Back in January, I started an extensive WhatsApp conversation with the artist Heman Chong while he was preparing for his solo exhibition Peace, Prosperity And Friendship With All Nations at STPI — Creative Workshop & Gallery in Singapore. Chong’s practice is known to be provocative, cerebral, performative, and humorous all at once. If it can be at all read as a whole, it is admittedly laborious to access. In this interview, I sought to impose a chronological or hierarchical ordering to his mass of tangents, but he confounded my urgent need to timestamp or serialise his work. At the STPI show, a series of Chong’s paintings were all violently crossed out, refusing to betray their signification. He redacts rather than surfaces, throwing himself down deep wells of his bizarre thought experiments, preferring to tangle with the legacy of conceptual artists like On Karawa and Félix Gonzalez-Torres, rituals that he invents and rigorously adheres to, fiction and even nonsensical situations.
A couple months later, I flew to the Gulf for the fair Art Dubai. Through sheer happenstance, I met and struck up a long conversation with the curator Shumon Basar. After exchanging contacts, the first thing he sent me was a link to a talk with Chong that they hosted at the Jameel Arts Centre last year. The talk was instructive for me. There came a moment of clarity when Shumon mentioned the prompt with which he introduced Heman and this talks series entitled THE ESSENTIAL . The prompt was “epiphany” or epiphania in Greek. “There’s something about the forward passage of time that opens up the past in ever-renewing ways. What might be experienced at first as random events and encounters reveal their secret code, their underlying patterns,” Shumon said. They say, nothing happens by chance. Indeed, I knew what it felt like to be in the seat opposite Chong, hoping for some kind of magic to circle me back through several hoops. Could I end up on the other side of a state of epiphania ? Could I dive into the impossible, the absurd, to find a new road at the other end?
I will not disclose my conclusion, as the letter appended (under strict instruction by Chong to maintain its original form) at the end of this interview lends enough of a clue.
CJC: [8:47 am, 04/01/2021] My first question is simple and has to do with beginnings. At which moment do you consider your contemporary art practice to have seriously begun?
HC: [9:37 am] Just off the top of my head, I cannot possibly detect that singular starting point. There isn’t such a thing as “Point A” as much as a compound of signals that allowed me to decide to do what I have done. In retrospect, I started thinking seriously about art at a very young age, even before I knew I was capable of being serious about anything. I have always been making things since I was a child.
Even as we speak, I feel the need to make something out of our conversation as opposed to a simple, “Let’s chat.” I’ve always felt the need to manipulate people, matter and time into forms, structures and systems that can perform specific movements. You can say that it’s pathological. I can’t help it. I can’t help making things, making things up, pointing to things, breaking things down, mixing things up, associating something to another, dislocating something and putting it to another, loving something, hating something. The list goes on. I am neither the beginning nor the end of something. I am all over the place; scattered, disorganised, re-organised. There was never meant to be one beginning.
CJC: 03 and all the walls were black. The gallery assistant told me to take a book the exhibition — that this was the itinerant, dislocated nature of your work. This was maybe 2008?
If you are “all over the place”, as you say, do you retrace such earlier points in your practice in a linear manner, or did the Hermès project happen as if it were yesterday’s rumination?
I have no allegiance to a specific medium or material.
HC: [12:23 pm] I am happy that you saw the show at Hermès.
Because of my lack of a studio, I often use the site of the exhibition as a testing ground for many new works. On most occasions, the work is as fresh to me as it is for the audience. There’s a lot of risk in working this way and many of my attempts have failed miserably, in a very public way. That has more or less become a part of my identity. That’s why it’s very difficult, almost impossible, to work on commissions because I never have a masterplan for a work. I can’t make a sketch even if you have a gun to my head. I take too long to think of anything that remotely looks like public sculpture. The way I’ve approached art making is to work slowly and consistently (and quietly) in my head and with my hands. I accumulate these things and compose them into exhibitions when I am asked to make one. That’s why most of my solo shows look like group shows. I have no allegiance to a specific medium or material. So many artists I know have such a strong core that they are loyal to; their work must involve a certain ingredient. I just use whatever is most effective for the idea.
A lot of people find my work extremely confusing because they can’t quite put a fix on my practice. I can’t either. I like to be constantly surprised. I just make whatever comes to mind, depending on what strikes me the most on a certain day at a certain moment. I’m constantly making things up as I go.
