Heman Chong insists that there are “zero metaphors and zero irony” in his practice. “What you see is what you get,” he says. If this was true of Chong’s most recent show, “Peace Prosperity and Friendship with All Nations,” curated by Kathleen Ditzig, then it was only because the show—a presentation of works inspired by the year 2020—hardly needed an extra layer to make its point.
Take, for example, the mural in which the phrase PEACE PROSPERITY AND FRIENDSHIP WITH ALL NATIONS appears in a thick black classic-monster-movie font. Dripping with a hypocrisy as sticky and chilling as the kitschy typography would suggest, these words appear on the coin minted to mark Britain’s departure from the European Union on January 31, 2020. Chong’s derision of the UK government’s handling of Brexit speaks to a certain postcolonial schadenfreude. It has been a turbulent few years for the ideals of Western democracy, and the Covid-19 pandemic has further challenged the sanctity of a system in which individual liberty is placed above the greater good. East Asian societies tend to function through a culture of willingness to submit to a collective goal that, along with its benign authoritarianism, was pivotal to Singapore’s swift and effective containment of the disease.
The state’s efficiency relies as well on the public’s acceptance of an official lexicon that emphasizes communal accountability over government control. A period of lockdown is known in Singapore as a “circuit breaker,” and the citywide system of mandatory contact tracing is called SafeEntry (enabled by the TraceTogether app). These terms and their associated symbols—the omnipresent QR code and a cross in a box used to mark out areas for social distancing—were the central motifs of Chong’s “Circuit Breaker Paintings” and “Safe Entry (Version 2.0-2.7),” both 2020. Each of the eight works that make up the latter series depict an apparently identical QR code, the artist’s brushwork being the only variation distinguishing one canvas from the next. The color scheme cannot be accidental: a base layer of blood red stenciled over with corporeal pink beige. It is human skin warped by machine vision—a metaphor for the age if ever there was one.
Unsettlingly, the QR code is functional, linking the viewer not to a SafeEntry page but to a video, just over an hour and a quarter long, of Chong walking two and a half miles through a deserted Changi Airport at the height of the crisis in April of last year. It’s a small act of transgression, recorded at a moment when citizens could be penalized for leaving their immediate neighborhoods, in a place known for its intolerance of rule breaking at the best of times. In the worst of times, a lonely walk, the tonic to so many looping lockdown days, feels like a little ode to human resilience.
Chong spent his 2020 residency at the STPI redacting a spy story, blacking out every word aside from verbs and each chapter’s title. The results make John le Carré’s debut novel Call for the Dead (1961) look more like a set of drawings than like modified text. The visually arresting work, comprising eighty-three silk-screened prints, filled a whole room. Here, for example, is the beginning of chapter six (“Tea and Sympathy”): RAINING ARRIVED. / WEARING SEEN. / BEGUN HUNG / RESEMBLED / BROODING / LOOKING POISED. Like most of the works in this contemplative show, the gesture leaves generous space for the beholder. Chong’s Call for the Dead, 2020, is a piece to spend time with, as the mind, denied the shape of a noun or the color of an adjective, creates poetry from being and doing alone.