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Artist Nadim Abbas talks cocktails, bunkers and weevils

The Hong Kong-based artist talks about his influences, the city’s art scene and his upcoming projects. This article was originally published on Art Radar on (9 May 2014).

Image: Nadim Abbas at "Apocalypse Postponed" Absolut Art Bar, Art Basel Hong Kong 2014. Photo by Roberto Chomorro, courtesy Absolut.

Nadim Abbas (b. 1980), who currently lives and works in Hong Kong, is designing this year’s Absolut Art Bar at the upcoming Art Basel Hong Kong in May 2014. Art Radar caught up with him to find out more about the cocktail-bar-cum-art-installation. 

Nadim Abbas is known for his thought-provoking and well-researched installations and artworks. He studied at London’s Chelsea College of Art and Design and also holds an MPhil in Comparative Literature from the University of Hong Kong. His works draw on themes from literature, science and psychology and often reference everyday objects.

In March 2014, Abbas’ work was exhibited at the Armory Show in New York as a part of the Focus section of Chinese contemporary art, curated by Philip Tinari. Abbas speaks to Art Radar about his experience at the Armory Show, his work for Art Basel Hong Kong and the Hong Kong art scene today.

Notes on quotidian life 
Your biography mentions that your work often explores the “hidden violence and psychological trauma” of everyday life. Could you elaborate on this and tell us more about your work and the issues it engages with? 
I think this arose from a stream of thinking when I came [back] to Hong Kong, as I developed my practice and ways of seeing – such as by analysing photography – and applied it back to my work. I reached a kind of plateau at one point where it all felt very sterile, very mechanistic, and so I looked for an emotional, psychological element. That sort of got me thinking about the notion of hidden violence embedded in everyday quotidian situations and that’s an idea that can be applied to many situations, but I guess I just didn’t realise it. I was doing a lot with images, projecting images onto spaces. 
There’s this idea of déjà vu, where the experience of a space can also be the experience of a memory of the space. If you’re having a déjà vu moment, you’re experiencing the present as if it were the past. With this notion of memory, I think what I really started to work with was how we experience space as an image and also how space affects us psychologically in different ways. 
I’ve grown up predominantly in cities: I grew up in Hong Kong and spent my student years in London, so I’ve always been in an urban context. A specific urban context defines the psychological makeup of its inhabitants in ways that are very subtle and hidden. I think this violence was linked to how there is a kind of psychological trauma of inhabiting certain kinds of everyday situations.
Is there a specific work that comes to mind where you address this issue? 
I did a series of works that were related to otaku culture [I Would Prefer Not To, 2009], about how otaku culture is so much embedded in this urban situation. The figure of the otaku is connected to the cliché of a middle aged male who stays at home all the time, and that sense of staying at home and being insulated, in a small room, distanced from society, is something that I was interested in. I wasn’t so much interested in why someone would do that, but more about what kind of space makes this happen. I immersed myself in the culture – it’s a kind of culture we’re very familiar with here, with the subculture of comics, video games and things like that. A lot of these cultural products are in themselves very violent. That series of works basically dealt with the question of how the space relates to the formations of these kinds of subcultures. 
A more recent example of this, which I’ve talked about a number of times now, is an interest in warfare and how military technologies are embedded or trickle down into everyday applications. For example, the most recent project I did at the Armory Show in New York involved a robotic vacuum cleaner, and one of the things that struck me was that the kinds of technologies that are used to develop ‘robovacs’ are the same as those used to sustain military technologies, and that applies to many other things. A lot of the technologies and progress of the twentieth century is inherently linked to war: cinema, household things, consumption of food. There is a sense, which is totally logical, that every kind of technological application that has developed at a certain period becomes re-purposed for other periods of time and back again. So there is always this link between war time and peace time and how it is a perpetuating cycle of progress.
Nadim Abbas, I Would Prefer Not To (宅男), 2009, C-print. Image courtesy the artist.

Apart from being inspired by the quotidian, would you say that you also use objects from everyday life in your works? 

