Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai, Heman Chong: Ifs, Ands, or Buts

Rockbund Art Museum
  • Heman Chong, Re-Re-Re-Run, Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai, 2016. Photo: courtesy of Rockbund Art Museum
  • Heman Chong, Papaya Daily, Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai, 2016. Photo: courtesy of Rockbund Art Museum
  • Heman Chong, The Mysterious Island, Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai, 2016. Photo: courtesy of Rockbund Art Museum
  • Heman Chong, Legal Bookshop (Shanghai), Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai, 2016. Photo: courtesy of Rockbund Art Museum
  • Heman Chong, Everything (Baike), Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai, 2016. Photo: courtesy of Rockbund Art Museum
  • Heman Chong, Endless (Nights), Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai, 2016. Photo: courtesy of Rockbund Art Museum
  • Heman Chong, One Thousand And One Nights, Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai, 2016. Photo: courtesy of Rockbund Art Museum

Heman Chong: Ifs, Ands, or Buts
Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai, China
January 23–May 3, 2016
Todd Meyers

Ifs, Ands, or Buts is not shy. Despite being the Singaporean artist’s first solo museum exhibition in mainland China, Heman Chong appears to be right at home with the lived contradiction that defines much of daily life in Shanghai and elsewhere. Each of the pieces in the exhibit––all commissioned by the museum––operates on some level of displacement.  Yet “contrast” is only the starting point for Chong’s collection of small but powerful meditations on the everyday.

The show begins with the installation Legal Bookshop (Shanghai) (2016). Chong takes over the museum bookstore, replacing the expected high-end museum catalogues and pricey tchotchke with a collection of Chinese legal texts curated by an intellectual property lawyer, Ken Liu, who Chong commissioned to select the titles (a transaction between the artist and lawyer made wholly transparent by the contract and billable hours on display). Browsing through Legal Bookshop requires the same physical comportment as visiting any museum bookstore; patrons slightly crouched, leaning as they pore over precious volumes that are artfully displayed. From a distance this “shop” is convincingly real, and only upon reading the titles is expectation replaced by curiosity. Not only are titles substituted, Liu (and Chong) displace value, as a manual on chess strategy and books on urban planning are given equal weight to titles like Laws and Regulations of the People’s Republic of China in Common Use. These are essential readings for life in a world of rapidly changing laws, geographies, and sensibilities. 

Everything about the exhibit could be described as displacement. The Rockbund Museum, itself a lovingly restored Art Deco building and former home to the Royal Asiatic Society, is slightly out of time with its new purpose. Chong, too, isn’t afraid to work out-of-step with time. Re-Re-Re-Run (2016) is a dual-channel video installation in a large room where two screens play every episode of Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean and Chuck Jones’s Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner on a loop. If this sounds fun, it is not. It is insufferable. The repetition of pratfalls and crushing cartoon anvils are A-Clockwork-Orange-of-catastrophe-and auditory-cacophony. The overwhelming sound and the flashes of bright colour carry across the empty space, joining the viewer with the injury on screen. Re-Re-Re-Run succeeds in striking anxiety and obnoxiousness in a single blow. The viewer might imagine an upstairs neighbour with unsupervised children running the show, but no, it’s a smartalecky adult at the controls.

As though responding to a call for reprieve, Chong turns the next floor into something warm and inviting (if slightly uncanny). The Mysterious Island (2016) is filled with plastic peach blossoms purchased on Alibaba.com (China’s Amazon.com). The blossoms hang in a forest of artificial trees, sloppily cobbled together in tight rows under a dome of fluorescent light. The floor is covered with flowers and branches that seem to have fallen naturally, or rather, as if in nature. But ultimately the deep blue walls and white light saturate the canopy, and the longer one stays, the more the room betrays its kitsch and fakery. The Mysterious Island is the arboretum of a crumbling utopia that never was.

The next installation plays off the division of a two-storey space in the museum. The floor below is Endless (Nights) (2016), consisting of stacks of blank newsprint, some against the walls, some scattered by visitors. Bundles of newspapers awaiting twilight pick-up by couriers adds to a feeling of pointlessness. The loose paper is slick under foot, sliding and crinkling with every step. From the doorway, the dimly lit room resembles an ice floe, the torn edges of paper crashing against one another. Endless (Nights) is an unexpected rumination on censorship, complicity, and quietude that certainly is meant to contrast with what is waiting along the balcony overhead. Papaya Daily (2016) consists of a collection of over a decade-worth of rumours and various degrees of fiction gathered by the artist, presented in short paragraphs on the wall. Like a halo above the sea of blank paper are the details of lives: secrets, desires, human hunger, idle gossip, meanness, hope... All absent of identity, but ultimately Papaya Daily feels more prurient than pleasurable.

As viewers retire to the museum café, they find Everything (Baike) (2016). The piece is performed by young museum employees, one at a time, their heads bowed as they recite into a microphone text from their iPhones. The texts are taken from the Chinese Baidu Baike (Baidu Encyclopedia) website. They pace and read from every fifth link, no matter what its content. Meanwhile, in this enclosed glass atrium on the top floor of the museum, awash in sunlight, patrons drink coffee and check their own phones with free museum Wi-Fi.

Chong is walking us through modern life––its banality, humour, and absurdity––in a way that is more subtle than perhaps Chong would have you believe. He is a brilliant companion and we are always on the inside of the joke. And as we travel, Chong’s work points along the way, as if to say, “See?!”

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