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For viewers familiar with Heman Chong’s art, the painterly aspects of some of his latest Cover (Versions) might have come as a surprise. Shown in his recent solo exhibition at FOST Gallery, ‘Of Indeterminate Time Or Occurrence’, the paintings are part of an ongoing series that depict the imaginary covers of various books, all equal in size. While some canvases featured the muted tones and geometrical forms characteristic of the series, others contained quasi-expressionist manipulations of paint and colour, as if they were metaphorically representing their books’ subjects and titles. No doubt that the operative word here was ‘quasi’, in that Chong’s works are almost always sardonic comments on the presumed sanctity and subjectivity of artistic expression.
Of Indeterminate Time Or Occurrence brought together four works by Chong that explored various issues of interpretation related to images and text. As a contextualisation of ongoing and new works, it offered the possibility of understanding each work on its own terms, and also as part of an extended oeuvre. How the very ‘terms’ of an artwork emerge and operate formed part of the exhibition’s broader enquiry into the construction and dislocation of narrative meaning. Positioned like nodes within the niches of FOST’s gallery space, the works read like a constellation, each bound up within a larger, inter-textual web.
Of all the works in the exhibition, Chong’s Cover (Versions) particularly embodied this idea. Chong’s relationship to the books that he paints has always been ambiguous; many of them have been recommended to him by friends, others are simply books that he owns. What is clear, however, is that these are not paintings of books but of signs—literary works of art reduced to the state and form of an index. Such transformations are endemic in contemporary culture, spurred by the increasing capitalisation and mass-production of artistic creation. As traders in, and consumers of signs, the task of artists and viewers of art becomes that of understanding how images and text are used to elicit certain (if not stereotypical) reactions and emotions.
Indeed, while the bold colours and juxtapositions in Chong’s latest Cover (Versions) appeared expressive, closer inspection revealed their carefully constructed nature. Chong’s treatment of paint and the canvas as surface accentuated this illusion; from afar, their forms create a sense of depth, but when viewed up close, the same forms become distinctly planar. The paintings’ kinship to graphic design and printmaking was marked, harking to the artist’s background in communication art and design (which he previously studied at the Royal College of Art). Their display also referenced the culture of print, with each canvas packed in rows along two of the gallery’s facing walls. This mode of presentation amplified the tension within the series, in which the fore (that is, the individual work) is subsumed by the ‘whole’. As if iterating this point, several canvases had no titles, consisting of pure form or gaping voids. These canvases literally acted as punctuation, structuring and rupturing the overall narrative with their equivocal aesthetics.
The inter-textual nature of meaning was a thread that also ran through After Bolaño (After Duchamp) (2013). The work reprises Marcel Duchamp’s Unhappy Readymade (1919), which Chong first came across in Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666. In the novel, the main character, Professor Amalfitano, accidentally recreates Duchamp’s work in his back garden with a geometry book (itself written by a poet); an act driven by apparent madness. Chong’s interest in this occurrence lies in how literature can produce alternative forms of art history through its meandering and poetic trains of thought. In fact, the artist’s own encounter with Duchamp’s Unhappy Readymade indicates how certain artists and artworks permeate common consciousness, creating a form of art history embedded in popular culture. Positioned in the area of the gallery where reading materials are normally placed, After Bolaño (After Duchamp) evoked a reading likely to generate similar ‘unconscious’ reprisals.
The loss of originality caused by contemporary society’s culture of repetition was manifest throughout Of Indeterminate Time Or Occurrence. The Cover (Versions) themselves contain numerous references to past and present art, whether the cut canvases of Lucio Fontana, the geometric equivalents of Frank Stella, or the ‘drag’ paintings of Gerhard Richter. When passed through Chong’s analytical filter, these icons become virtual semblances of their former selves—simulations of painting that could just as well be visual archetypes. In this way, Chong’s Cover (Versions) are far from appropriations, because they do not seek to directly comment on these artworks, nor use them to generate further meanings. Rather, they evoke the paradox of repetition in a digital age; repetitions repeated so many times that they have lost any sense of original character and meaning.
The artist’s own recurrent use of repetition did not escape scrutiny; evidenced in the neon work Never / Again (2013). In the work, a fluorescent light alternates between two signs—one red, the other yellow—each depicting one of the two opposing terms. Aside from the fact that the work forms its own visual pun (its assertion to ‘NEVER’ light itself ‘AGAIN’ is constantly negated in its reversion to both), it also heavily relies on the viewer, who articulates its quandary by retaining the two terms in their mind and vision.
A similar feeling could be felt in The Forer Effect (2008), a vinyl piece that appropriates text from a personality test written by the American psychologist Bertram Forer in 1948. Addressing viewers in the imperative, the text is so generic that it seems as though it could apply to anyone. When read aloud, its prescriptions sound close to condescending: ‘…Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside…’. This notion of art as reflection was further explored in the exhibition’s accompanying publication, which included a bibliography of ambiguous origins by the artist, a conversation between writers composed of citations from their own books (from writer and editor Amanda Lee-Koe), and an insightful text on Chong’s itinerant and ultimately uncategorisable practice by Assistant Curator at NUS (National University of Singapore) Museum, Kenneth Tay.
In this light, the question of whether Chong’s recent Cover (Versions) were expressions or not seemed irrelevant, in the sense that all meaning tends to be normative. The exhibition recalled the often forgotten side to Roland Barthes’ theory, espoused in his essay The Death of the Author (1967), in which the author describes language as a closed system that operates according to its own conventions. In this situation, the author becomes ‘dead’—not just from the point of view of the reader (who turns into the new ‘author’ as the primary generator of textual meaning), but from that of the author, who lacks the capacity or imagination to re-envisage this system. How language is then re-configured and re-contextualised becomes the new occupation of the author, an occupation that was cleverly exploited in Of Indeterminate Time Or Occurrence.
Heman Chong, Things That Remain Unwritten, 2013. Ongoing series. Installation view. Acrylic on canvas, 61 x 46 x 3.5cm.
Heman Chong, NEVER / AGAIN, 2014. Neon sign, 140 x 70cm. Edition of 5 + 1 AP. Courtesy of the artist and FOST Gallery, Singapore. © Heman Chong.
Heman Chong, After Bolaño (After Duchamp), 2014. Book, clothes peg, clothes line, dimensions variable.
Heman Chong, Wittgenstein's Mistress - David Markson, 2013. Acrylic on canvas, 61 x 46cm. Courtesy the artist and FOST Gallery, Singapore. © Heman Chong.