Review of Heman Chong: An Arm, a Leg, and Other Stories, South London Gallery

Invisible forces are at work in the South London Gallery’s main room, which contains all but one of the visual, performance, and situational works from Heman Chong’s An Arm, a Leg, and Other Stories. Though many of these pieces intersect physically, verging even on clutter, they are delimited and brought to life by the flow and manipulation of authority around them.

The most striking work initially is Monument to the People We’ve Conveniently Forgotten (I hate you) (2008), consists of thousands of blacked out business cards blanketing the gallery floor. While the cards themselves highlight and negate the exchange of information, capital, and labour, their configuration has a more direct effect: At the entrance to the room an indent is maintained, like a path shovelled in black snow, leaving a small patch of familiar gallery parquet where the exhibit begins. Most visitors – myself included – hesitate at this first frontier and, though we may see others already walking on the cards – on the art – the gallery space and its conventions still bear down with the brief and liberating rush of the sacrilegious.

THIS PAVILION IS STRICTLY FOR COMMUNITY BONDING ACTIVITIES ONLY” reads a sign on the left wall, a replica of one seen by Chong in Singapore, adding with a sense of irony to the authoritarian signifiers of gallery and text, and deconstructing them on site.

Much of the writing around Chong discusses his interest in modes of exchange, and the interactions happening around and through art. However, the current exhibition seems equally concerned in highlighting, quite literally, where the lines are drawn and, in so doing, enabling their examination. To this effect, cutting the gallery in half is a red rope with metal hooks – a well known trope of the exhibition space – constituting one of Chong’s new commissions: Rope, Barrier, Boundary (2015). Of an artistic space, this piece makes two places: one for viewer, and one for artist. Even the black cards and the piece they constitute are, in this way, divided.

Across the rope, in a space denied us as viewers, is An Arm, A Leg (2015), a performance piece where a volunteer memorises a 500 word story written by Chong and transmitted orally by an instructor. The performance is informal, unstructured but for its communicative purpose; the performers move around freely, chat in-between attempts at recital, and drink coffee. Here their interpretation intersects with the viewer’s, as it does in Index (Down), the 12th iteration of Chong’s Surfacing series (2009) where 3,000 self-adhesive stickers are applied to a high wall according to a loose set of rules designated by the artist. As with the red rope and blacked out cards, the height of the piece and its aesthetic – like pins remaining on a map since erased – obfuscate the rules of engagement, exchange, and significance between artist and viewer.

In clouding these relations, Chong urges that they be discussed. On the right wall of the space are 66 selected paintings from three series including abstract cover designs for well-known books and texts from spam emails. The work effectively highlights the value and legitimacy we ascribe to different texts; however, there is something aesthetically unsatisfying about the paintings, which are neither design nor true abstraction. The redesign or reappropriation of book covers has been done so often, that here it seems lazy. This is especially the case given that Inclusion(s) (2015), another new commission situated in the gallery’s shop and involving the selling of selected second hand books, proves Chong can treat the subject in more original ways.

Ultimately this exhibition seeks to open up possibilities for discussion and, with two writer’s residencies created on site as part of a further commission, films selected by Chong screened throughout January, a performance of the artist’s own writing on 18 February, and a public conversation between the resident writers on 27 February, there’s plenty to talk about.

Ned Carter Miles

Heman Chong: An Arm, a Leg, and Other Stories, until 28 February, South London Gallery, 65-67 Peckham Rd, London SE5 8UH.

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1. Heman Chong, An Arm, A Leg and Other Stories, 2015. Installation view at the South London Gallery. Courtesy the artist and Wilkinson Gallery. Photo: Andy Keate.