‘For as long as I can remember, I have been a big fan of science fiction – of both literary and cinematic varieties. Naturally, this has had a significant influence on my creative thought processes, where at times I have even attempted to directly incorporate “sci-fi” narrative elements into certain works, with varying levels of success. With its speculative visions of the future, space adventure, and alien life forms, it would seem a little far fetched to speak of science fiction as a form based on a particular limit or constraint.
Closer inspection however, will show that this is precisely what science fiction does; that it is anything but “anything goes”. To paraphrase Philip K Dick; science fiction cannot simply be defined by its setting, say in a technologically advanced future – rather, “It is our world dislocated by some kind of mental effort on the part of the author, our world transformed into that which it is not or not yet. […] There must be a coherent idea involved in this dislocation; that is, the dislocation must be a conceptual one, not merely a trivial or a bizarre one.” ‘
– Nadim Abbas, A Limit Next to the Indefinite, 2011 (excerpt)
Xiaofei Mo (XFM): Thank you for coming this afternoon. We are delighted today to have the opportunity to introduce Nadim Abbas, an artist from Hong Kong who combines a wide range of interests, in theatrical scenarios, in the extreme – images of micro-viruses and images of planets – in science fiction in general, and also in religion and alchemy. This afternoon Nadim will show us some images of his past work and present projects and then we will have a discussion.
Nadim Abbas (NA): Thanks everyone for braving the cold to come here. I’m going to go through some of the work I’ve done in the past few years, including this animation that I did a few years ago. But before I get to that, I’m going to set the stage a little bit, by showing some works I did when I was still a student in London. The reason I want to show these works is because they contain the germ of a lot of the things I am interested in and investigate now. Despite the fact that I’ve gone in a different direction, the essence of [these earlier experiments] are still there.
I’ll ground the discussion with this interest of mine: the image, which basically runs through all of my work in many different guises. To give a bit of background I started off studying sculpture in London, but the whole time I was doing the sculpture degree, I spent a lot of time in a darkroom doing photography, which was far removed from the sculpture studio. But all of the discussions that we had revolved around space and sculpture and material and things like that. So I started to make work which ended up looking like sets. These sets dealt with three-dimensional space and questioned the notion of the image.
This is an early work, and as you can see, it’s a little cubicle room and in the front of the room there’s a small frame. So you walk into the space and see the frame, and the frame is actually a window, and you look into the window and see another space, which is a constructed space and at the end of the space there’s another frame and inside that frame there’s an image of an ambiguous, nostalgic interior. So one of the things I was trying here… if you look at the documentation a few times, you’ll notice that the image that you see in the frame [inside the room] looks like a photograph or a mirror of something, but there is actually another three-dimensional set that was constructed behind the frame. So in this situation you have one frame, then you have a room, and you have another room behind the other frame. This is the angle that you wouldn’t see from the outside. I took it to explain what it would look like from the inside, although that wouldn’t have been possible. And that’s what it looks like with the whole thing opened up.
Looking at this picture you can see there’s a kind of set and there’s a false wall and everything is ‘projected’ into the frame. What this work was trying to do was to reverse engineer the photographic process. When you take a photograph you frame the shot, you press the button and you get an image. In this work I was doing that same thing but in reverse, trying to construct that process and map it onto space. The whole premise of the work was trying to recreate the image within a kind of spatial context.
Along the way I discovered a lot of different things that helped to create that sensation. One of them was the importance of framing, because the frame is what basically delineates the image and gives it a sense of the imaginary. I also borrowed a lot from the language of photography. The image within the frame – it’s basically a kind of cropped snapshot. That was the function of the slanted platform, which was constructed into the set to convey the sense of an angular, cropped photographic image. A possible analog to this would be a painting by Degas. His paintings used cropped images – it’s a similar kind of language. The other thing about this work is that even though I was playing around with optical illusions and this illusional aspect of the image, I wasn’t ever particularly interested in illusions on their own. I always felt that what was needed was a situation where you look at something and you can be drawn into the illusion but at the same time know exactly what was going on. It’s like a magic show but you know exactly how the trick is being done. Which is why I left some of these inconsistencies in the work, so you would see the processes of the construction that went into building that kind of space.
