“PEACE PROSPERITY AND FRIENDSHIP WITH ALL NATIONS,” declares a wall piece mounted beside the entrance to Heman Chong’s solo show at Singapore’s STPI. Written in an all-caps, dripping black font reminiscent of leaking bodily fluids and suggesting violence, the arresting phrase—which lends the exhibition its title—is lifted from a British coin minted to commemorate the UK’s formal withdrawal from the European Union on January 31, 2020. Direct and ambiguous, official and hilarious, the piece combines the playful language of conceptual art with the immediacy and seriousness of contemporary history. In doing so, it sets the tone for an exhibition that brings into focus the artist’s powerful use of appropriation, abstraction, and repetition in addressing the restrictiveness and complexity of the present.

In Call for the Dead (2020)—83 black-and-white scans of pages from the eponymous 1961 novel by John Le Carré, screen-printed on linen and hung in a grid-like formation in a long, white-walled gallery—Chong takes his experiments with text into new territory. The Cold War fantasies of the mid-century spy genre might here be read as a comment on decoloniality: the novel was written while Le Carré was working as a spy for MI6—which had a regional outpost in Singapore. Chong has intervened in this text by redacting everything but the verbs: “killed […] fired […] remembered […] fought,” reads one cluster. Among the most impactful yet enigmatic works in the show, the prints have an ambiguous quality, at once pictorial and linguistic, physical and seemingly immaterial. Chong is a writer as well as an artist, and his engagement with historical, political, fictional, and philosophical texts—as indicated here—point to an interest in how knowledge and power are constructed through the interplay of images and words.

As the repeated pages in Call for the Dead indicate, the grid—with its flattened, geometric, and ordered structure—is a motif of this exhibition. In the 2018 photo series “Foreign Affairs,” for instance, Chong has photographed the back entrances of embassies and printed them in a grid formation on canvases and on curtains, where regimented sequences of images depict windows, fences, doors, mirrors, gates, brick walls, and barbed wire overgrown with plants. Out of these repetitions and variations emerges the sense of an architectural type: the artist here seems interested in bringing to light how the mythical function of embassies, as symbols of protection and power, are physically constituted.

The latent geometric formalism of these works comes to the fore in the artist’s The Circuit Breaker Paintings (2020), a series of paintings in red, gray, beige and blue that are hung—again in a grid formation—across two walls. Chong painted a work on each of the 56 days of Singapore’s nationwide partial lockdown, imposed in a strategy known as a “circuit breaker,” in the early summer of 2020. Each painting adopts the same outline: a rectangle divided into quarters by a cross. These X-shapes may bring to mind the tape used across the city to prevent people sitting on seats at dining outlets, malls, parks, and cinemas, in order to ensure social distancing. Working against this standardization, however, is the hand-painted nature of the work, including occasional phrases (“OH GOD,” reads one), which convey his own anxious response to the pandemic. And yet there is something oddly cheerful about Chong’s ubiquitous Xs—the vibrant colours and decorative pattern convey a sense of pluck, as if they are determined to carry on, no matter what.

Grids appear elsewhere in the show. Safe Entry (Version 2.0 – 2.7) (2020) comprises eight tall panels of acrylic paintings modelled after a national digital check-in system called SafeEntry, which logs visits by individuals to public places and hotspots in Singapore using QR codes. With their motifs of square cells and pixeled formations, picked out in brown against a yellow background, Chong’s painted—and repeated—QR code is enlarged to the point of abstraction, which opens it up to a range of interpretations: a house, a prison, a computer chip, a piece of machinery. In doing so, it suggests that the cell is a symbol of contemporary life: isolated, immobilized, and under surveillance. As warlord politics, artificial intelligence, and Covid-19 encroach on everyday reality, and while compelling visions of a better future remain distant, Chong’s works feel timely in their suggestion that the mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.