Nadim Abbas: Process as Form
I keep meaning to ask Nadim Abbas if he owns a telescope. It seems like it would be handy for a multidisciplinary Hong Kong-based artist who frequently explores what cannot be gleaned at first sight.
Nadim Abbas preparing work for Household Gods, HART Hall, Hong Kong (30 September–21 November 2020). Courtesy HART.
Take his current participation in Household Gods at HART Hall (30 September–21 November 2020), a storefront space on the ground floor of H Queen's, a high-rise hub hosting several international galleries in Hong Kong's Central district. Curated by Ying Kwok, the show considers connections between household, natural, and supernatural phenomena to rethink the creative and empowering potential of art.
Besides Abbas, the exhibition includes works by fellow Hong Kong-based artists Shane Aspegren, Tap Chan, and Wu Jiaru—all former or current participants of 'Social Studio' at HART Haus in Kennedy Town, an open concept workspace that is run as a larger cultural enterprise by a non-profit subsidiary of a property developer.
In a city where 'work from home' strategies have long applied owing greatly to real estate pressures, what the artists demonstrate in Household Gods is how inescapable urban anxieties and uncertainty, now exacerbated by the ongoing global pandemic, can also be the stuff of dreams and healing.
A case in point is Tap Chan's use of pink and green mouthwash to embed colour, sight, and smell into an otherwise white shelf clad in polyurethane set atop a nylon strung carpet for Threshold Field (2020), and Twofold Consciousness (2020), white 'winged' wall sculptures adapted from headboards.
For his part, Abbas has used household goods—not gods, like the 'three star' deities that often appear as porcelain statuettes in Hong Kong homes—to create '"psycho-furnitures" [exploring] the spatial imaginary of the sacred by employing symmetry, repetition and tessellation.'1
By arranging items characteristic of daily rituals—eating (tinned food), cleaning (sponges), and self-care (toilet paper)—into serial patterns within cardboard and wood infrastructures positioned throughout the gallery, Homeless Forms for Formless Homes (2020) appears like architectural models for a building complex.
'I think about installing a show much the same as I think about cooking a three-course meal,'2 Abbas has said. Taking a page from the Futurist and Fluxus cookbooks, the artist understands there is an alchemy to incorporating the domestic as creative form.
In fact, many of Abbas' projects ground the infinite with a granular sensitivity through cosmic filters.
Throughout, Abbas utilises modes of visualising the world to expose his own processes along the way. Take Human Rhinovirus 14 (2016): light projected onto beach balls suspended from centrifugal blowers to form an aerial dreamscape. To expose the mechanics behind the magic, the equipment used to create the work—projectors atop tripods, their wires sprawling across the floor and held down by sandbags—is presented as integral to the installation.
In fact, many of Abbas' projects ground the infinite with a granular sensitivity through cosmic filters. The Distance of the Moon (2012) is a detailed set of images recreating the lunar surface featuring (and accompanied by) a recipe for 'moon-milk', while the floor-based installation Afternoon in Utopia (2012) uses moulded sand structures to mimic the 'hostile architecture' of a highway underpass designed to deter loitering, bathed in red light to draw a direct correlation to the Utopia Planitia ('Nowhere Plain') of Mars.
Another installation, The Last Vehicle (2016) is similarly lit and echoes this same formation, here as a bunker-style environment that likewise gave the impression of being inhospitable to human inhabitation.
Lately, performers, sometimes the artist himself, have appeared in Abbas' work. For 4 Rooms (2018), masked and costumed actors inhabited customised furniture within interstitial sites of the Power Station of Art during Proregress—Art in an Age of Historical Ambivalence, the 12th Shanghai Biennale (10 November 2018–10 March 2019).
But while the hallmarks of performativity are present in such interventions—masks, costumes, and accessories tied to cosplay, gaming, camouflage, and anime—little movement is involved, with Abbas relying instead on practices like hikikomori or the 'avoidance of social contact' where inhabitation and immobility serve as their own form of action.
For Fake Present Eons (After Posenenske) (2019), Abbas bent, folded, and cut holes into galvanised steel sheeting, adding fans to the resulting quasi-architectonic structures, with masked and costumed performers once again absorbed into the installation.
The commissioned work was exhibited in several locations throughout Tai Kwun Contemporary as part of Phantom Plane: Cyberpunk in the Year of the Future (5 October 2019–4 January 2020), and responds to late minimalist sculptor Charlotte Posenenske's characteristic use of aluminium sheeting from HVAC units to mimic existing systems within the built environment.
However, Abbas' installation is not merely taking up Posenenske's work as being openly reproducible, nor is it paying homage to an artist who famously quit art to work directly for social change. If anything, Abbas reimagines productivity and the role of stasis—whether in slowing down the body's relation to the environment that shapes it, or by fusing what Posenenske's narrative implies to his own work or that of other artists.
Despite the absence of a performer, the repetitive gesture of stacking and layering embodied by his contribution to Household Gods gives evidence, and thus credence, to the creative labour that Abbas foregrounds in his work. Even as it questions when and if to stay still, and when to stop altogether.—[O]
1 Household Gods press release.
2 Giampaolo Bianconi, 'Artist Profile: Nadim Abbas', Rhizome, 12 July 2012, https://rhizome.org/editorial/2012/jul/12/artist-profile-nadim-abbas/