I chanced upon Heman Chong’s Writing While Walking and Other Stories while strolling along Queen Street one Wednesday afternoon. The mural is a part of the Walking in the City series staged by the Singapore Art Museum (SAM)- currently undergoing a $90m renovation – and features contemporary artworks on the museum buildings’ perimeter hoardings. It was a curious experience to encounter an artwork pasted onto a temporary structure, next to benches on which workers in the area and tired pedestrians seek rest and respite. I began to take photos of the mural, in an attempt to capture the feeling of being overwhelmed by the multitude of densely packed words, prompting passersby to pause and join me in trying to make sense of them. The very first lines read, “the first thing that hits you is how warm it is when you are walking in the afternoon is how much sweat you are producing”.
Writing While Walking is the result of an eight-hour long walk that Chong took around Singapore, where he simply left home and walked without a destination or pre-determined itinerary. Much like the walk itself, the text appears to have been written without regard to rules of grammar or syntax, a product of Chong’s stream of consciousness as he walked. Printed on the hoardings surrounding SAM’s renovation site, one is acutely aware of the transitory state of the ‘exhibition’ site. Located near the entrance to Bras Basah MRT station, not too far from a traffic light and close to a zebra crossing, the stillness of printed text – born out of a continuous walk – is in stark contrast to the rapid movement of passersby that the site accommodates. Ironically, if one were to walk continuously and carelessly, as the artist might have done on his walk, then one might easily overlook the mural and walk right past it without even noticing it.
Chong’s other mural in the series, Safe Entry, is located right nearby. The mural, filled with enlarged QR codes printed across the hoardings of SAM’s entire perimeter along Bras Basah Road, presents an almost daunting sight. Black and white pixels towering over the sidewalk, the mural may be a physical manifestation of the digital landscape that has become deeply entrenched in our daily lives. The titling of the mural references the SafeEntry measures deployed by the Singaporean government’s efforts to speed up contact tracing efforts. Each time you enter a space, be it an office building, a shopping mall, an art gallery or even as a guest at a condo compound, you are required to scan a QR code (or present your IC) to log-in your data. The QR code that makes up Chong’s Safe Entry mural, however, is a link to an hour-long video posted on the artist’s Youtube Channel Ambient Walking, recording the artist’s walk in Changi Airport Terminal 2, before the terminal was closed down for renovation.
Chong describes the walk inside Terminal 2 as a “virtual tour” that functions as a “document to our past”, as the airport terminal will inevitably look different, after its renovation, from what many Singaporeans and international travelers are familiar with. The video shows the typically busy and bustling check-in area to be hauntingly empty, with only a few staff members but all counters closed and no passengers to be found. The artist zooms in on a kinetic sculpture displayed on the second level of the terminal, A Million Times, by the artist collective, Humans Since 1982. Despite having passed through the terminal multiple times in the past years, this is the first time I am noticing this sculpture, a mesmerizing work of art in its own right.
Interestingly, I am now appreciating this sculpture through Chong’s video, that I accessed through the QR code that makes up the Safe Entry mural, which I encountered on a bus ride. This journey connected me from one artwork to another, reminding me of a narrative game where players are able to choose their own adventures by selecting one action out of several possibilities at the juncture of each event. Just like Writing While Walking, ironically, the only way to take a good look at Safe Entry, a mural that links us to a recording of the artist’s walk, is to stop in one’s tracks and stand still for a moment.