From there I moved on to slightly different experiments. I’ll show you another one from that period, where I basically tried to dispense with the frame, to use the idea of framing but to erase this very obvious notion of the picture frame and to play around with the image but in a more invisible way. In this series of works I started to use lights as a framing mechanism instead, using theatre spotlights. This was a work I did in a warehouse in London, in Docklands. I found a readily existing corner in the space which was filthy dirty; there was crap all over the walls, and there was this very dirty sink that you can see here, but that was all there was [in this space] at the time. So what I did was I projected a spotlight onto the corner and then ‘cleaned up’ everything that was in the light; I cleaned the sink and I repainted the walls so that everything that was in the shadow would remain as is but everything that was in the light would be whitewashed. You can see in the close-up that everything in the shadow is still dirty. So without the [artificial] light, in the daytime, you still have the sense of this space that is being spotlighted. But when the work was shown at night with the light, there was always a kind of invisibility about what was happening. People would actually walk around this whole exhibition (it was a group show), then they would see this light on the wall and they wouldn’t really know what was going on, wondering why this space was being lit up, but when you stood in the light, you would cast a shadow and it would become something different. There was this play with the invisibility of the image as it’s literally projected onto space.
Which takes me on to more recent work. My early interest, when I was in college, revolved around optics and photography and the language of photography, but when I moved back to Hong Kong I stopped making work for a number of years and when I picked it back up again, went in a slightly different direction. I was still interested in images and how technology, photography, and cinematic images affect the way we see the world. In more recent works I have started to become interested in newer technologies of perception. This work which I did a few years ago is a series of animations borrowed from different kinds of scientific images. I have become very interested in images of viruses and also planets and things like that — images that are used for different kinds of research purposes and have a utilitarian function in a research context. I have appropriated that kind of image and what has interested me was a certain kind of ambiguity that I felt hadn’t been tapped into beyond what a scientist does with images of viruses.
This is an actual CAD drawing of a rhinovirus, which causes the common cold. I became very obsessed with this particular image at one point and what interested me is the way in which an image like that, if you don’t know what it is, looks like a snotty ball. There’s something perverse about it.
Also images of planets like this. This is an image of Phobos, one of the satellites of Mars — the kind of image that is being beamed back from unmanned space rovers sent from Earth. One of the things about these images that I find so fascinating is how they look so fake. This image looks like an old potato, or like something made in a studio out of plaster. There’s a very strange artificiality to these kinds of images but at the same time my knowledge and what I believe about science tells me is that this is a planet. But at the same time this is something that I could never possibly see with my own eyes; everything I see that is beamed back is a kind of prosthetic image that is passed on to me at many removes by a mechanical eye. So what I decided to do after looking at all these, was to construct a series of animations that played with that idea – that played with the very small, the virus, and the very large, the planet and to compress all of that imagery into one contained moving image, and to retain a kind of ambiguity about that image. These images were all constructed using stop motion animation and all of the contents of the images are made up of everyday mundane foodstuffs that you might find in the kitchen, so it was a kind of kitchen project.
If you look at the image, you’ll see that I’ve changed the colors and things like that. Something like this that looks like a satellite moving around is really an orange with cloves studded into it, and that’s a type of edible root in the background. Various layers were superimposed onto each other to construct a single composite animation.
This one is made up of a Southeast Asian fruit which looks a bit like a durian, a jackfruit. I picked it up in the street one day. This is a derivative of tofu.
This one may be more recognizable. It’s actually an old potato that is starting to sprout. I cut it down into smaller and smaller pieces to give a sense that the potato is sinking into this pool. The pool was made out of a piece of tinfoil and underneath you have these squirmy worms which are really crushed instant noodles.
