Artist Isaac Chong Wai likes bringing people closer together – very, very much closer together. In one of his earliest artistic experiments, he put a tiny camera in his mouth and asked people to kiss him. The little lens recorded the locking of lips and tongues. After that, in 2012, for his work Equilibrium No.6—Distance, he asked two performers to stand as close together as possible, so close that their eyelashes brushed when they blinked. One of the participants was so moved by the moment of intimacy that she started crying. More recently, in the public performances he is best known for, Chong has had people cover each other’s eyes with their hands, weave their arms together, lift each other off the ground and much more.
This physical closeness creates a feeling of vulnerability that underpins much of Chong’s work. And that, he hopes, unlocks the possibility for his art to bring viewers as close together emotionally as the performers are physically. Through his use of the human body—and its proximity, or distance, to others—Chong encourages people to reflect on big ideas of community, migration, history and memory.
“I think it connects to my experiences in Hong Kong,” says Chong, who grew up in the city before he moved to Germany in 2013 to pursue a master’s degree in public art and new artistic strategies. “Hong Kong is a place where everyone is so physically close, but at the same time people can feel very far away. You often don’t really get to know your neighbours. When I grew up, I never really met some of the people who were living on the same floor as me. So that’s the starting point. It was a very simple starting point. I wanted to get closer to people.”
Two of Chong’s upcoming projects are live group performances that draw upon his long-held desire to bring people together while reflecting on the trauma of the world wars. The first is taking place in Basel, Switzerland on September 4, and the second is happening over two nights at ifa Gallery in Berlin on September 15 and 16. Chong started reflecting on specific historical events in his art soon after he moved to Germany. “When I was studying in Hong Kong, I’d say history was boring,” he says. “Back then I had a problematic way of looking at history. I thought history was a series of facts, which is not true. History is not fact.”
Instead, Chong sees history as a series of stories that humans tell to help each other better understand ourselves, our families, our nations and the world more broadly. Living in Germany crystallised this opinion, as Chong found himself surrounded by countless monuments to the horror of the two world wars. These statues were not dusty, overlooked memorials to long-forgotten events. Rather, Chong found, they continued to shape the present by encouraging people to constantly reflect on the past. “I first lived in Weimar and the whole city is like a museum,” says Chong, who lived in the city for two years before moving in 2015 to Berlin, where he has been based ever since.
Germany is a particularly interesting place for Chong to explore how art can commemorate history and, in the process, shape contemporary identity. The country is unique in that many of its national monuments do not celebrate moments of national pride or achievement, but instead proclaim national shame for the country’s Nazi past. Berlin is at the centre of this never-ending public penance, with its many memorials to WWII, perhaps most famously the sprawling Holocaust Memorial comprised of thousands of concrete slabs.
Chong’s upcoming performance in Basel, titled Difference/Indifference, is a meditation both on what people remember, and on what people choose to forget – specifically, it is an exploration of Switzerland’s neutrality during both world wars. The work has been commissioned by Kunsttage Basel, a city-wide festival of contemporary art, and is curated by Angelika Li, co-founder and curatorial director of PF25 Cultural Projects, a non-profit organisation that aims to build connections between Hong Kong and Switzerland. “Angelika and I were talking a lot about the position of being neutral,” says Chong. “What does it mean when someone is neutral? Do we see this neutral person or entity as a witness? Or something else?”
The work is loosely based on a previous piece, Seeing/Unseeing, which Chong performed at the Kunsthalle Hamburg in June. Final details of the Basel performance were still being finalised at the time of writing, but Chong hopes that at least 15 performers will take part. He always issues an open call for his performances, rather than hiring professionals. “I want people to feel comfortable. And I want to work with people who want to work on the project,” he says.
Difference/Indifference is centred around the act of looking. For part of the piece, Chong is planning to have one performer be stared at intently by all the others. Then, slowly, one by one, the others will look away, until eventually they are all ignoring the person they used to be focused on. Another segment might feature the performers standing in a circle, all facing in one direction and each holding the head of the person in front of them. As they begin to walk forwards, each performer will begin moving the head of the person in front of them, deciding what they look at.