CJC: [9:44 am, 07/01/21] Within this improvised array of the many things you do, maybe it’s not so much an “allegiance” to a core, as you call it — but a returning, or a circularity around many different tracks. You return to points, ideas, texts and circle back and then radiate outwards to another thing. To use an analogy, it’s as if you’re skipping not one, but many stones at once, and your works manifest when the ripples touch each other.
HC: [6:27 pm] I’m working with what I have, rather than wishing for things that I don’t. I find it hard to stick to a single point without digressing. My mind wanders off into different, sometimes multiple, tangents in rapid succession. In an attempt to capture some of these fragments, I keep lots and lots of short written notes to myself on my iPhone. Almost every work of mine emerges through writing about the idea, this way of notation. I’m constantly describing something that hasn’t been made. Perhaps this returning you speak of is a constant return to these loose words, threads, parts, pieces.
I once wrote, “Doors, cracks, portals, windows, holes. Passing through something into another thing.” I think this later translated into my series Foreign Affairs , an ongoing archive of backdoors of embassies found in cities around the world that I’ve been to. On another occasion, I wrote, “A space which has very low levels of oxygen to trigger an emotional response.” I don’t know what to make of this at all but it does sound like an agonisingly sad space that I would love to realise one day.
CJC: 06, with clarity — by sieving through its inevitable fragmentation.
What are you doing when your mind is wandering? You told me once that you walk a lot.
HC: 07 and walk until I collapse from exhaustion. These walks would usually last four to six hours in a single stretch. Again, there is never a pre-planned route. Walking is important for me because it allows me to keep in check with my physical and mental health. I process many of my ideas while I walk by slowly playing them out in my head. It is many things in one.
I began recording my walks as a series of videos that is exclusively published on my YouTube channel called Ambient Walking . It is immensely gratifying to be engaging with a completely different audience. There is another aspect of wandering that I am extremely interested in, which is to wander online, reaching into the bowels of the Internet and the extreme subconscious of specific sets of collectives. It is a process that reaches across different platforms; the traditional Google search but also apps like Spotify, Instagram and TikTok.
I'm working with what I have, rather than wishing for things I don't.
I like being exposed to things I don’t understand and perspectives I don’t agree with. It’s important for me to be able to see the world from multiple, conflicting points of view. A work that attempts to sublimate this process is Everything , a work I made for my 2016 solo show at Rockbund Art Museum. I choreographed a performance where an individual reads articles from either Wikipedia or Baike (because you can’t access Wikipedia in China) starting from the article of the day, then moving over into a link found within that article and so on. It is a way of travelling without moving. A way of tracing subjective associations between things. A way of seeing reality as fiction.
CJC: [9:29 am, 16/01/21] I’ve recently learned that walking, running and swimming are all so meditative because they stimulate both hemispheres of the brain and bring you to a balanced homeostasis, enhancing clarity of focus. My therapist calls these activities “bilaterals”. And within that state of mind(fulness) there is a potential to observe one’s obsessions or intense emotions as if from a distance.
Similarly, do you walk through the hive mind of the Internet, seeing yourself within but not a part of its peculiar rabbit holes? A passive user who is more of an observer? You also use the word choreographer.
HC: [11:22 pm, 20/01/21] I tend to be able to adapt and improvise when I find myself in different contexts. Obviously when I’m engaging with audiences on Ambient Walking within YouTube, I engage as a host. When I’m reading pages of the Guardian or the Financial Times, I tend to take a detached stance and prohibit myself from openly engaging. I often find myself soaking for hours in the playlists of Teju Cole on Spotify. There’s so much to see, hear, and experience. However, because I’m a person without a strict ethical or moral code, I tend to gravitate towards being on no one’s side. I don’t pledge my allegiance to the left or the right. I’m not one to join groups, even if I am a very social person. I have serious trust issues with institutions, especially figures of authority. I tend to look at something thrown out there by someone over a long pause, without emotion, and try to see that thing from all sides. It’s hard for me to believe in anything these days. I would do double takes, even triple takes. I’m watching Joe Biden’s inauguration on YouTube Live as I’m responding to you. Speaking of choreography, what a show.
