gallery, Singapore. Installation view with (left) ‘Book Swap!’, 2016, books, a secret endless edition distributed via the books, Not For Sale, and (right) ‘Everything in the world began with a yes. One molecule said yes to another and life was born. But before prehistory there was the prehistory of prehistory and there was the never and there was the yes. It was ever so. I do not know why, but I do know that the universe never began.’, 2013, acrylic on unprimed linen, 200 x 130 x 3.5 cm. Image courtesy FOST Gallery.

Heman Chong, "Portals, Loopholes and Other Transgressions", 28 October - 29 December 2016, FOST Gallery, Singapore. Installation view with 'Book Swap!', 2016, books, a secret endless edition distributed via the books, Not For Sale. Image courtesy FOST Gallery.

Heman Chong, “Portals, Loopholes and Other Transgressions”, 28 October – 29 December 2016, FOST Gallery, Singapore. Installation view with ‘Book Swap!’, 2016, books, a secret endless edition distributed via the books, Not For Sale. Image courtesy FOST Gallery.

Heman Chong, "Portals, Loopholes and Other Transgressions", 28 October - 29 December 2016, FOST Gallery, Singapore. Installation view with 'Book Swap!', 2016, books, a secret endless edition distributed via the books, Not For Sale. Image courtesy FOST Gallery.

Heman Chong, ‘Book Swap!’, 2016, books, a secret endless edition distributed via the books, Not For Sale. Image courtesy FOST Gallery.

Donations to the Library are labelled with the name of the donor in question, prompting some suspicion of donations made with some jest, i.e. “There’s no way so-and-so didn’t read all three volumes of 50 Shades of Grey.” Our individual biases in the books we consider essential also come to the fore – fans of fantasy might boggle at the idea of someone leaving a copy of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King unread, just as observers of the increasingly authoritarian climate around the world would despair of George Orwell’s 1984 going unread. And then there are fascinating and bizarre titles like What’s Wrong With My Snake, which amateur herpetologists might assume to be standard fare.

Bruce Quek

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Related Topics: Singaporean artists, installation, painting, book art, gallery shows, events in Singapore

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