This one is the inside of the jackfruit and there are oats flying out into space. So basically you see that various kinds of alien landscapes are being brought into this very recognizable and mundane setting, and at the same time I’m turning the mundane into something very alien. The piece is called Scale of the Universe which is something I borrowed from this website you might have seen online which shows you things scaled up by the power of ten – things that are very small up to things that are very big. You can go on this website and look at a virus and you move up and up. It’s also based on this film by Charles and Ray Eames called ‘Powers of Ten’ which achieves very much the same thing with film footage.
Moving on from the animations, I’d like to show you a slightly more immersive environment that I constructed. This piece is called Afternoon in Utopia and it’s also based on one of the first pictures that was taken of Mars in 1976 by a lunar rover, the Viking Lander, and it’s an image that I picked up off the public archive of NASA. I think an image like this is very representative of my interests; it’s an image of landscape, which without any prior knowledge of what it is could be a landscape anywhere in the world; it could be some desert somewhere. But actually this landscape is of an impact crater on Mars called Utopia Planitia and it was one of the first images taken of Mars by humans. So taking that image I tried to do the same thing, to transpose this sense I had of the image and to bring it down to earth and into a more recognizable context.
At the time I was also very interested in certain kinds of marginal spaces in the city. This is Hong Kong and this is underneath a highway intersection; you have all these concrete islands in Hong Kong which are basically wastelands of concrete and occasionally you have some homeless people living there. Here is another concrete island in another part of Hong Kong that has these trapezoid objects spread across the ground. These objects are supposed to prevent homeless people from moving in but I think also it’s a way for the government to mark their territory, kind of like a dog pisses on a lamp post. These spaces are for me very ambiguous. They are supposed to be public spaces but at the same time there’s a sort of ownership of that space with these gates and the trapezoid structures.
I wanted to transpose the alien aspect of these spaces into gallery space and to use that to reflect what I was thinking about with the Martian landscape at the same time. So on one hand, I was interested in the banality of the Martian landscape and also the alien aspect of the urban cityscape and to bring these things together into one work. This is what it looked like in the end: the piece consisted of a very large, 46 meter sandscape, which was built on-site, and what you see here is a mixture of sand and water. It’s almost a one to one rendition of the highway intersection without the cement. The shapes were like sandcastles; I made these molds and packed them with sand in-situ. What I liked about that whole process was that I was using the same material that is used to make highways, but by subtracting one of the elements, it became impermanent so that the work could only be shown for the duration of the show and afterwards the sand would slowly crumble away and be disposed of, or put back into the landfill. I purposefully didn’t put any signs up saying do not touch, so here someone stepped on it, but I think the work itself was intimidating enough so that people would stand on the side and wonder whether they should step on it or not. I wanted to set up this question for the audience, where they would be uncomfortable about whether they should jump in and start frolicking in the sand or stand back and look at this pristine space. That kind of distance is also illustrative of what I think about the image. The image for me is always at a distance, so that uncomfortable distance that you have with the space is also reflective of the relationship you have with the image. You can step back and look at it from a certain perspective, but if one jumps into it, then the image is obliterated because now you’re inside the image. That’s another important point, I think. Facing the piece I hung, quite simply a print out of the Mars photograph together with the NASA website caption; it was purely informational. The title of the work ‘Afternoon in Utopia’ basically came from the caption, which states that the photo was taken in the afternoon and is of the impact crater Utopia Planitia. The idea of Utopia here is very interesting because Utopia in one sense means this promised land, a perfect place, but at the same time if you look at the etymology of the word, it also means the non-place or the impossible place.
I’ll end with a recent show of mine which is quite different in many respects. For the solo show ‘Tetraphilia’ in Singapore, I wanted to try something different. Up to this point I had made works which were immersive environments in which you basically experienced one thing, but with the Tetraphilia project I became interested in experimenting a bit more with the question of series and fragmentation. In many senses this is a modular project made up of many different fragments but everything fits together like a jigsaw puzzle. The basic premise of the show was based around this word ‘Tetra’ which means four in Greek and also refers to a kind of tropical fish that’s very popular with aquarium enthusiasts. So what I decided to do was build a show which revolved around the word Tetra, so everything in the show has an almost encyclopedic relationship to that word, and every item in the show, apart from being related to the word tetra, also has a relationship with each of the others. So there was a kind of internal logic in the way this was put together.