CJC: [12:25 am, 02/02/21] Let’s talk about your description of yourself and your many adaptations, in terms of your works. What you just said about being inside yet on the outside reminded me of your statement piece The Forer Effect (2008). You also made another similar vinyl statement sticker titled Simple Sabotage  eight years later. Who are you observing or instructing, if not the viewer? It’s a very pedantic, yet detached inner voice.
HC: [11:55 am] I am drawn to all kinds of writing, especially writing which is written for a very specific purpose within a very specific context. I keep an extensive collection of such examples and squirrel them away, hoping that I might one day find a different context to surface these writings that might produce a new point of view for that situation. The Forer Effect and Simple Sabotage , along with numerous other examples of such appropriated writings, have become a part of my practice of looking at writing as a vessel for understanding the infrastructures that lie behind what we think of as reality.
There is a certain level of detachment that I employ when I surface these texts. I do tend to play the observer, rather than the activist, in most of my works. I prefer the viewer to become an active participant in the ways of looking at life, at reality, rather than remain a senseless consumer. That’s why I find it useful to somewhat step back and allow for this engagement to occur on its own terms rather than dictate this relationship.
“Oops! Something went wrong. We’re working on getting fixed as soon as we can.”  is an ubiquitous alert that we often encounter on Internet sites that have broken down. What I’ve done is cast this piece of writing in Comic Sans and imbue humour. There’s this feeling that when infrastructure collapses, when something terrible happens, we don’t really know if we should laugh or cry. Life is absurd, and in so many ways, my interests lie in foregrounding that absurdity with a simple joke. I’m very interested in comedy.
Here is the text that I appropriated wholesale to make The Forer Effect:
You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic.
CJC: [9:05 am, 08/02/21] There is a hierarchy here. You as the artist-writer take an almost omniscient position whilst you expect the viewer-reader to place themselves within this “vessel” you’ve created, to make of it what they will or not — not knowing, not yet knowing, not fully knowing...
The Library of Unread Books is one such expanding, breathing vessel that has inhabited many different spaces. Is this your way of collecting writings? How did this project begin and where do you expect it to end up?
I prefer the viewer to become an active participant in the ways of looking at life, at reality, rather than remain a senseless consumer.
HC: [8:41 pm, 01/03/21] The Library of Unread Books is an artwork that is alive. It is also by default, an artist-run space, which is also structured as a public library. As with many of my works, it can be more than one thing at a time. It is constantly growing and shrinking, and has no definite shape, or size or form. It is important that the library doesn’t resist destruction, because it can be rebuilt at any moment via small acts of generosity by a community of (non)readers.
Books are meant to be touched, browsed, read. The library will grow and surface in different institutions over time. It began with us realising that we are constantly surrounded by books that we have purchased or given, but have not read. We find it such a waste that these books go unread. This was the starting point — our self-realisation of how wasteful we have been.
We now have over 3,000 titles. It is a living reference library that traces the perimeters of excess knowledge. Every single book in the collection was once private property and has been donated by an individual (or from ourselves) who did not read it when it was in their possession. Contributors to the growing mobile library receive a personalised library card and a lifetime membership, a kind of symbolic gesture that you now belong to a floating, diasporic community of individuals who have, at some point, given a book to us.
The Library of Unread Books brings to light these once-hidden-away titles to emphasise shared knowledge. The books, which are accessible to anyone who can visit the library sites, work to create a commons. They are arranged randomly and in stacks, in a setting that encourages visitors to feel at home and re-arrange the books according to will and desire.
Reminding us that a (private) library is both a means to an end and a research tool rather than an accessory, Nassim Nicholas Taleb famously called for an “antilibrary” made up of unread books. The essayist, scholar and statistician argued that read books are far less valuable than the unread ones and that a library should contain as much of what one does not know as finance might allow. “You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly.” In the case of this Library of Unread Books, access to knowledge is not contingent on finance, and so the books are reverted back to a common resource pool.
CJC: 20 in one of the smallest installations of The Library at I_S_L_A_N_D_S. This notion of the commons22, as well as libraries themselves, are rather old.
And yet this wonderful piece (which I have to say, is my favourite of yours) is not fully a part of a commons, as you mentioned to me that it’s also for sale. Can you say a bit about how this work not only has various lives, but can also be collected by an institution?
HC: 23 and I wrote for a conference at Casco (one of the sites where the library was installed). It might throw light on your questions about why the library is at once a commodity and also part of the commons.
