Muar-born, Singapore-based artist Heman Chong has always been interested in books and writing. In the past, his work often questions the function of the production of the narrative in our everyday lives. Chong has presented internationally, in places as diverse as London to Seoul, New York to Bangkok, and of course, Singapore, not to mention plenty of biennales. Concerns in his exhibitions range from the act of reading, to the object of the book itself, particularly with second hand books rejected from libraries and later discarded, only to be rediscovered by new eyes later on.
This November, teaming up with Theatreworks, Chong will be presenting an all new installation art piece at 72-13, which will be especially appealing to insomniacs and night owls out there. Why you ask? The reason is simple: Because, The Night opens only from 10pm – 4am each day!
An immersive bookshop, Because, The Night is based on a curated list of 50 books that touch on some of the most important issues we face in our life today. From Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go to Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta, no topic goes unturned in these works, from inequality to racism, forced migration to climate change. For Chong, the image of a bookshop encompasses many things: a depository of ideas, but at the same time, a social space in which individuals exchange ways of reading and seeing ideas, and in Because, The Night, becomes a gathering space for the nocturnal.
In conjunction with the strange bookshop, Chong will also be showcasing two sculptural works – Stacks, a selection from one of Chong’s better known series that comprise of free standing compositions involving precarious stacks of fragile objects, and After Hours, as large sculptures resembling open air stalls stalk the bookshop, representing the usual stalls bound up in cloth after regular closing hours.
We spoke to Heman about the inspiration behind the bookshop, his process of coming up with the list of books to be displayed, and his ongoing obsession with the written word and narratives:
BCM: Most of your artworks have an ongoing fascination with books, narratives and writing. When and how did this obsession start?
Heman: For a long time, I couldn’t write, and I was often sad, and I didn’t know why. Now that I’m writing, I’m still sad, but now at least I know it’s not because I couldn’t write. I guess this thing that I have with stories and situations has always been with me ever since I was very young. I remember that I’ll always ask for books when it comes to gifts and I have an immense collection of ‘Choose your own adventure’ books from the 80s.
I lack any aspiration to write ‘properly’, or maybe because I just can’t write a story that has a beginning, middle or end. I have been working on novels since 2006 and I’ve actually written one, and sent it to a friend to read. She read it and mailed it back to me with a pink Post-it note saying : “Honey, it’s not very good. You might want to rewrite it.”
(Just for the record, I am still extremely angry with whoever is responsible for demolishing the old library on Stamford Road. I will never, NEVER forgive you for destroying the building in which I read my first book.)
Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, one of the books to be displayed and sold
BCM: What was the inspiration behind Because, The Night, and how does its title encapsulate the ideas you wish to bring across with the bookshop?
Heman: I must have re-read Roberto Bolano’s 2666 at least six times over. I have immense respect for this book, this last novel from Bolano. It remained unfinished. According to his publisher, a month before he died, Bolano himself said that there was over a thousand pages that had to be revised. He was very sick for a very long time. Everything in this novel is about death, dying or the dead. In a way, this book is the starting point for this bookshop. The novel, somehow, pointed me to the title, which is appropriate from a song sung by Patti Smith (but actually written by Bruce Springsteen).
I’ve always loved going to bookshops at night. For years now, I would stay till the very last minute at Kinokuniya, and walk home quietly. It’s something I enjoy a lot. There’s not much interesting night life in Singapore outside of the usual boring ‘let’s go out and drink’. I guess this late night bookshop is a kind of proposal for Singapore, for people who like books and being out at night, but don’t like to drink themselves silly.
Isabel Greenberg’s The Encyclopaedia of Early Earth, one of the books to be displayed and sold
BCM: Given the odd opening hours of the bookshop, what kind of visitors are you expecting? Can you give any advice on the kind of mindset they should put themselves in before entering?
Heman: I’ve given up on expecting anything in life years ago after a huge panic attack in Hong Kong so I’m really not expecting anything. I feel very strongly that our world today is full of ‘do this, don’t do that’ and I don’t want to add to these kinds of instructive mode so my advice is to people who are coming to the bookshop : Do whatever the f*** you want.
But I can tell you something very important which is that I am a big fan of Kurt Vonnegut and he wrote up these rules for writing, and one of them, which I adhere to as doctrine is “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.” The moral of the story is: I’m not f***ing with you.
BCM: Describe the process of curating the list of books down to the final 50 – how did you decide on the titles, and what criteria did you use in the final decision?
Heman: The books are culled from a conversation I had with strangers and friends on Facebook. In fact, I didn’t finish reading many of the books that are sold in the bookshop. For me, the process is always in progress and nothing is ever really finished. When I was younger, people would constantly tell me that I talk too much. I think as a result, a whole lot of what I do these days involve talking to people, in one way or another.
BCM: What keeps you lying awake at night?
Heman: I mostly sleep at 4 am (hence the bookshop closing at 4 am) and I wake up around 11 am, so I can’t do morning meetings but sometimes I have to, and it’s almost always a f***ing disaster. Things like this keep me up at night.
As 72-13 transforms into a refuge for the sleepless and creatures of the night, Because, The Night continues Chong’s intersection between image, performance, situations and writing, and will no doubt be a place of endless fascination for keen bookworms who stay up all night long reading. This November, discover the secrets of this odd bookshop and mingle with other readers at this truly unique setup, and stay till the wee hours of the morning chatting, or simply curling up with a good book.
Because, The Night is open 9th – 11th and 16th – 18th November at 72-13, Mohamed Sultan Road Singapore 239008 between 10pm and 4am (last admission at 3.15am). Admission is free.