As an example, this is a pile of tetrapods, which is a kind of coastal armoring that you find in low-lying areas to protect from coastal erosion. I cast these tetrapods in a miniature size (the real versions are very large) and had them piled in the corner. This pyramid over here is made up of Tetra Brik packets, the ubiquitous drink cartons seen in fast food joints and corner stores.
On this blue wall there’s a photograph of a puffer fish – the scientific term for a puffer fish is Tetraodontidae – and behind the wall there is a soundtrack playing of an opera singer from the 1900s called Louisa Tetrazzini, for whom the pasta dish Chicken Tetrazzini is named. There were little speaker holes drilled into the wall, and the holes were drilled in the formation of the tetractys, which is an ancient Pythagorean symbol. So this wall itself is a combination of different relationships. On one hand you have the pufferfish floating on the blue screen, and you have the soundtrack on the back of the opera singing, and you have the tetractys, with all its mathematical and musical connotations. It’s a bit of a stupid joke because it’s called Lady Sings (from the figure of speech, ‘not until the fat lady sings’).
There are also a series of four animations in that show, which are done in a slightly different way from the ones that I showed you before. In this case, this is not a stop-motion animation [taken from real life]; this is a computer-aided animation. By this point I had been trying new things and I had learned how to use this software for biologists and chemists to build molecular structures for research. I would take a certain molecule and build the molecule and turn that into an animation and super-impose it with my own video footage. In each video I have a particular tetra-structured molecule. This is tetrahydrocannabinol which is the psychoactive constituent of marijuana.
This is tetracycline which is a common antibiotic. This is tetrahydrogestrinone which is a performance-enhancing steroid. This is tetrasodium pyrophosphate, a common food additive. You can find it in chicken nuggets and marshmallows. In the background of each video I used footage of aquariums. I actually went to the aquariums and secretly filmed footage of the fish and I also bought some fish and filmed them at home too. So all of the molecules I chose – there are actually hundreds of tetra molecules I could have chosen – were ones that were specifically meant for human consumption.
In the actual installation there are other references that relate to the videos for example, there’s a little seating area in the corner with a table and four chairs (as in tetra) and in the middle of the table is a mountain of marshmallows. I bought the specific brand of marshmallows that uses that food additive [tetrasodium pyrophosphate] as an ingredient. And I had four Gameboys that had the game tetris on them, you know the very famous brick game. Tetris was called tetris because the guy that invented it combined the word tetra with his favorite sport, tennis. As you have noticed, the whole show also has an aquatic theme, that’s related to the tetra fish; I had posters with tetra fish on the wall explaining what they were and the whole space was set up as a kind of poolside lounge area, which includes this pool rail with glasses of water here. The glasses of water were filled with an aquarium optimizing fluid made by the company called Tetra, a German aquatic supplies company. I could go on and on about this but basically you can see how everything has a certain kind of logical connection. Maybe I should stop here and we can talk about how these connections of builds on themselves.
Audience Member: You talked about building from different sources, but for example this show, how did it start?
