Heman Chong is a storyteller obsessed with stories. His precisely constructed works take the reader into a world where equal weighting is given both to small private acts of creation, and to the great moments of life and death. ‘An Arm, A Leg and Other Stories’ looks at the nature of narrative, how we consume it and our active role in its creation.
There is a pleasing contrast between the bright white of the South London Gallery walls and the floor, made a slick black by the million business cards that cover it (‘Monument to the people we’ve conveniently forgotten (I hate you)’). They are hard to walk on, possibly even more hazardous than Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds. With their uniform blankness they suggest a million redacted names, a million stories censored and expunged. This feeling of didactic control is confirmed by the sign on the wall, copied from a real sign that exists in Singapore, reserving the space for ‘COMMUNITY BONDING ACTIVITIES ONLY’. The sign is absurd in its new setting, telling the story of a place where rules of enjoyment are strictly enforced; though it is in English, it somehow doesn’t translate. And yet, unspoken rules of conduct always govern our interactions within a space. To walk upon an artwork may not be original, but it is an infringement that connects people and continues to thrill.
Themes of control, censorship, what it means to remember and to be remembered are explored in both ‘Surfacing’ and the performance of ‘An Arm, A Leg’. ‘Surfacing’ is a unique interaction between Chong and whoever installs the thousands of red, triangular stickers directly onto the gallery wall. Chong provided loose instructions for the installer to communicate the body of the work while he defined the parameters. The effect is of abstraction and simultaneous purpose like a murmuration of starlings: nothing is chance and nothing is meaning.
Twice every Wednesday ‘An Arm, A Leg’ is performed. A participant is taught to recite Chong’s 500-word story by an instructor. The pair do not leave the space until the story can be recited word perfect back to the instructor. It is a daunting and difficult challenge. The whole event takes place in the main space with people walking (and falling) all around them. The performance is not filmed or recorded, there is nobody except the instructor to decide whether or not it is repeated accurately. Publication exists through transference of energy rather than by creating a physical thing. When it is finished nothing happens. They shake hands and the participant leaves the space, their mind full of the story, the specifics and the details becoming more and more unsure. Chong has no control over the afterlife of this piece; the individual is used as a material in a work that they now irrevocably own. Are there rules that govern a linear narrative in art? Or, rather, is it a continual slippage, an overlapping of the artist opening up their world and the audience picking through it and making it their own?