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There is no political solution
To our troubled evolution
Have no faith in constitution
There is no bloody revolution

We are spirits in the material world
Are spirits in the material world
Are spirits in the material world
Are spirits in the material world

Our so-called leaders speak
With words they try to jail you
They subjugate the meek
But it's the rhetoric of failure

We are spirits in the material world
Are spirits in the material world
Are spirits in the material world
Are spirits in the material world

Where does the answer lie?
iving from day to day
If it's something we can't buy
There must be another way

We are spirits in the material world
Are spirits in the material world
Are spirits in the material world
Are spirits in the material world
Are spirits in the material world
Are spirits in the material world

‘Spirits in the Material World’, The Police, 1981

Spirits in the Material World

Throughout history, structures have been erected as means of convening with deities and spirits, the most apparent being churches, temples, synagogues and mosques. Within these specially designed vessels, we enter the realm of the unknown, the divine, and seek a communion with forces larger than ourselves. These structures are perceived as legitimate processes in which our belief systems are reinforced by social and political powers.

Even today spirits are woven into the fabric of daily life and considered equal and rightful inhabitants of interior and exterior spaces around the world. Yet, the stranger is not always welcomed. In some communities, the ghost of a person who died a violent death continues to inhabit the house they occupied in life, causing untold misfortune for the new residents. 

Under such circumstances, the presence of ghosts may not only leave the property vacant but also bring down its value. A ‘haunted’ apartment could decrease the price of all the flats on the same floor, of apartments above and below it, and even of the entire building. By depreciating homes to between 20% and 30% below average, spectres can sometimes become an unpredictable disruptor in unaffordable real estate markets such as Hong Kong, New York, or Dubai. Banks even refuse mortgages for 'haunted' properties.


In Spirits in the Material World, artist Heman Chong reflects on spaces that exist in the grey, the darkness; the slippages into the netherworld. Places haunted by aswangshantusjinnyokai, and other unnamed spirits. The exhibition collapses three diverse situations into one single physical grid within Het Nieuwe Instituut.

The first is a fully functioning bookshop that stocks around a hundred titles that oscillate between (mostly terribly written) books that claims to offer sound, logical advice for investing in real estate, in tandem with books filled with (just as terribly written) ghost stories. This is a bookshop that explores the cold, hard home of late capitalism where everything, including the intangible, can be commodified. 

The second involves a chance encounter with Mr Teo, a mysterious real estate agent in Singapore claiming to be a ghost whisperer. The artist hired Mr Teo to communicate with a spirit who refuses to leave an empty plot where the Rochor Centre, an iconic brutalist public housing estate, once stood. Transcriptions of this conversation are used as a script that plays over a structural video of the Rochor Centre; demolished and forgotten, the remains are filmed through the small holes in a temporary fence around the lot. 

The third is a public programme including the screening of horror films selected by Heman Chong. 

These three strands within Spirits in the Material World converge to tell the rumours that define a sphere of architecture that is not easily explained or understood - the relationship between the spiritual and material world. Chong explores how a specific event has transformed into a rumour, and how it has in turn triggered a fear that informs a consensual view on certain spaces as 'cursed' or 'haunted'. Spirits, rumours, financial and real estate logic thus converge to shape the imaginaries and markets for the architecture of housing.

Spirits in the Material World is curated by Marina Otero Verzier (Director of Research, Het Nieuwe Instituut). The title of the exhibition is derived from a 1981 song by The Police on their album Ghost in the Machine.

Heman Chong

Heman Chong is an artist whose work is located at the intersection of image, performance, situation, and writing. His practice can be read as an imagining, an interrogation, and sometimes an intervention into infrastructures as everyday mediums of politics. His work has been shown in solo exhibitions at Swiss Institute New York, Art in General, Artsonje Center, Rockbund Art Museum, and South London Gallery, amongst others. Chong is the co-director and founder (with Renée Staal) of The Library of Unread Books, made up of donated books previously unread by their owners. He is currently working on his novel The Book of Drafts which will be published by Polyparenthesis in 2020. 


Het Nieuwe Instituut
Museumpark 25
3015 CB Rotterdam



Marina Otero Verzier
Klaas Kuitenbrouwer, Katia Truijen, Marten Kuijpers, Anastasia Kubrak
Alex Walker