Artist Heman Chong explores the infrastructure of nationalism through his Foreign Affairs project, in which he photographs the back doors of embassies
This is the island of Singapore.
I am from Singapore.
Singapore is the kind of state with the kind of government that acts like a disapproving East Asian father who loves to tell you what to do, where it should be done, and exactly when and how.
This is a sign that's right outside where I live. I have appropriated this as an artwork. This sign, shown out of context, is incredibly funny. And sad.
But I wasn't born in Singapore. I was born in a small, sleepy fishing village called Muar, which is located on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, about two hours from Singapore. I was born in 1977. I fall into a very common category that many Singaporeans and Malaysians are actually a part of, whether they want to admit it openly or not. I have friends who would rather die than admit that they are half Malaysian, or half Singaporean—to have a set of parents from two extremely different countries, which were in fact one country before 9 August 1965.
For a very long time, there has been a certain level of porousness that permeates the region, with goods, people, ideas, and cuisines, moving fluidly not only between Malaysia and Singapore, but also between the islands of Batam and Bintan—islands of Indonesia. The idea that Singapore is a stand-alone Asian miracle is, for sure, a very new thing, and a very good story in our clean, globalised, and corporate world.
Singapore, as you might know, is the only country in the world that has gained independence from another country without a revolution or a war. It was simply rejected, and then subsequently ejected, from Malaysia. This is a very long story to get into, and I'll save it for another lecture. But to get to the point: because of this one separation event, from the moment of my birth I have been subjected to THREE laws governing citizenship in Singapore.
The first law: ‘A person born outside Singapore before 15 May 2004 will be a Singaporean citizen by descent only if their father was a Singaporean citizen by birth or by registration at the time of birth.’
This basically means that I remain Malaysian because my dad is Malaysian, EVEN IF my mother is Singaporean. It's totally sexist.
The second law: ‘The position of the Singapore Government is that dual citizenship is not allowed.’
This means that I can become a registered resident of Singapore, but only as a guest: I have to retain my Malaysian citizenship. My father, like myself, became a Permanent Resident in Singapore.
And finally, the third law: ‘Sons who take up permanent residency under the sponsorship of their Permanent Resident parent, are required by law to serve National Service, just like Singaporean male citizens.’
Following the completion of their military service, Permanent Residents are given the option to apply for Singapore citizenship.
This would mean that ONLY upon my completion of two and a half years of military service in Singapore could I renounce my Malaysian citizenship and finally be bestowed Singaporean citizenship. In a nutshell, my mind and my body have been militarised against a country I was born in.
We can see, very clearly, that Singapore's sovereignty and national belonging is constructed upon the telling and re-telling of stories of our neighbours as 'lesser', 'dirty', 'unsuccessful', 'backward', 'not Asian enough', or 'too Western'. This is cultural warfare, reminiscent of the Cold War. And we're very, very good at it.
This is a door.
This is another door.
Here is another.
For a couple of months now, I have been walking around different cities in search of embassies.
But rather than the view you see here:
I am attempting to collect THIS view—this unheroic, neglected, silent view. As far as I'm concerned, this is still a part of an embassy. It's just the part that no one wants you to know about.
I think we can all agree that nationalism is a kind of fiction: a way of telling a story to produce some sort of an agreement about what is real and what is not, just like money, or the law. These things allow us as human beings to somehow agree with each other in a way that enables the formation of something like a cooperative: a union that allows us to interact with each other in order to dominate the planet, or the exact opposite. In most cases, it is a mix of both.
A lot of my work involves looking at and thinking about the infrastructure of our built environment, including our societies. Architect and urbanist Keller Easterling describes infrastructure as the ‘overt point of contact and access, where the underlying rules of the world can be clasped in the space of everyday life’. This resonates with my experience of growing up in Singapore, and a series of encounters with how policies by politicians exert their absolute power over the built environment and consciousness of the public at large.
Infrastructure points to things that are often invisible: things that need to work smoothly, without a glitch. Within this framework, I see my practice—my entanglements with fiction writing, organising visuals structures, collecting ideas and observations—as testing the limits of infrastructure and the hidden power structures behind it.
