Heman Chong is an artist and writer living and working in Singapore. His work explores intersections between practices and notions of travel and exchange. His show at South London Gallery (SLG) is his second London show, the last being at Rossi and Rossi in 2012. Having never seen his work before, and SLG being my local contemporary art space, I went along on the 24th of February in the last week of the show. I was interested to see how the public space of the gallery was used by the artist.
Situated in South London Gallery’s main space, Heman Chong’s show, An Arm, A Leg and Other Stories consists of six extremely different elements. These are connected only by the loose themes of transfer of information and socially constructed behaviour. The first thing one is struck by is the multitude of black ‘business cards’ – a million to be precise – that cover the floor of the gallery. Obvious notions of exchange and globalisation are brought up here, but the work also operates on a purely physical level. A toddler plays among the cards, picking them up, moving them around and gleefully observing the sensation of millions of cards moving beneath the body. It is unclear whether these were actual business cards that had been blacked out, or simply black printed card cut into the standard business card size. Whether this was important to the artist I cannot say, however the concept behind the work is only read if the former is assumed to be true.
On one wall a sign reads “THIS PAVILLION IS STRICTLY FOR COMMUNITY BONDING ACTIVITIES ONLY” by far the most interesting element of the show for me, the text and placement are taken directly from a sign seen in a public square in Singapore. The sign, while being extremely loaded with notions of social rules and conformity, also feels relevant to the space in which it is shown. Since its conception in 1891, the South London Gallery has held community engagement at its core, reflected in the residencies and public programmes we see today.
Also shown were a collection of paintings of a standardised size and format, some showing reproduction book covers, reflecting the artist’s interest in (specifically sci-fi) literature, phishing emails sent to the artist by supposed women in need and some abstract canvases. Although the paintings had their merits, they did not fit into the rest of the show, perhaps being more closely aligned with the artist’s last London show in which the gallery space was transformed into a second hand book shop. This may have been due to the admittedly difficult space: the large main room of the gallery is difficult to negotiate, which left these paintings – seen from within the sea of business cards – looking rather shoved in.
Another element of the show that reinforced this notion of social boundaries or constructed behaviour was a red rope, generally seen in traditional museums and galleries, which spanned the whole width of the gallery space. These ropes are typically used to fence off certain areas or objects from the public; of course it would be easy to traverse this barrier by simply stepping over or ducking under the rope, but the fact that it is there generally prevents entry. However, in Chong’s installation there was no difference between what was in front of and behind the barrier, suggesting that the artist wished to comment on the standard modes of viewing art and of behaving within the public yet restricted realm of the gallery.
The show made me wonder exactly who the intended audience is; it seemed to operate on two levels at polar opposites of engagement. On one hand the little girl who delighted in the tactile sensation of the million cards beneath her feet and on the other, a level of conceptual engagement was necessary in order for the viewer to make connections between the seemingly disparate elements. The fact is that on entering the space from the street, one could easily overlook the intent of the artist as this was not all too clear. As a gallery that for over 100 years has dedicated itself to bringing contemporary art to the masses, this must be an on going consideration for the South London Gallery.
Another work, above the entrance to the main gallery, consisted of red triangular stickers that were arranged and installed by gallery technicians without the aid of the artist, again commenting on notions of exchange. I could not help but draw obvious similarities between this and the work of Sol LeWitt who, 50 years ago produced plans for paintings to be made by others, solidifying his notion of conceptual art, Chong’s work seemed to echo this all too closely. The final piece in this array was a performance which unfortunately I did not see, the general gist of which being a volunteer signs themself up to be recited a short story which they must learn and recite back to the facilitator. The story was written by the artist and will not be published, just like the black business cards, there is a withdrawal central to the work.
Again it is a dual theme of exchange and prohibition thereof; and socially constructed behaviour that remains central to the show. Each element tells a similar story, and while the individual pieces do speak of each other, each could just as easily stand alone. Unfortunately at the time of writing the show has finished so readers will not be able to see Chong’s work for themselves, but perhaps this only serves to add yet another degree of separation to the many layers of withdrawal that the show entailed.