Creative Capital: The naked artist who thinks contemporary art can be really dumb
Heman Chong, one of Singapore’s most significant contemporary artists, says we must allow for all kinds of art to inform how we see the world – good or bad.
I have a lithograph by Singaporean contemporary artist Heman Chong hanging in my dining room. It was part of a series produced in collaboration with the Singapore Tyler Print Institute. It is a grey scale geometric work with four words emblazoned in large san serif type across the top of the print, “Advanced Studies In Totalitarianism”.
Given our geographical context, it’s a piece that always makes people stop, and, more often than not, chuckle. My wife and I also have another piece, this one representative of a trope that has engaged Heman for over a decade – redesigning and painting book covers. Ours depicts Dr Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham, and was a present to us when our eldest child was born.
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Heman is a friend and one of Singapore’s most significant contemporary artists. The 41-year-old’s work has ranged from two-dimensional paintings to large installations. He describes his practice as “the intersection between image, performance, situations and writing”. His solo exhibitions are numerous, and have ranged from here in Singapore to Berlin, New York and London.
Contemporary art is literally art that’s made right here, and right now. Most of it is really, really terrible and dumb and downright awful.
He has participated in numerous international biennales, including the 50th Venice Biennale (2003); the fourth Busan Biennale (2004); the second Singapore Biennale (2008); and 20th Sydney Biennale (2016).
Elsewhere, he is the co-director and founder (with his wife Renee Staal) of The Library of Unread Books, which has been installed in NTU’s Centre for Contemporary Art in Singapore; The Museum of Contemporary Art and Design (MCAD) in Manila; Casco in Utrecht, The Netherlands; and Kunstverein Milano in Milan, Italy.
Despite all the many accolades and accomplishments, Heman remains grounded and very grounded. And self-deprecating. In an interview with ArtAsiaPacific, he described his own work from the 2003 Venice Biennale as “super crappy” and “pretentious”. I like this about him, that he can be critical and honest.
Be hungry! Look at everything! Don’t think in terms of good and bad! Expand your mind!
And the next step for this respected artist is to take on a new medium. He’s long said, in reference to the video installations he used to create in his younger days, that he was quite bad at making them. Instead, he opined, he should make a film.
But even that would take time, patience and collaborative skills he didn’t posses. “So I thought maybe I’ll just write a novel. It’s more Heman Chong anyway.” Which is what he is now doing. His first novel The Book Of Drafts will be published by Polyparenthesis in 2019.
Here, in CNA Lifestyle's series where we speak with creatives making their mark in Singapore, Heman discusses creative challenges, the state of contemporary art, and his unique clothing-optional process.
CAN YOU EXPLAIN WHAT CONTEMPORARY ART IS TO THE LAYPERSON?
HEMAN CHONG: Contemporary art is literally art that’s made right here, and right now. Most of it is really, really terrible and dumb and downright awful, but you’ll be able to see some really great stuff if you’re persistent enough.
IS ART EVEN STILL RELEVANT TODAY? AND WHO IS YOUR OWN AUDIENCE?
Yes! I have a small but dedicated following. I don’t want numbers! I want a truck load of intensity. I prefer to have one single person who’s totally into my work, rather than having 1,000,000,000 who would take a three-second glance.
WOULD IT BE POSSIBLE TO PICK OUT THE MOST SIGNIFICANT ARTWORK CREATED IN THE LAST DECADE?
In my opinion, it’s irrelevant what the greatest artwork is, ever, because when it comes to the creative world, it’s not productive to think in absolute terms. We must allow for a whole bunch of artworks to inform how we see the world. Be hungry! Look at everything! Don’t think in terms of good and bad! Expand your mind!
Every single mistake that I’ve made, every failure I’ve encountered has defined me more than anything else.
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON RIGHT NOW?
Since May 2018, I have been collecting images of back entrances of embassies in every city that I visit. These are doors in plain sight, but completely ignored and overlooked and often unmarked.
I spoke to a friend of mine who works in an embassy, and she told me that these back doors have multiple pragmatic uses: For the delivery of takeaways, for family members of the ambassador to enter and exit without hassle, but also for things that happen in the shadows which I have promised never to talk about.
These back doors fascinate me because they represent everything in politics that is unsaid, invisible and sinister. They are gateways to secrets and lies. It is interesting how these unassuming and unglamorous doors have such a useful purpose to them, and I love this air of mystery.
I have decided to never reveal which door these embassies belong to in whichever city as I am not interested in uncovering the mystery, but rather, to allow something to remain veiled and inaccessible. I have also chosen to force a viewer to see the image many times around, as if he or she is a figure of surveillance, forever watching these passages.
IS SINGAPORE A TOUGH PLACE TO BE A CREATIVE?
Yes. But unfortunately, everywhere else is tough too! If you’re serious about something, take some time out, sit and make a plan and be prepared to work 10 times harder that you’ve ever expected. The toughest place is that place inside your head named "Lazy" and "Procrastination".
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IF YOU COULD GO BACK AND MEET YOURSELF AS A YOUNG ART STUDENT, WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE HIM?
Ha ha! I would destroy the time machine with my bare hands to stop myself from going back in time. Just because every single mistake that I’ve made, every failure I’ve encountered has defined me more than anything else.
DID YOU EVER HAVE ONE OF THOSE “WHAT IN THE WORLD AM I DOING?” MOMENTS?
Yes! Every single waking moment. But you just deal with it, you know. For an artist, it’s immensely more fun not knowing what you’re doing than having everything figured out at the beginning.
I make most of my work completely naked! Sorry, but you asked.
YOU’VE LIVED IN NEW YORK, LONDON, BERLIN AND NOW YOU’RE BACK IN SINGAPORE. WHAT DO YOU MISS ABOUT THOSE OTHER CITIES?
Of all the cities I’ve lived in, I miss New York the most, only because of three things: The Strand Book Store, Shake Shack and the fact that you walk up and down Manhattan in completely straight lines. And the Met. And the train ride to Dia Beacon. And driving across to Brooklyn at 4am. And groceries from Trader Joe’s. And sunsets in Brooklyn Heights.
My solo exhibition – Ifs, Ands, or Buts – at the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai where I had to fill seven floors of real estate with new works. And I only had a year. And I had to make another solo at the South London Gallery at the same time.
WHO IS YOUR OWN DESIGN OR CREATIVE HERO?
WHAT’S BEEN THE HIGHLIGHT OF YOUR CAREER TO DATE?
There are many! But if I have to mention one, it would be that I met my wife, Renee, while making an exhibition at Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam.
TELL ME SOMETHING ABOUT YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS I WOULD NEVER EXPECT.
I don’t have aircon in my studio! I make most of my work completely naked! Sorry, but you asked.