The Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai holds the first solo museum exhibition in China of Singaporean artist Heman Chong.
Running from 23 January to 3 May 2016, Heman Chong’s solo show, curated by the art museum’s senior curator Li Qi, investigates the spaces between text and images, through seven new works commissioned by Rockbund Art Museum.
For his new exhibition “Ifs, Ands, or Buts” occupying all six floors of Shanghai’s elegant Rockbund Art Museum (RAM), Singaporean artist Heman Chong has created six new works that become less tangible by degrees as they go up. There is a further new work entitled One Thousand and One Nights (2016), outside, projected on the building’s exterior. As a conceptual artist, Chong’s work is transdisciplinary, using material or media appropriate to his intentions and, in this show, quite a lot of quotation and appropriation too. Heman Chong has said of conceptual art:
It’s about placing something at the right time, at the right place so that one can have a new insight.
Founded six years ago as a private museum, Rockbund Art Museum is located in an Art Deco building restored in 2007 by English architect David Chipperfield. The site has a long history as a museum, built in 1932 for The Royal Asiatic Society to show collections of natural history, as a model of what a modern museum in China could be.
While The Rockefeller Group and Sinolink develop a large chunk of Rockbund property adjacent to the Museum, on the north end of Shanghai’s Bund, the museum space – one of the most active among private institutions of its kind in China – is used to commission new projects by artists. 80 percent of the budget goes towards the production of new works that address “urgent challenges of society locally and internationally”. The museum also promotes itself as an epicentre for research into the contemporary art ecology in China. Offering Heman Chong the opportunity to make a big statement for his first museum show in Mainland China is very much in keeping with the aspiration.
The exhibition engages a combination of sense and faculties. Smell, touch, illumination and sound as well as image all play a part. The animation of the vertical orientation of the galleries – discrete spaces dispersed over six floors – has been a characteristic of several single artist shows over the past couple of years. Each floor provides a different ambiance. Chong allows the booming sound of his two-channel video Re-Re-Re-Run (2016) to reverberate in the lobby and a sweet smell from The Mysterious Island (2016) to linger in the stairwell.
In many ways Chong comes across as an old fashioned artist working with now familiar conceptual strategies, live performers, quotation and contractual agreements, but he twists and turns within these parameters. The work that first greets visitors is Legal Bookshop (Shanghai). A flashing neon proclaims “book-book-book-book”. In the work, books are laid out on four black tables and piled up under the window. On the wall, six framed A4 sheets in Chinese and in English account for the origin of the selection.
Chong has sub-contracted lawyer Ken Liu to choose books related to the “legal system in China”. The resulting bibliography is eclectic, only punctuated by a few volumes obviously related to the law. Liu’s CV too contains much activity that departs at a tangent to his legal work. For example, as a novelist he has coined the term silkpunk to define a genre “based on organic materials historically important to East Asia”; he describes its aesthetic as “one of suppleness and flexibility”.
In the pieces Chong has created for Rockbund he works with supple meetings of fact, fiction and material gestures. The exhibition’s title suggests the prefixes of the conditions of contractual agreements, “Ifs, Ands, or Buts”; or punctuation in the conversations of sceptics and believers. These are timely concerns on the world stage, where we see conflicting ideologies grappling on a daily basis. Concessions spring from the recognition of mutual views in separate philosophies.
The second floor of the Museum is dominated by Re-Re-Re-Run, a large scale low definition outdoor LED screen showing episodes of Chuck Jones and Michael Maltese’s animated cartoon The Road Runner, side by side with Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis’ TV series Mr Bean. Chong strips the two celebrated series of authorship and presents them in such a way that their colour, proportion and subtle non-linguistic soundscapes are perverted.
By pitching the two cultural works in opposition to one another with very loud sound, and by discrediting their creative origins, Chong re-casts these once charming and innocent works as uncompromising and volatile. He turns television into a physical presence, the image agitating the eyes and the sound tormenting the ears in a relentless loop.
The sound persists in a distorted form in the gallery above where an installation recreating a blossoming orchard, entitled The Mysterious Island (2016) fills the room. Artist and writer Ho Rui An has previously noted in ArtAsiaPacific that Chong is a surprisingly visual conceptual artist, “emphasizing the inevitably mnemonic nature of the conceptual object”.
This work allows disparate elements to collide. The tree trunks that support the artificial spring blossoms are real. Overall the trees appear authentic, but instead of roots the trunks are propped up with awkward sticks of wood. Combined with the lurid blue brightness of the walls the effect is fantastical, charming, and coolly seductive.
Endless (Nights) (2016) is a dimly lit space housing piles and piles of blank newspapers. The proportion and format of the paper is based on those of Singapore’s historic broadsheet The Straits Times. Viewers are “invited to avail themselves of a copy and to do as they please with it”. This can be interpreted nostalgically, empty pages zones of potential for new ideas, or as memorial to a faded communication technology, recorded on an unsustainable material, and distributed in a manner that affirms global distance and cultural separation, while connecting people by a hand to hand exchange.
Above on a balcony area is a suite of 22 brief texts printed in white directly on sombre grey walls, Papaya Daily (2016). The tone continues the dimly lit effect of the newspaper’s space below. Described as a short story, the words are written in the style of elliptical news reports. Set in valid time frames such as “last night”, “one week ago” or “in 1978”, the narratives are expressed in an uncomfortable abridged form. The themes move from stories based on rumours, of ghosts and UFOs, to accounts of death and violence. They are never quite convincing, nor absolutely implausible.
In Everything (2016), readers, performing in shifts throughout the period of the show, are exhibited in the white atrium space of the café at the top of the Museum. A chance structure is deployed to proceed from one text to another, following every fifth link in Baidu Encyclopaedia articles.
The spoken text is broadcast in the café. This is not the first time Rockbund has included durational live performance in its programme, but it is the first time the audience are witnesses to intimate readings. At the top of the museum, under the skylight, this poetic moment in Shanghai, connects characters, events, times, places, ideas, peace and disquiet.
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