Heman Chong: Never, A Dull Moment
Art Sonje Center (137-5 Hwa-dong, Jongno-gu), Feb 7–Mar 29, 2015
We are greeted at Heman Chong’s new exhibition with a banner hanging backwards, printed with the words “Welcome!”—the exhibition helpfully explains that its purpose is to “(un)welcome” the audience. In this respect, we can say that Chong delivers. The exhibition space is filthy with dust and tape remnants, and has footprints crossing the floor. Yet despite the debris, the exhibition hall feels somewhat empty. The artworks are intentionally installed in ill-advised ways, considering the size of the space. While the museum’s characteristic fan-shaped wall allows—or forces—the audience to take in the entire space in one glance, the curators have chosen not to install the works in the viewer’s line of sight. The only prominently placed piece is the reversed “welcome” sign.
This show seems intended to stimulate the audience by creating an unfamiliar environment—curated as an inside-joke, an attempt at institutional critique. Ashtrays have been placed in the show because the space prohibits smoking; water is constantly being boiled to create vapor which would create havoc with the climate control of the museum; traces of a past exhibition have been left on purpose; the floor remains unswept for the duration of the show. Such staged scenes seek to create a starkly different art viewing experience. A video that pauses the moment the first viewer enters the space resonates with the back-to-front banner.
These actions derive, perhaps, from the project’s starting point; Chong approached it as a short story to personify a non-profit art space having reached middle age. The show is therefore entwined in very personal and speculative sentiments. Art Sonje Center opened at the beginning of the 21st Century. With the eminent curator Sunjung Kim, the Center positioned itself as an avant-garde space which would propel the Korean contemporary at scene forward. However, from the late 2000s, when the nation was floundering in economic crisis, Art Sonje Center was criticized for having lost its original vigor, falling back on more traditional modes of international exchange. Art Sonje Center is scheduled to undergo extensive renovation this September.
Beyond this backdrop, the art space deemed “middle-aged” in this exhibition is in fact the art system itself. Thus, reference to the art system is premised on a judgment that the visually based intellectual journey that certain people of a certain region have briefly participated in for around two decades is no longer valid. Here is a Singaporean artist in his late thirties confronted with a “middle-aged” contemporary art museum in Korea that has met a moderate decline and is contemplating its next step; this show constitutes his response.
The show projects a kind of tired and perhaps somewhat spiteful “oh well” sort of apathy. “Whether you worry or not, this is how it always is”, it seems to say. Is the sole purpose of this exhibition to deliver the news that art will endlessly repeat the past until the conformist nature of the system grinds it down? This message is hard to greet with any degree of welcome.