Yes, I use whatever material I feel is suitable, and that also involves found objects and found images and the question of how you can engineer a different way of connecting with these objects. The ready-made object becomes a common thing that I use. Sometimes it just looks like a ready-made object; I’ve done things where I’ve custom-made objects that look like ready-made objects, like windows and mattresses. I did a work that involved mattresses which looked like normal mattresses, but they were made to size, one foot squared, for a show called Satellite of ⁂. And in the Cataract project, I made windows with a revolving interior. Those were windows that were very recognisable, but were actually custom made. So I sometimes take the ready-made and use the image of the ready-made. 
You have studied fine art as well as literature. How would you say the latter influences your work? How do you go about researching and planning new projects and artworks? 
I started reading a lot when I was in London doing my BFA and when I came back to Hong Kong I did a postgraduate degree in Comparative Literature. A lot of my inspiration does come from reading. I don’t know if it’s indirect; when you’re an artist sometimes you don’t want to be so directly influenced by other artists’ works, because you feel like you’re copying. Literature is a completely different discipline, so you can take things from it and apply it, so that it becomes a transformation of an idea. It’s a completely different way of imagining. If you take a story and you want to turn it into something else, like a sculpture, it requires a complete transformation of the idea or even betrayal of the idea. 
One of the things I became very aware of is that if I was taking a literary reference and I wanted to translate that onto an artwork, it’s very important not to be literal about it. Don’t be literal about literature! The reference becomes a starting point and you take that somewhere else. Sometimes I would use the literary reference in the title, just as an indication of where it came from. For example, “I would prefer not to” was a line from a Herman Melville story called “Bartleby”, and I’ve done works that referred to Kafka short stories. I read a lot of science fiction and that mode of thinking is also very applicable to the way I think about my practice.
Armory Show 2014, New York 
Your work was recently chosen by Philip Tinari to be exhibited at Armory Focus: China. Could you tell us more about the installation Zone 1 presented there? 
The Armory work is the one I was talking about, with the robotic vacuum cleaner, and it was an extension of the “Satellite of ⁂” show. In the “Satellite of ⁂” show there was no vacuum cleaner; I extended the idea to set up a zone of these concrete casts which would inhibit the movements of the vacuum cleaner, almost like an obstacle course within the art fair. I was interested in the Armory Show as a particular kind of site – I’ve done a few things in art fairs now – I think this was the first booth that I did. Previously I did special projects, large-scale commissions and things like that. Anyway, here I became very conscious of the booth itself and how that works, and one of the very conscious decisions was to have everything on the floor instead of everything being vertical and hung on a wall. It was very horizontal, a totally different dimension. Maybe, in a way, it was gently subverting that whole art fair aesthetic. It was also very grey. On the one hand it moved, that was the novelty with the vacuum cleaner, but at the same time it had a very mundane aspect with the colour scheme. 
How was the response to your work at Armory 2014? 

Most people I think picked up on the humour, others would see the more sinister element with the war references and things like that. Hopefully you have multiple layers and I generally keep it open for people to interpret in whatever way they want.
Nadim Abbas, Apocalypse Postponed, 2014. Absolut at Art Basel Hong Kong 2014. Photo: Roberto Chamorro. Image courtesy Absolut.

"Apocalypse Postponed": Art Basel Hong Kong 2014 
What was the process of making the Absolut Art Bar at Art Basel Hong Kong 2014? What kind of a space have you created? 
We’re constructing a kind of bunker. The space is located on the seventeenth floor of a commercial property and we got the whole floor. The building has restaurants and stuff like that, and the management basically emptied out the whole floor for different kinds of art projects and we’re the first people to use the space. The bunker proposal is for a kind of insulated space that you go into and you have a very specific relation to the outside world, a kind of insulated environment. The design of the bunker itself is inspired by real bunkers and different kinds of military shelters. The whole room is constructed out of sand bags and all the walls are piled up with sand bags. The thickness of the wall was very important to set up that psychological relationship between the inside and the outside. If you look at a bunker, they are designed to resist artillery attacks, so of course the thickness of the walls is very significant. 
The actual space is all windows and we have this magnificent view of Causeway Bay, and one of our first decisions was that we would totally block off the view. One of the walls completely covers the window and you have a little slit and you can look out onto the city. This idea for a restricted view was borrowed from the typology of bunker research. If we go back to the title of the project, “Apocalypse Postponed”, the hypothetical situation is a sort of nuclear fall-out, an end-of-the-world situation, so you’re inhabiting the space and you’re cut off from the outside. 
There will also be performances, music, film and cocktails as a part of the Art Bar. Can you divulge more details about any of these? Who are the other artists you are collaborating with? 
It’s a very collaborative project. Even the space was something that I developed together with architects. I was working very closely with a friend of mine who has been advising me, Sebastien Saint-Jean, and also an architectural fabricator in Hong Kong called LAAB. The space that we set up is a very specific space and it’s the body of the project, and I wanted to also activate that body with performance and other elements, so that would be the heart and soul of the project, you might say. 
I’ve commissioned a soundscape by a Hong Kong composer, Steve Hui. I asked him to do an ambient soundtrack for the space. I think of the soundscape as a part of the space, it supplements the spatial experience. Apart from that, we also developed a performance programme which would be happening and changing every night, co-curated with Xue Tan and Shane Aspergren. Xue Tan is a local producer connected with the music industry and Shane is a musician, a percussionist, who is also very connected with the music scene. I’m also connected with the music scene, because I also play music, I think that’s also why I was interested in this project, because it gave me an excuse to bring that side of my life into my practice. I contacted various kinds of musicians from Hong Kong, so there will be bands and DJs playing, some from Hong Kong, some from overseas. We’re going to construct a stage for the performances. 
I also talked to experimental improvisation musicians to do performances around the space. What we’re going to try to do – I have no idea if it’s going to work – [is]: I wanted to have individual performers spread out around the space. The space is quite large, about 4000 square feet, and after we construct the bunker it’s going to be about 2000 square feet of usable space. These performers will be dotted around and they will be improvising in response to the soundtrack and also amongst themselves, so you might have a guitarist alongside a pianist alongside a violin player walking around. One night we have a drum circle on the floor. These are the performances which are more embedded in the audience as opposed to being on a stage.
Nadim Abbas, Apocalypse Postponed, 2014. Absolut at Art Basel Hong Kong 2014. Photo: Roberto Chamorro. Image courtesy Absolut.