NA: This show began with the tetra theme but it was also related to the site itself which I actually haven’t talked about yet. This show took place at the Hermès foundation’s space in Singapore, located on a high street above the Hermès shop. To get to the space you have to go up through two floors of luxury goods. So one of the things I wanted to do with this gallery space was to make it look very cheap in contrast to the luxury goods below, so everything’s made up of plastic and easily (well, seemingly) sourceable everyday materials. The other thing about that space is that Singapore recently had this flooding problem. The street was flooded for two consecutive years and the Hermès store was one of the worst affected because the store itself is under ground level. If you go on YouTube there are videos of scarves floating out onto the street. So they built this barrier in front of the store, which creates a strange fortress-like feeling. Also the space itself is made up almost entirely of windows, all exposed, so when I walked into the space for the first time (I did a site visit two months before) I immediately had the impression that it was like an aquarium, and then someone told me the story about the flooding, which gave me the impetus to explore the aquatic idea. The tetrapods are a type of coastal armoring which are meant to prevent flooding, but I’ve shrunk them down to this aquarium-like size. Actually there are mini tetrapods that people put into their aquariums as decoration and this was borrowed from that kind of hobby aesthetic. Then of course you have all the fish, like the pufferfish and the tetra [fish].
XFM: You were telling me a little about James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, the relationship between excessive logic and the removal of meaning, could you talk a little about that?
NA: When I first did a tour of this show, I said that it didn’t mean anything and I think people misunderstood me. What I actually meant can be related to the Joyce/Beckett conversation. In a lot of my work there’s a strong literary influence, partly through reading a lot of science fiction but also literary classics. One of the things that has interested me is this relationship between James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. You probably know that Beckett was Joyce’s secretary at one point and worked very closely with him. He even had a brief love affair with Joyce’s daughter. If you look at Joyce’s work, it’s very complex and has a very inventive and additive language that builds on itself. It’s very rich in meaning and infinitely interpretable. I think the way in which Beckett responded to the legacy of Joyce was to go to the other extreme. His work is very pared down and minimal; it’s always the question of how you can shave away and pare down the meaning to a certain kind of essence. I think the interesting thing with Beckett is that if you try to make something absurd and take away the meaning, the meaning always comes back. You see this a lot. You’re trying to escape meaning but it’s always coming back. As Beckett himself once said, much more eloquently: ‘James Joyce was a synthesizer, trying to bring in as much as he could. I am an analyzer, trying to leave out as much as I can.’ This contrast in approaches was in the back of my mind a lot during the development of this project, which relates to the question of meaning in a way that is very specific to our time. A lot of the information for this project was derived from Wikipedia and Google and things like that. So one of the interesting things we have is this constant flood of information through the Internet. I can search for anything such as ‘tetra’ and I get a big list. For me the question is how do I make sense of all this information, how does it become meaningful (or meaningless)? So the project itself involves taking that excess of information and giving it a different kind of internal logic. Maybe I’m trying to bring back meaning or maybe I’m trying to empty out that cliché of meaning that is associated with information.
Audience Member: I have a follow-up question to Xiaofei’s. One of the consistencies I like and I see in the various and very different bodies of work that you’ve shown us is that attempt to render something impossible, whether it’s the invisibility or transparency of photography in the scrubbing of something or the framing, the ‘no place’ of Utopia and the meaninglessness, to render that substantial. I guess the question is, it’s more a reaction than a question, I’m wondering why I’m more compelled by your first attempts at this, at rendering the invisibility and transparency of photography into physical things, than I am from your attempts to render minuteness, what’s invisible to the eye, and I wonder if that’s just because we are more familiar with or that photography is more historically distant as a project?
NA: We’re a lot more accustomed to the photograph now and it’s lot easier to read photography as an institutionalized or academicized form, which doesn’t mean that its possibilities have been exhausted. I think that one of the things that happened when I was developing these earlier works was that I reached a plateau in what was possible to interpret and analyze and present, and it became necessary to look into something more unknown or unknowable. Despite the difference in approach, I see both periods of development as a continuous work in progress that is constantly building on itself. The kind of work that I do now also changes the way that I look at past work.
Audience Member: Was the aim in the Mars project to reverse engineer, to use your term from the photography project, ‘no place’ or Utopia?
NA: No, I don’t think it was that question anymore. It was to set up a parallel between two disparate images. One was the image of Mars and one was the image of urban space, so it was a different emphasis.
Audience Member: Can you go back to that photo? I wanted to talk about photography in that image. In this photo, did you play with the back of the leg in the chair? Because that’s what I think as photo and sculptural and image.
