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For Heman Chong, the World of Knowledge Brims with Unruly Ghosts

Paintings that look like vintage book covers, stacks upon stacks of donated reads, and a floor-to-ceiling wall of bootleg film posters—you’ll find all these and more at Heman Chong’s recent show Meditations on Shadow Libraries, running at the STPI Creative Workshop and Gallery till 10 March 2024.

Focused as much—if not more—on strong concepts as on material objects, Chong’s practice spans mediums including photography, performance, and installation art. The Singapore-based artist’s second solo at STPI takes the “library” as its central idea, and branches into topics such as the availability, restriction, and dissemination of knowledge. (“Shadow libraries,” specifically, are unofficial online databases of varying levels of legality—think, for instance, of the Internet Archive.)

One of the key dyads of Meditations is the relationship between knowledge and information. For Chong’s longtime friend and the show’s curator Brian Kuan Wood—whom we spoke with over email about the exhibition—information refers to something more precise than the “more general category of knowledge.” Information is data: concrete, measurable, controllable. Knowledge, on the other hand, is much looser—including, for instance, subjective life experience. 

Works On Paper #1: Notes on Roads, Trips, and other Slips and Falls (detail; 2024–ongoing), site-specific installation utilising printed matter and wheat paste, dimensions variable, edition of 5. All images by author.

From the works, simultaneously, another contrast emerges: control versus chaos. Chong is an artist interested in both conceptual and visual order—tidy systems, repeated patterns and lines—and yet equally attentive to the unruly elements that slip through the cracks. Says Kuan Wood: “… Heman’s works are quite concise and precise, sometimes even highly controlled, but I think it’s important to keep an eye on what a drifting and open-ended—even moody—quality many of the works have.”

Meditations on Shadow Libraries gives these abstract ideas—information, knowledge, control, and chaos—material form. 

Collecting and cataloguing

Several of the works on show evince Chong’s affinity for collecting things and recording information. In profusion, the gathered objects—be they books, leaves, or name cards—acquire an impressiveness they would not have on their own.

The Library of Unread Books is perhaps the most obvious example of this tendency. First initiated in 2016 by Chong and registrar and arts professional Renée Staal, this travelling installation calls upon publics to donate the unread (forgotten, neglected, aspirational) books on their shelves, creating a communal reference library where new readers can browse the tomes.

As with previous iterations, the Library is presented simply and austerely on folding tables, in stacks that grow and shrink in size as viewers move the books at will. But, as I know from working as a Librarian during the 2022 Singapore Biennale, the haphazard presentation belies a certain meticulous, almost obsessive drive towards order.

Installation view of The Library of Unread Books (in collaboration with Renée Staal; 2016–ongoing), reference library, dimensions variable, edition of 9.

As Librarians, we not only received donated books, but also painstakingly recorded their titles, authors, years of publication, and other data. Each book was further assigned a unique accession number, stamped to indicate the iteration of the Library in which it was donated, and labelled with its donor’s name. 

Thus, though the Library’s contents depend solely on its donors’ whims, a record exists for nearly every book in the collection. This need to control the uncontrollable is, perhaps, common to all libraries, where capacious databases seek to impose order on ever-growing numbers of books, each of which contains its own rambunctious, miniature world. 

Greater than the sum of its parts

Other works that rely on processes of accumulation include Eternal Returns (2017–present) and Oleanders (2024–present). For the former, Chong collects the addresses of demolished homes. He’s also selected fifteen addresses previously occupied by major Singaporean artists such as Ng Eng Teng and Georgette Chen, and painted them onto pieces of steel the size of name cards. 

Chong repeats the name card motif in Still Building (2023–present), a painting series created by “haphazardly scattering names across the surface of the canvas and painting over them.” Adds the wall text: “The exchange of name cards in Asian cultures is a cultural ritual that goes beyond a simple exchange of contact information.” 

From Eternal Returns (series; 2017–ongoing), acrylic on stainless steel.
From Still Building (series; 2023–ongoing), acrylic on canvas, 61 x 46 x 3.5 cm.

Seen together, Eternal Returns and Still Building seem to comment on the informational value of name cards. While Eternal Returns singles out certain art-historically important addresses for special attention, the cards in Still Building cascade dizzyingly, like rain—wiped clean of information, they suggest that value lies less in the contact details they contain than the symbolic and social meanings understood by both giver and recipient.

A collector’s instinct appears also in Oleanders, for which Chong spent three days in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art taking photos of books in paintings. Focusing our attention on these specific details, and stripping the painted books of any external context, the photographic series creates, almost, a whole new set of images. And by breezily appropriating these paintings for his own agendas, Chong also rebels against the intellectual ownership of cultural assets.

From Oleanders (2024–ongoing), site-specific installation, dimensions variable, edition of 5.

