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Issue 220

Something to Declare: Heman Chong Mocks Modern Surveillance

At STPI, Singapore, the artist's solo exhibition wryly investigates the systems and structures of power 

BY Wong Binghao in Reviews , Reviews Across Asia | 26 APR 21

SafeEntry, a national digital check-in system that collects personal data for contact tracing, has become a metonym for Singapore’s efficient management of the COVID-19 pandemic. The system forms the basis of Heman Chong’s Safe Entry (Version 2.0 – 2.7) (2020), a suite of eight, near-identical paintings of QR codes on flesh-coloured backgrounds, which are included in the artist’s first solo exhibition at STPI. Most visitors instinctively take out their smartphones to scan them but, rather than being directed to SafeEntry, they are linked to a point-of-view video of Chong walking through Singapore’s Changi Airport during the government’s stay-at-home order. Rated the World’s Best Airport by Skytrax, the immaculate and once-buzzing travel hub – Singapore’s literal ‘safe entry’ point – is eerily desolate. When I spoke to the artist about the Safe Entry paintings, he likened their hues to scabs and Shiseido brand foundation, bringing to mind bodily connotations that sardonically underscore the airport’s emptiness. The work disillusions a utopic vision, instead highlighting the bleak, abject reality of the pandemic.

Herman Chong Safe Entry
Heman Chong, Safe Entry (Version 2.0 - 2.7), installation view, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 200 × 130 × 3.8 cm each. Courtesy: © Heman Chong and STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery, Singapore

Throughout the exhibition, Chong appears to respond facetiously or provocatively to current affairs. But the topicality of his practice belies a broader investigation into structures of power. Indeed, as curator Kathleen Ditzig argues in her catalogue essay, Chong’s works ‘make transparent the everydayness of systems of governance’. This is perhaps most evident in ‘Foreign Affairs’ (2018), a series of photographs of embassy backdoors from around the world, printed onto canvases and curtains. The presence of these clandestine thresholds to sovereign spaces suggests the need for both access and secrecy, privacy and porosity. Chong calls attention to this duality. Pulling aside the curtains, which cordon-off spaces in the gallery, visitors find themselves facing only more backdoors, this time on canvas, quickly dousing the thrill of revelation.

Call for the Dead (2020), an 83-panelled silkscreen print work titled after a 1961 espionage novel by British author and former intelligence agent John le Carré, reproduces this frustrating impasse. Le Carré abhorred the bombastic sexiness of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels (1953–66), asserting that his own protagonist – the rotund, cunning geek George Smiley – was a more accurate depiction of a spy. Chong blacks out all but the verbs in Le Carré’s novel, heightening the author’s proclivity for action. Mimicking the professional redaction process, he photocopied Le Carré’s novel, made his erasures, then scanned the redacted version to ensure the absolute indecipherability of the original content. Like ‘Foreign Affairs’, Call for the Dead thwarts viewers’ attempts at scrutiny and denies enlightenment. Certain inquiries into power, Chong implies, will always be embargoed.

Herman Chong Call for Dead
Heman Chong, Call for the Dead, 2020, screenprint and acrylic on linen, 46 × 61× 3.8 cm each. Courtesy: © Heman Chong and STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery, Singapore

Unfazed by this sobering realization, Chong expresses a continued desire to communicate and build networks through his practice. In the performance Words, They, Wrote (2015–ongoing), which the artist delivers during public events, such as the talk between him and Ditzig on the occasion of his exhibition at STPI, Chong quotes from the writings of figures including Felix Gonzalez-Torres, On Kawara and Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook to affirm the primacy of the artist’s voice and ensure it doesn’t become obscured by theoretical discourse. 

Lending its title to the exhibition, Peace, Prosperity and Friendship with all Nations (2021) borrows from the text emblazoned on a special-issue 50 pence coin commemorating the UK’s recent exodus from the EU, which, in itself, paraphrases a sentence from Thomas Jefferson’s inaugural address as US president in 1801. In the entrance, this diplomatic overture is rendered on the wall in bold capital letters that drip as if drenched in a horrific, gaudy sludge. Although Chong’s works illuminate the trappings of unanswerable systems, they do so with indispensable wry humour.

‘Heman Chong: Peace, Prosperity and Friendship with all Nations' continues at STPI, Singapore until 18 April 2021. 

Main image: Heman Chong, ‘Peace, Prosperity and Friendship with all Nations’, 2021, installation view. Courtesy: © Heman Chong and STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery, Singapore

Wong Binghao (Bing) is a writer, editor and curator.