NA: No, I didn’t, it’s just an old chair. It’s an optical illusion.
Audience Member: It seems to me that in the various works that you’ve done there’s a consistency of rubbing up between this physicality of the set and rendering it flat, or the abundance of information and flattening it, or going to the trouble of getting a fruit but yet you have no idea of the source material. It seems like there’s a consistent process of in-depth research. Yet how have people who have physically encountered these situations responded to these works? How have they engaged with these situations, when in some ways there’s a kind of barrier there, when you’re kind of flattening it or emptying it of meaning?
NA: I think there’s some kind of cryptic association here. Maybe the thing Xiaofei mentioned about my interest in alchemy illustrates this a bit. The reason why I’m interested in alchemy is that alchemy has a very rich history of image making which was related to an internal logic, which was this religious or mystical impetus. And you have this history of alchemical images which all have a very specific meaning and reference to them. But unless you are initiated into alchemy you could look at the images and you wouldn’t understand what they were saying, but then they would still have this impact, they’re very mysterious. So in that sense there are many levels: there’s the image in itself which has a sort of visceral connection and then there’s this initiation or knowledge that brings you deeper into the image, but it’s not necessarily compulsory, it’s something that you choose to do. In a way it’s the responsibility of the person who’s looking to get into that. I guess in my work I always want to leave that open. I’m kind of wary of artist’s talks in that sense because I don’t think the artist has the last word on his or her work, so please don’t go away thinking this is the last word on my work! With a lot of what I do, I always feel it’s very important for there to be this visceral connection, yet at the same time with a lot of things I talk about, I could ramble on continuously about all the details. In another sense it’s also related to that kind of unconscious obsessiveness. In a lot of ways these works are about a kind of addiction to something that I can’t really verbalize. For instance, the way in which the Internet affects me and what it makes me do without understanding it myself, or what this constant desire for more and more information or knowledge does to one’s mind and how you make sense of that and turn it into something physical.
Audience Member: Do you consider yourself a conceptual artist? Because I didn’t get the marshmallows.
NA: I guess so, but in a very specific sense. I think a lot of people misunderstand what conceptual art means. For me I think conceptual art is, and I’m quoting Sol Lewitt, about trying to approach the irrational in the most logical way possible. If you think about it that way then conceptual art is not a purely rational conscious process; it’s actually about trying to look into the irrational, into the unconscious, and trying approach it in a logical manner. You see that very much in Sol Lewitt’s work, that process.
Audience Member: And the marshmallows?
NA: The marshmallows contained tetrasodium-pyrophosphate and you could eat them, if you were fearless.
Audience Member: And more personally, how did you get a name like Nadim Abbas?
NA: I have some Indian and Southeast Asian (mostly Malaysian) heritage from my father’s side. Colonialism ….
XFM: Unfortunately, we have no more time. But thank you Nadim and thank you everyone for coming this afternoon.
Unless specified, images courtesy of the artist and Gallery EXIT, Hong Kong.
Nadim Abbas (b. 1980) is a Hong Kong-based artist, writer and musician. Selected solo projects include Satellite of ⁂, CL3 Architects, HK Arts Centre, Hong Kong (2013); Tetraphilia, Third Floor Hermés, Singapore (2013); Marine Lover, ARTHK11 Special Projects, Hong Kong (2011); Cataract, EXPERIMENTA & Gallery EXIT, Hong Kong (2010). His work has been shown at exhibitions such as Where Narrative Stops, Wilkinson Gallery, London (2013); Moderation(s): A Fictional Residency, Spring Workshop, Hong Kong (2013); rites, thoughts, notes, sparks, swings, strikes. a hong kong spring, Para/Site Art Space, Hong Kong (2012); No Longer Human, Osage Kwun Tong, Hong Kong (2012). Abbas holds an MPhil in Comparative Literature from the University of Hong Kong and a BA in Fine Art (Sculpture) from Chelsea College of Art, London.