In this realm, everything is soft and pliable. For example, instead of falling back on identity politics as hard fact and doctrine, I would often highlight these politics as something that is constantly shifting and contested, and something that needs to be complicated rather than simplified like a cheap sitcom, where everything has to be resolved by the end of every episode.
Standing on the street, standing at the borders of these architectures marked as 'another country', I feel excluded; and within this moment, I am curious about the possible slippages that allow entry into these territories.
I am looking at a back door into a system. A country is a system. Systems are coded by a person or a group of persons.
The back doors of embassies are mostly used for pizza deliveries or other random things. They are also used for the hassle-free comings and goings of the ambassador’s family members. I stand at these back doors and I imagine that they are used to smuggle secrets between countries. I stand at these doors and imagine encounters that transcend red tape.
Most of these doors remain unmarked, which I think is a security thing. If you think about it, you need less protection with something that is camouflaged and unnamed. Mostly, except for the presence of a security camera, or a high tech buzzer, it'll take a lot of walking and surveying to tell that a door is the back door to an embassy.
Except maybe for this one, which is completely ridiculous and is exceptionally revealing that it is a back door. I mean, seriously guys, whoever this architect is, you should definitely fire them.
I have photographed about 300 back doors of embassies, and I think I'll just keep going on and on. It's a project that is kind of endless.
I also include buildings that were previously inhabited by embassies, like this one, which is highly recognisable in the city centre of The Hague in the Netherlands. The city is now attempting to sell the building to a private developer, hinting that they could use a new hotel—talk about foreign affairs.
In this project, I've opted not to reveal which back door is attached to whichever embassy because I don't think I am interested in a literal exposé of back doors.
What I am prepared to do is to openly admit that I might be completely wrong about some of these doors being back doors. I'm not trying to lie, but sometimes I might be just plain wrong about the door I've photographed, which really isn't a back door, but maybe a door to a small storage room or something. Like, for example, this one. I really can't decide if this is the back door or just the door to the garage that leads to a back door?
We often want to know everything, but that is an impossible task. There's so much we don't know about this world. We live in a constant state of unknowing. I guess what I'm trying to say is: I would rather be wrong, than to not have a document of what I think is the back door.
So basically, these photographs are part of a subjective collection of where and which door I think is the back door to a certain embassy, which I consider by walking in circles around the building.
I don't deal with hard fact. I write fiction and that's what I'm doing here.
In order to communicate this subjectivity, I don't ever want to show these photos as documentary photographs. I'd like to show them, repeated, infinitely. I think by doing this, it forces someone to read the image as if it were a page of text in a book.
I want to repeat these images on surfaces, like the patterns you see on old-school Windows 95 desktops or something. They kind of resemble footage from a surveillance camera; the viewer of this series is always placed in a position to look for activity around these doors, rather than look AT the door.
I think I'll put them on canvases and prints and Christmas wrapping paper and curtains and on mugs and on t-shirts and postcards and banners and socks and tabletops and bus seats.
I want these secrets—these things in politics that are unsaid, invisible, and sinister—to be on everything.
I want to end with a sentence that the Malaysian artist Redza Piyadasa wrote on a sculpture in 1977, the year I was born. It is a sentence that has influenced my work greatly over the years.
He wrote: ‘A fact has no appearance’.
This text was originally presented at Field Meeting Take 6: Thinking Collections (25–26 January 2019), the 6th edition of Asia Contemporary Art Week’s annual forum curated by ACAW Director Leeza Ahmady, and held at Alserkal Avenue, Dubai.
This article was originally published on Podium, M+ Stories.
Heman Chong (Malaysia, 1977) is an artist whose work is located at the intersection between image, performance, situations, and writing. His practice can be read as an imagining, interrogation, and sometimes intervention into infrastructure as an everyday medium of politics. He received his Masters in Communication Art & Design from The Royal College of Art, London in 2002. He lives and works on Depot Road, Singapore.
Keller Easterling, The Action is the Form. Victor Hugo’s TED Talk (Strelka Press: 2012), 116