“The word “collection” is a word that triggers many conflicting emotions. We are interested in reclaiming this word from private art collections, museum collections, state collections, and institutional collections. This is done via developing an ever-shifting collection of books situated in a space that everyone is welcome to dwell and read without any cost.
Every single book in our collection was previously owned as private property and someone has decided to give up that exclusive status with the book and donate it into a common pool. Our cheesy motto is: If you have a book you haven’t read, donate it to us, and someone else will read it for you. We should make t-shirts.
The things in our collection should be touched, smelt and of course, read. There is no system of arranging the books. They are stacked on top of each other, and placed on tables. This library is constantly re-arranged by the readers. We are precious about our collection as an idea of sharing ideas and spaces.
We are not precious about the books as physical or cultural commodities. If a book is stolen, then it still remains a book from our library, only that it is sitting on someone else’s shelf. If a book collapses from use, we will repair it until it cannot be read any longer and we will recycle it.
We insist that our library functions like an epiphyte that grows on the surfaces of other institutions. We hope that it will seduce these institutions into dreaming of producing common spaces for people to gather, common tools for people to utilise, and ways of working that don’t exhaust common resources, and in turn exhaust the possibility of community. We believe in the word “collection” as a word that can represent hope and dreams.
In the recent iteration of The Library of Unread Books at I_S_L_A_N_D_S, an independent space in Singapore, we encountered a ferocious reader of espionage novels named John Lee. Over the course of four weekends, he consistently showed up to read any and everything we could dig up for him within the genre.
John works as a night-guard at a condominium in Singapore. He is a retired weapons technician from the Singapore Navy. He is immensely curious about the library, and has whole-heartedly engaged with it on his own terms. He scavenges books that are discarded by the inhabitants of the condominium that he works at and every weekend, brings with him bags and bags of books.
Sometimes we find him sitting on a stack of books, quietly waiting for us to arrive to open up the library to the public. We discovered that he comes straight from his night shift. We talk, but mostly, he just reads. And gives.
He has no understanding of the library as an art project. He doesn’t really care for it as art. He is merely there to be able to read spy novels for free. Sometimes, we would show him other books but he displays absolutely no interest outside of the genre that he is addicted to. There’s always something for everyone at The Library of Unread Books.”
CJC: [1:40 am, 12/03/21] Your library just makes me smile. I love how John the night-guard and weapons technician can just lose himself in a work that’s constantly evolving, with its contributors as with its many readers. This is truly one of your most human works, if I can use that word to describe it. It accumulates after the endless quest for more and more knowledge that humans are always after.
You once told me that Felix Gonzalez-Torres is one of the artists you respect most. And his work continues to hit us because it’s so painfully and deeply human. You touch it, you pick up the candies, and then the piece touches you. On a final note, can you tell me how your work points to Torres, and maybe even beyond him?
It accumulates after the endless quest for more and more knowledge that humans are always after.
HC: 26, nor a sweet that you can eat nor a string of lightbulbs, nor a giant billboard, but something much more intimate. It was a letter that he wrote on 27 September 1994 to his gallerist, Andrea Rosen. I was deeply moved by his words before I even knew who he was, and how important he would become to me. I found this letter by chance when I was in Berlin back in 2003. I found a photocopy of the letter in a copy shop on Adalbertstraße in Kreuzberg, near where I lived on Mariannenplatz.
And because he only signed off this letter as “Felix”, and addressed it to “Andrea”, I was completely in the dark about who these people were. Back in 2003, when I googled Felix and Andrea, believe it or not, nothing came up! It took another chance encounter with an ex-girlfriend of mine, who encountered this photocopied letter on a table in my studio and revealed that this was a letter written by Felix Gonzales-Torres, that led me to finally linking the mystery letter to the artist.
Here is the letter:
September 27, 1994, NYC
How does one begin the day? I guess I never take anything for granted, and I hope I never do. These days I begin the days with a certain excitement, a certain desire to actually get up from bed, to do new things, to new beginnings. It is impossible for me to be the way I was before. Impossible. The marks left on me are indelible, but I have certainly learned so many lessons. Perhaps against my will. But here we are.
