Singapore artist uses Straits Times to illustrate distortions of news media
A newspaper friendly to the Singapore government is the focus of Singaporean conceptual artist Heman Chong’s latest exhibition, in Hong Kong, which seeks to represent visually the way news is sometimes manipulated
Some of us will insist that not all news is “fake”. But non-journalists seem increasingly of the view that the media industry is nefarious – just ask POTUS (president of the United States) and Andrew Li, chairman of the Council of the University of Hong Kong.
Abstracts from The Straits Times, a new series by Singaporean conceptual artist Heman Chong, uses one of the best-known organs of state propaganda in Asia as raw material for a visual rumination about how news is distorted, consumed, regurgitated and reinforced.
Using a digital archive of old editions of the paper from 2010-17, he has remade (or rather, defaced) pages by scanning them and superimposing multiple copies on top of each other to the extent that the words are barely visible.
It is no secret that The Straits Times is closely monitored by Singapore’s government. But Chong says his work addresses the wider issue of documentaries versus propaganda, and the more surreptitious aspects of information transmission.
He is also spurred on by the frustration over Singapore’s reticence about speaking out. One of the pages he picked was published in 2016 and the headline on a story about the award-winning film Apprentice appeared to underplay the fact that it was about Singapore’s controversial death penalty.
“The film is all about the death penalty. We have this evasive way of talking in Singapore. I am like a teenager, wanting people to just say things out loud,” he says.
He is not saying it in Singapore, though. He says the decision to exhibit in Hong Kong first is simply to catch the Art Basel crowd in March. He is open to the idea of showing the works in Singapore, which ranks 151st (out of 180) in the latest World Press Freedom Index, but has no specific plan to do so at this time.
Chong first referenced the newspaper in his 2016 work Endless (Nights), an installation first shown at his solo exhibition at the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai. That was an installation made with bundles of around 10,000 copies of blank newspaper in the size of The Straits Times.
Chong says he was inspired by the ubiquitous sight of the stacks of bound and covered-up newspaper waiting to be delivered early in the morning, and how they could be seen as a symbol of information denied.
In Shanghai, visitors to the exhibition were asked to do whatever they liked with the bundles. Most people ripped the paper into shreds. A section of this work has been restaged in a side room in the gallery in Hong Kong.
Other artists have used newspaper as material recently, including Rirkrit Tiravanija for the Freedom Cannot be Simulated series that used newspaper pages such as some of the South China Morning Post’s coverage of the Occupy Central protest sit-ins that blocked major roads in Hong Kong in 2014.
Chong’s approach is quite a contrast from the rest of his work, which has always been about the love for words and an almost fetishistic adoration for books. He has designed book covers, he has set up pop-up bookshops, he has even helped organise writers residencies at Spring Workshop and the South London Gallery.
With “Abstracts”, he chooses to blur the words and turn newspaper into abstract art. The choice of newspaper could limit the impact of the series, as the audience will naturally zoom into the specificity of Singapore’s censorship, rather than contemplate broader questions about communication and neutrality.
Would it have been more interesting if he picked a different paper? One less associated with state control, perhaps? Chong says no. The Straits Times is the one he knows best, and he is not being apologetic about the works being about Singapore.
Heman Chong: Abstracts from The Straits Times, Rossi & Rossi, 3C Yally Industrial Building, 6 Yip Fat Street, Wong Chuk Hang, Tue-Sat 11am-6pm. Until Mar 31