The performance raises many questions: what draws our attention and for how long? Do we choose what we look at, or do larger powers dictate what we see? Are all people equally guilty for their indifference? But the work offers no clear answers. This openness is important to Chong, though he does admit that the title of this performance was inspired by a speech given at the White House in 1999 by Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel. The speech was titled “The Perils of Indifference” and Wiesel said: “Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred … And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor, never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten.”
Chong explains: “I won’t say the work is directly connected to Wiesel’s speech but it’s a very inspiring speech that made me think about the word ‘indifference’ and the dangers of being indifferent.”
As with much of Chong’s work, Difference/Indifference uses historical events as a starting point to reflect on contemporary phenomena. “I’ve been thinking about people who are passionate about being ignorant,” he says. Chong doesn’t refer to anyone by name, but it is hard not to think of the former US president Donald Trump, who was proudly anti-intellectual, and other populist politicians who have publicly rejected facts that contradict their own narratives.
Chong’s other upcoming project, the group exhibition Spheres of Interest* at ifa Gallery in Berlin, examines how an artist was affected by WWI. The ifa Gallery is a branch of the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen, a government-funded organisation that supports artistic and cultural exchange programmes. Earlier this year, ifa commissioned several artists to respond to a work of their choice in its collection. Chong chose Die Mütter (The Mothers) (1922-23), a woodcut print by Käthe Kollwitz that depicts a group of women clutching each other in a group hug. “Käthe Kollwitz is a very important German artist,” says Chong. “Her story is that she lost her son during the First World War and since then, in a lot of her works, you can see the mourning process as she grieves for her lost son.”
Although Kollwitz made her works in direct response to WWI, her art has slowly taken on greater significance in the German public imagination and is now often used as a tribute to all those who have suffered in war, including victims of WWII and the Holocaust. An enlarged version of her bronze sculpture Mutter mit totem Sohn (Mother with her dead son), made by Harald Haacke, is displayed at the centre of Berlin’s Neue Wache, a national memorial to the victims of war and dictatorship.
Chong has devised a performance based on Die Mütter that features a group of people who band together in a group hug and sing as they slowly turn in a circle. The songs are a mixture of pieces from around the world, ranging from Sanskrit mantras to German choir music. “It’s about how singing and chanting helps us to enter the process of mourning,” he says. “I think this turning in a circle for me also has a lot to do with death and birth as well.” The cyclical nature of the work can also be interpreted as a comment on the ceaselessness of human conflict. The world wars are in the past, but the grief caused by war is very present. Less than 1,000 kilometres away from Chong’s performance in Berlin, battles are raging in Ukraine.
Chong has worked in various mediums over the course of his career, including sculpture, drawing, installation, video, painting and photography, but his most consistent medium is performance. He was first drawn to performance as a student, when he learned about artists from the 1960s onwards who made ephemeral work that was more about ideas than materiality – and which often couldn’t be sold, so it stood as a protest against the transactional nature of much of the art world.
But there was also a practical reason Chong turned to performance. “I think in the very beginning, why I started doing performance is that I didn’t really have the money to make something else. And in Hong Kong, I didn’t have the space to make anything else.”
Although Chong has now lived outside of Hong Kong for nearly a decade, critics continue to find echoes of the city in his work. It is easy to speculate that his artistic meditations on power, community and belonging must stem from his experiences in his hometown, which in Chong’s lifetime has changed from a British colony into a special administrative region of China. One of Chong’s videos in particular, Rehearsal of the Futures: Police Training Exercises (2018), which featured performers dressed as riot police, seemed like an eerie premonition about Hong Kong. It was released a year before the city was rocked by pro-democracy demonstrations, some of which featured violent clashes between police and protesters.
Chong, of course, is not a prophet. But nor was it a total coincidence that protests erupted in Hong Kong soon after he had made a work about riot police. This sequence of events simply illustrated what Chong has suggested in much of his art: that history is cyclical, that there will always be people with power who manipulate people with none, and that there is no end in sight for human conflict. Or as Chong puts it: “the past is constantly being renewed again.”
Difference/Indifference will be performed at Basler Münster, Münsterplatz 9, 4051 Basel, Switzerland from 4pm to 4:45pm on September 4, 2022
Spheres of Interest* runs until September 18, 2022, at ifa Gallery Linienstraße 139-140, 10115 Berlin, Germany. Die Mütter will be performed live on September 15 and 16.