And how do I feel? I feel I am ready for new traveling, travels, travelers, travelogue, and the rest. And how do I feel? I feel something is missing this year, a void, a certain lack: not having the show at your space. My lab of ideas, my place of testing always a new voice. And how does one create a new voice every so often? Am I too rushed, trying to say as much as possible before this journey is over? Yes. But that is the way it is. That is what we have to face. How does one learn to not fear the night any longer, that the darkness comes, and one can actually go to sleep, and sleep until the next day, and get up without this metallic and bitter taste in one’s mouth, the taste of guilt, desire for death, the desire for a quick and final end? I guess one cannot learn those things, they just sink into our bodies. In a very subtle way, yet it is definite. It is there, and we can sense it. How good.
I am ready for new travels.
To new routes.
Art Dubai is the Middle East's leading international art fair, taking place every March in Dubai, UAE.
"The Essential..." is a series of conversations with notable guests hosted by curator Shumon Basar at Jameel Arts Centre.
“Aloft At Hermès Exhibitions, 2008–2016,” Fondation d’enterprise Hermès, https://www.fondationdentreprisehermes.org/en/project/aloft-hermes-exhibitions-2008-2016
"Ends (Compiled)", off-set print on 210 gsm art card, staple bound in total of 24 pages, to be produced in an endless edition and distributed freely in presentation, 2008
See Heman Chong, “A Short Story About Foreign Affairs,” M+ Stories, September 30, 2019, https://stories.mplus.org.hk/en/podium/issue-3-geographies/a-short-story-about-foreign-affairs/
The “Information Age” is a period that begun in the mid-20th century, marked by rapid shifts in in-dustry caused by the transition from the traditional industry established by the Industrial Revolu-tion to our current economy, based primarily on information technology.
Depot Road is situated the area of Bukit Merah within Singapore.
Spotify is a streaming services provider established in 2006, while Instagram and TikTok are visual-based social media platforms that were released in 2010 and 2016, respectively.
See Todd Meyers, “Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai, Heman Chong: Ifs, Ands, or Buts,” esse arts + opinions, https://esse.ca/en/rockbund-art-museum-shanghai-heman-chong-ifs-ands-or-buts-herman-chong
Rockbund Art Museum, http://www.rockbundartmuseum.org/en/
Teju Cole, http://www.tejucole.com/
“The Forer Effect, Heman Chong, 2008,” Amanda Wilkinson, https://amandawilkinsongallery.com/artists/28-heman-chong/works/5132/
“Heman Chong | Simple Sabotage (2016),” Artsy, https://www.artsy.net/artwork/heman-chong-simple-sabotage
This work was shown at "Age of You" (2021), an exhibition at Jameel Arts Centre curated by Shumon Basar, Douglas Coupland and Hans Ulrich Obrist
This text is taken from psychologist Bertram R. Forer’s psychology test, which he used to demonstrate the phenomenon that occurs when individuals believe that personality descriptions apply specifically to them (more so than to other people), despite the fact that the description is actually filled with information that applies to everyone. See Kathleen D. Vohs, “Barnum Effect,” Encyclopedia Britannica, August 1, 2016. https://www.britannica.com/science/Barnum-Effect.
See “The Library of Unread Books,” Jameel Arts Centre, https://jameelartscentre.org/whats-on/the-library-of-unread-books/
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (United States: Random House, 2007).
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet (London: Penguin, 2016).
The term “commons” derives from the traditional English legal term for common land, which are also known as “commons”. Modern term by ecologist Garrett Hardin in an influential 1968 article called The Tragedy of the Commons.
Casco Art Institute, https://casco.art/
Casco Art Institute, https://casco.art/
“Felix Gonzalez-Torres,” MoMA, https://www.moma.org/artists/2233
“Felix Gonzalez-Torres. “Untitled” (Death by Gun). 1990,” MoMA, https://www.moma.org/collection/works/61825
“Felix Gonzalez-Torres. “Untitled” (USA Today). 1990,” MoMA, https://www.moma.org/collection/works/81073
“Felix Gonzalez-Torres. “Untitled” (Toronto). 1992,” MoMA, https://www.moma.org/collection/works/81313
“Felix Gonzalez-Torres. “Untitled”. 1991,” MoMA, https://www.moma.org/collection/works/79063
Andrea Rosen was one of the first gallerists to represent ground-breaking conceptual artists. “About,” Andrea Rosen Gallery, https://www.andrearosengallery.com/
Adalbertstraße is a street in Berlin-Kreuzberg and Berlin-Mitte, Germany.
Mariannenplatz is a central square in the city center of Munich, Germany