Born in Malaysia, and currently based in Singapore, An Arm, A Leg and Other Stories now showing at South London Gallery is the first major showing of artist and writer Heman Chong in the United Kingdom. Chong’s approach is engagingly multidisciplinary, and for this new exhibition his work includes elements of sculpture and installation, performance, image and text. SLG put the notion of dialogue and interaction at the forefront of their program, evidenced in particular by the wide array of events and workshops which often accompany their regular exhibition program. Chong’s massive installation in the central exhibition space, alongside his intervention in the gallery bookshop and the creation of an informal residency program as part of the overall project deliver exactly that, opening up multiple opportunities to relate and respond through different facets of the work.
Primary perhaps to the overall experience of the exhibition is Monument to the people we’ve conveniently forgotten (I hate you), consisting of a million blacked out business cards spread out across the gallery space. Business cards typify the very notion of exchange and carry the suggestion of continued dialogue and collaboration, while their colouring here (to say nothing of the title) hint at the ease with which the gesture can prove to be hollow. In this work as with many of the others, Chong seems to carefully avoid finishing the idea, and where a more explicit criticism could be made, it feels like he instead opts to pose a question. While a much darker reading of the work could easily be extrapolated upon, instead I found children running through the space, sliding into piles of cards and burying their friends under them. It’s a perfect example of how the rich undertones of his work direct the conversation into the realm of possibility over outright critique, a sense of exploration even children seem ready to participate in wholeheartedly.
Central to this mode of action is a sign on the wall reading This Pavilion Is Strictly For Community Bonding Activities Only, a reproduction of one encountered by Chong in a public space in Singapore. Its overbearing and authoritarian tone, dictating interaction almost at odds with the conventional or instinctive notion of ‘community’ acts as the perfect juxtaposition to Chong’s own much more open discourse. That sign can be read against virtually every other aspect of the exhibition, framing the idea of open dialogue in a way which almost boarders on site-sensitive, and directly working against the dictated tone of the plaque.
Opposite the sign is a collection of paintings from three separate series: Cover (Versions), Things That Remain Unwritten and Emails from Strangers. They include a collection of book titles with abstract or semi geometric images as their covers, printed spam emails and other abstracted designs, which are described in the exhibition text as referencing the “unavoidable association, however intangible, between simultaneous visitors to the gallery space.” The texts can also be read as being representative of a kind of list for ‘further reading,’ something you might find at the end of a discussion or a lecture. It helps cement the idea of multiple voices and broadens the notion of exchange to include things outside of the gallery space. This is emphasised by Inclusion(s), a kind of muted intervention in the gallery book shop where second hand copies of books have been collected together to be redistributed, adding a tangible dimension to the idea of reading further into the exhibition and its multifaceted points of interest from beyond the walls of the gallery.
Another piece in the main gallery space called Surfacing, consisting of thousands of small red triangle stickers, offers the opportunity for Chong to take the mantra of collaboration and exchange into the installation process of the exhibition itself. The work has been realised several times already, and allows the gallery technicians to read from a loose set of instructions and piece it together within certain parameters. It’s reappearance serves a similar function to the works featuring books, in that they acknowledge in their construction the existence of multiple view points and perspectives, essentially creating a space where no one approach is privileged, even the artist’s own.
The final work in that central space is created through the sculptural intervention Rope, Barrier, Boundary, which uses the ubiquitous red velvet rope barrier used in galleries and museums to create space around works to demarcate a performance area at the far end of the room. Each Wednesday at 1pm and 5pm a performance entitled An Arm, A Leg will take place where a different participant will be taught to memorise and recite a 500 word short story written by Chong and only ever passed on by word of mouth. It ties the threads of the artist’s work as a writer and his focus on text and story together and cements the space as a whole as one of exchange and dialogue. Those wishing to take part in the performance are encouraged by the gallery to make contact via email.
The exhibition also includes a further collaborative element with three writers, Mira Mattar and the pair of Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams (themselves collaborators on a project called Diego Garcia, described as a ‘novel-in-installments’ [diegogarciabook.tumblr.com]). Effectively a separate commission, Writing, Rooms is kind of residency based on the first floor of the gallery, where Mattar and the duo of Soobramanien and Williams will work on their own writing projects, allowing them to continue to develop works already in progress alongside Chong’s own exhibition. At the end of the residency they have been invited to host a public conversation about the experience and also to publish an excerpt of what they have produced during that time.
While the exhibition could easily have felt dense and the central space somehow overcrowded by Chong multiple works and sites of exchange, in actual fact the way it is installed somehow beautifully brings the whole project together. The space is large enough that even with so much happening on the walls, floors and up high towards the ceiling in the case of Surfacing, there is still enough opportunity to view each work individually. There are elements to the main installation work which may instinctively invoke an association with minimalism (the cold supremacist black of the business cards recalling the kind of sculptural approach that might seem relatable to Richard Serra as an example), however it feels more fitting to view the whole as a much more intricately crafted maximalist totality. While the previous exhibition at SLG, Thomas Hirschhorn’s incredible In-between transformed the space into something altogether unique and different, Chong has managed to pack the space while still retaining elements of its location, something which eloquently reflects his attitude to creating space for dialogue rather than dominating it. The effect is both thoroughly engaging and inescapably uplifting.
By Will Gresson