BY FIEL ESTRELLA
PHOTOGRAPHS BY NIKKI BONUEL

Launched recently at the new art space Calle Wright in Malate, Heman Chong and Gary-Ross Pastrana’s two-man show “Never is a Promise” is more a conversation than an exhibit. But Chong clarifies that it goes beyond spoken discussion; rather, it is a continuous exchange of ideas across different mediums and senses.

The art pieces occupy the space, a converted two-storey house built in 1956, in unconventional ways, some of them installed outside on the yard fence and in the driveway, seemingly haphazardly strewn about in cabinets, or even stored inside a working freezer in the kitchen. They take on many forms and colors, but one thing remains the same: they were all forgotten, abandoned, or neglected by the artists, and perhaps require reexamination and reconsideration.

 

Simple Sabotage, by Heman Chong

Heman Chong

“Everything’s a little off,” concedes Chong, who adds that the show was a way for him and Pastrana to think about each other’s work. “The show and tell was a crucial part of this project  for us.”

The introductory work in “Never is a Promise” is Simple Sabotage, a literal wall of text that takes its name from the 1944 OSS (a precursor of the CIA) document from which it borrows a paragraph. The quote is a set of instructions given to agents for infiltrating and disrupting countries and organizations. “What you’re looking at is the very genesis of middle management,” Chong explains.

Chong’s work similarly borrows from other symbols and imagery that are well known to the general public, whether they’re seen on television, things we carry daily, or even all around us. Take the infamous “I Want to Believe” poster from The X-Files, for example. The Ed Ruscha-inspired piece has its central focus—a UFO—replaced with a gaping black hole, and instead of being perpetually pristine in Fox Mulder’s office, here it is exposed to elements, crumbling and fading. In this context, Chong says, “this idea of belief is constantly challenged.”

He has also put his own spin on the menacing, “fascist-looking” Beware of Dog signs often used in Singapore as “criminal deterrents,” leaving marks in various art spaces. In the kitchen, a list or poem made up of opposing imperatives can be found between the sink and refrigerator, owing to Chong’s observation that a lot of discussions and actions take place in the kitchen, which in turn say a lot about familiarity and relationships.

On one wall, a close-up detail of a £5 note which Chong had submitted for charity auctions in Hong Kong is placed next to a photograph he had found in his hard drive that wasn’t meant to be art: his own hand with a paper cut, a drop of blood threatening to spill out.

“It really reminded me a lot of the main difference between my work and Gary’s work,” says Chong. His work, he explains, hardly ever contains traces of the body, while Pastrana’s work is practically built upon it.

 

I Want to Believe, by Heman Chong

 

For all the “lost” artwork it has collected, “Never is a Promise” also features one piece from each artist that he considers his most well-known, and for Chong, there was no question about it: He had to include his most-exhibited work, Monument to the people we’ve conveniently forgotten (I hate you), which was first shown in 2008. The work consists of approximately one million blank black business cards loosely placed on the floor, and though they appear simple, they evoke a certain melancholy. Additionally, their cultural implications and connotations are far-reaching and diverse, touching on identity, business, death, protest, even race.

“I wanted to make a kind of work that appropriates something that we all know,” Chong says. “But then by reproducing this object it becomes somehow foreign.” It’s interesting to him to see what one million objects look like when held in a certain space.

“It fills a whole space, it’s beautiful, it’s interactive,” he adds. It’s also the type of artwork that tends to take on a life of its own, taking on many forms. Chong recalls people posing with the cards, burying themselves in it, and making “snow angels,” and some collectors even steal the cards. “It’s something about work that is constantly appealing to me. [It] does not resist destruction.”

In his work, Chong insists, “I would never tell people what they can or cannot do.” He mentions how galleries often restrict the visitors’ interaction with the art; in his opinion, they should have more liberties to feel and connect with it however they please. “This is also my aspiration for art spaces, that they should never be founded on consensus.”

These days, Chong is at work on a novel called The Book of Drafts, to be published in 2019. When he reaches a block in writing, he starts painting. “No sarcasm, no irony,” he shares, “I am interested in becoming a painter.” So far, he has produced three series of paintings. The most recent, from which four pieces are on display at Calle Wright, is a series “literally about painting itself.”

Chong laughs as he discloses that the first 20 paintings were “terrible.” When he ran out of storage, he gave some away to friends, but kept the first as a marker. The paintings hanging at Calle Wright—depicting the house’s own grill works and windows—are his latest, and so far, he has reached #111.

“I’m at a point in [where I am] ready to somehow start over again,” he says of painting. But looking at his work—always evolving, always existing in various forms and shapes—he may as well be saying it about his art as a whole.

“Never is a Promise” is open to the public until May 26, 2018, at Calle Wright, located at 1890 Vasquez Street, Malate, Manila.

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