Heman Chong: Ifs, Ands, or Buts

The Mysterious Island, 2016 Wood, plastic, iron wire, silk fabric, paint Dimensions variable
The Mysterious Island, 2016
Wood, plastic, iron wire, silk fabric, paint
Dimensions variable

If Heman Chong’s show were a book, it would feel like a limited edition paperback. In Chong’s most alluring work, books, as a medium for words, are the metaphors for his creation—works of art each made up of the stories of different characters.

As you walk into Rockbund Art Museum, you enter Chong’s long term collaborative bookstore project, installed on the first floor outside the usual exhibition space. In this Shanghai edition, the artist has found the translator of The Three-Body Problem, Ken Liu, who is also a lawyer and author of science fiction novels. Together they have selected a series of books centered around the laws that govern all things. The actual focus of the piece, though, is that the goal of science fiction has always been to overstep the boundaries of any and all laws, like gravity. Meanwhile, by using the title of one of Jules Verne’s books, The Mysterious Island, for an installation of a peach blossom forest, Chong reimagines this cornerstone of utopian sci-fi narratives and lends it a possible visual form in a museum. However, Chong is still an artist after all, and he does not emphasize the storytelling role of literature in his work as if writing science fiction. A video installation featuring a juxtaposition of Mr. Bean alongside Road Runner, Re-Re-Re-Run, seems as if it is saying: look, narratives are just boring. Sometimes the fictional characters that fill your free time don’t have to be ones that make you go beyond anything, they are merely “ifs, ands, and buts,” that’s all.

This is the fabric of the show, comprised of triviality, loose structures, and idle chatter. It is evident in both EndlessNights (2016), a monument-style sculpture seemingly pointing to the political utopia of Singapore, and Everything (Baike), where performers read out loud from Baidu Baike, an online encyclopedia that often leaves Chinese consumers of knowledge speechless, in a capsule-like space on the top floor of the museum. Even if this practice brings with it some sense of resistance, even if it goes beyond typical topics, under Heman Chong’s hand it has become lackadaisical, introverted, and scattered. This new approach lacks the unique interrogatory tone that his work had last year in his solo show at Art Sonje. To paraphrase a statement commonly used in his Papaya Daily: substance is purely fabricated, if it seems the same it is purely coincidence.

(Translated by Nathaniel Brown)

Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai
2016.01.23 – 2016.05.03