Heman Chong Holds Space for Collective Learning

At STPI Creative Workshop & Gallery, a modest survey of the artist reflects on how we share and absorb information and knowledge

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BY Andrew Maerkle in Exhibition Reviews | 01 FEB 24

Over the past two decades, Heman Chong has made a name for himself by repurposing conceptual-art strategies to play out fictive scenarios that point to unseen realities and possible worlds. In the performance Memories (2009–ongoing), for instance, participants commit to memory short stories, written by Chong, that will never be published in print. His current mini-survey, ‘Meditations on Shadow Libraries’ at STPI Creative Workshop & Gallery, finds the artist exploring themes of property, commons and oblivion through deft gestures that upend expectations about where the substance of the work lies.

The first gallery is overtaken by the The Library of Unread Books (2016–ongoing), made in collaboration with Renée Staal. Visually, this work resembles any flea market bookstand, with titles spanning from literary classics (James Joyce’s Ulysses, 1922) to pulp fiction (E.L. James’s Fifty Shades Darker, 2012), and from childhood favourites (Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 1964) to a smattering of publications in Arabic and Korean. By presenting the books stacked casually on folding tables for perusal, however, Chong collapses the customary distance between viewer and artwork.

Heman Chong, ‘Meditations on Shadow Libraries’, 2024, exhibition view. Courtesy: STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery, Singapore
Heman Chong, ‘Meditations on Shadow Libraries’, 2024, exhibition view. Courtesy: STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery, Singapore

Formally, The Library of Unread Books extends beyond its physical presentation, since each title has been donated by a contributor whose name is inscribed within. At base, this adds a social-networking frisson to the work. (Recognizing a Japanese title that sits on my own bookshelf at home, I was surprised to discover that it had been donated by a colleague.) But the installation also invites viewers to weave narrative speculations about the former owners into whatever associations the books might evoke: why didn’t she get around to reading that canonical text? Did they ever make it to Vietnam?

Since an unread book is not, strictly speaking, the same as an unwanted book, the work allows for acts of surrogate reading, so that those who linger to read do so not just for their own benefit but also on behalf of the donors. Multi-layered, polyphonic, The Library of Unread Books becomes an index of all the libraries that feed into it, while also manifesting the promise of any library to hold space for the continual renewal of collective knowledge.

Heman Chong, Works On Paper #1: Notes on Roads, Trips and other Slips and Falls, 2024. Courtesy: © Heman Chong and STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery, Singapore
Heman Chong, Works On Paper #1: Notes on Roads, Trips and other Slips and Falls, 2024. Courtesy: © Heman Chong and STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery, Singapore

There’s a similar hinge between the material and the imaginary in Works on Paper #1: Notes on Roads, Trips, and other Slips and Falls (2024–ongoing), a wall installation of colourful posters announcing future screenings at a fictive film festival of pirated road movies. The work’s eye-catching visual element turns out to be a pendant to its AI-generated wall text, which doubles as meta-commentary on the contradictory ethical and social frameworks of art. Struggling with Chong’s prompt to produce a curatorial statement, the AI initially demurs: ‘I cannot condone or promote the act of piracy, as it is a violation of intellectual property rights.’ Afterwards, the AI elaborates on how the hypothetical film festival might counter Singapore’s ‘highly regulated and predictable landscape’ and foster community as people seek out the underground location of each screening.

Heman Chong, Cheong Soo Pieng / 425 - A River Valley Road / Singapore 10 / 2024.01, 2024, ccrylic on stainless steel, 46 x 61 x 3.7 cm. Courtesy: © Heman Chong and STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery, Singapore
Heman Chong, Cheong Soo Pieng/425 - A River Valley Road/Singapore 10/2024.01, 2024, acrylic on stainless steel, 46 × 61 × 3.7 cm. Courtesy: © Heman Chong and STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery, Singapore

Also of note is Eternal Returns (2017–ongoing), comprising business card-shaped plates documenting the addresses of homes that have been demolished in Singapore. Here, each object confronts the relentless grind of urban development by offering a slight-yet-poignant placeholder for the enormity of the lives those absent homes once contained. These works are a reminder that the most ephemeral of artistic materials, the concept, can also be the most enduring.

Heman Chong’s ‘Meditations of Shadow Libraries’ is on view at STPI Creative Workshop & Gallery, Singapore until 10 March.

Main image: Heman Chong, ‘Meditations on Shadow Libraries’, 2024, exhibition view. Courtesy: STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery, Singapore

Andrew Maerkle is a writer, editor and translator. He lives in Tokyo, Japan.

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