The STPI show presents Oleanders one image at a time on a television screen. For the Lahore Biennale this year, however, the images will be printed as postcards and slipped into secondhand books in the city’s roadside markets—adding to the work an element of chance and surprise.

Drawing the line

Besides expressing Chong’s interest in collecting and cataloguing, Meditations on Shadow Libraries also has a distinctive aesthetic language. Its rigid, repetitive geometry of rectangular shapes and gridlike patterns echoes the visual regularity of libraries themselves, full of bookshelves, books, labels, and library cards. 

Consider, for instance, the series of book cover paintings. Featuring book titles recommended by his friends, this was Chong’s earliest painting series, and a natural extension of his training in graphic design. Crisscrossed with brightly coloured lines that resemble subway maps, the painted covers have a vintage, worn-in look, as if picked off the shelves of a secondhand bookstore.

The Voyage Out / Virginia Woolf (2013), acrylic on canvas, 61 x 46 x 3.8 cm.

This abstract geometric sensibility is also apparent in the Labyrinths (Libraries) series, initiated in 2022. The grid patterns in these paintings suggest data centres, prison bars, rows of books, or a bird’s-eye view of library shelves. You imagine yourself, like Pac-Man, wandering the labyrinth, but the paths are so highly regimented that you won’t get totally lost.

Yet as much as there is clarity and austerity, there is also unruliness, richness, intractability—Chong creates these compositions without any prior sketches, and the vibrant, textural, and tantalisingly multilayered compositions hide almost as much as they reveal.

Installation view of Labyrinths (Libraries) (2022–ongoing), acrylic on canvas, 61 x 46 x 3.5 cm each.

Pass the popcorn

Works On Paper #1: Notes on Roads, Trips, and other Slips and Falls (2024–present) encapsulates the many threads of the exhibition: information, order, chaos, and transgression. Calling to mind curator Hans Ulrich Obrist’s concept of “unrealised projects,” the Works On Paper series reinterprets ideas that Chong never managed to bring to fruition.

In #1, Chong reworks his original, 12-year-old idea—for a 365-day underground film festival taking place in a different home every time—into a set of posters. He’s plastered these posters onto the walls in a spectacular display, echoing the repetitive grid patterns of the other works. Both the pirated films in the original concept and the film stills in the posters (plucked from the Internet with no concern for copyright) point to a taste for modest transgression—it’s the same cheeky irreverence found in Oleanders

Installation view of Works On Paper #1: Notes on Roads, Trips, and other Slips and Falls.

But, for various reasons, Chong’s pirated film festival has never been fully realised; even the most incorrigible artist must face inevitable constraints.

Unruly ghosts

All in all, Meditations on Shadow Libraries is a tightly focused show, with an impressively distinctive visual character. It’s not difficult to see why the wall text describes it as both a set of works and a “giant single artwork by Heman Chong.” 

As Kuan Wood expresses, “[W]hen the objects are all only instances of ongoing investigations and sequences, it’s important to understand a certain continuous and endless nature to each of them … they start to become more of a continuous whole rather than just distinct sets of objects.” His hope, then, “was that by slightly undermining the originality or individuality of the works—or the different series of works—it might gently bolster this underlying sensibility that moves through the show and [Chong’s] work more generally.”

That everything hangs together so well is testament to not only sharp curation, but also the interconnectedness of Chong’s interests and unified nature of his practice.

But there remains another thread in the show we have yet to discuss—ghosts. Ghosts of demolished buildings in Eternal Returns, ghostly negatives of name cards in Still Building, and the spectral imprints of the 2023 series Bookmarks (Leaves), created using leaves left in library books by unknown strangers. 

From Bookmarks (Leaves) (series; 2023), embossed print on STPI handmade paper, 61 x 46 x 3.7 cm, edition of 3.

Says Kuan Wood: “Heman has an extremely subtle and delicate sense of mood in his works, which is sometimes quite melancholic in relation to ephemeral events and feelings, but even now when I use such terms it doesn’t seem to capture the quality.” This melancholic mood comes, partially, from the sense of a haunting, of a presence that is no longer there, yet paradoxically not quite gone.

In many ways, this makes a strange kind of sense with the other themes of the show. Ghosts, after all, are unruly elements, existing outside our convenient frameworks, at the farthest reaches of knowledge—things that slip through the cracks, that hide in the shadows.


Meditations on Shadow Libraries runs at the STPI Creative Workshop and Gallery till 10 March 2024.

Curious to read more about Chong’s practice? Check out our articles on The Library of Unread Books, Writing While Walking and Other Stories (2020), or his recipe for peanut porridge.

Header image: Installation view of The Library of Unread Books (2016–ongoing) and works from the Call for the Dead series (2020).

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