And the cocktails? 
I wanted to integrate the cocktails into the thematics of the whole project. It’s one of those things that came very easily to me – I like to cook – and cocktail mixing is kind of like culinary alchemy. I’ve been working with the Absolut mixologist who is based in Stockholm and we’ve been going back and forth, developing ideas. 
The idea for the cocktails was that, apart from having certain kinds of ingredients and a certain taste-flavour profile, they would also emphasise the mode of consumption and the kind of experiences that go with the consumption of cocktails. This thinking was applied to the kinds of vessels that you would drink the cocktails out of, for example, we’re going to use stainless steel containers which are like mess tins or mess cups. There are four different cocktails and one of them will be served in a vacuum pack. The inspiration for that was basically space food: I was thinking about how astronauts drink in space out of plastic bags and we’re using a very similar kind of plastic vacuum pack. The main base for the drink in the bag is a kind of beetroot juice with pomegranate, so it’s a deep red colour and the bags actually look like blood bags. 
The content of the drinks was developed along the lines of providing a nutritional supplement. Two of the drinks have rice as a prominent ingredient, one has sake in it and the other has vodka-infused rice crispies. I’ve used rice as a metaphor in the project and some of the sand bags will be filled with rice. I was basically taking rice as a staple food and the bunker as a kind of hoarding facility for staple food. I was also interested in another aspect – if you leave rice standing for a long time you get insects, rice weevils, growing in it. It’s an image I’ve been wanting to use for a long time and we come back to the notion of hidden violence. The weevils have become a metaphor for that embedded violence. I’m using images of the weevils throughout the installation. I’ve been growing weevils at home, and taking close-up macro photos of the weevils and developing graphic prints of weevil silhouettes for the sandbags. I’ve also commissioned animations by Wong Ping that feature these weevils, but in a very different way. Wong Ping has a very distinctive aesthetic, he does a cartoon style and has a very grotesque imaginary. He’s developed these crazy images of weevils growing out of bodies and eating people alive. 
The fourth cocktail is made from a tea reduction. I wanted one of the cocktails to be a kind of boost, so I wanted to make a caffeinated drink out of tea which is very strong, like an espresso. Another drink is an actual pharmaceutical supplement. Originally, I wanted to do something a bit crazy, like put Viagra in the drinks or something, but then I thought that wouldn’t go down very well with the ladies. We basically sourced these effervescent tablets, a calcium and Vitamin D supplement, and we developed a cocktail that would pair with this tablet. You get the cocktail in a plastic cup and you put the tablet into the cocktail and it fizzes up. I thought it was quite funny, because Vitamin D is necessary because of the lack of sunlight and calcium because of the less rich diet.
Being an artist in Hong Kong 
How do you compare the Hong Kong artscape and its development to other parts of the world where you’ve lived and worked? 
It’s much smaller than a lot of the other art scenes. I’ve lived in London, I was just in New York briefly and I’ve done some projects in Holland. Here it’s an art scene that’s growing, and there is a lot of potential for development. There is still a big question mark as to how it’s going to turn out. There are all these infrastructures being planned like M+ and the police station, and they’re going to affect the future of the art scene in Hong Kong. There has been a rapid transformation as to the kinds of things that are possible and that’s very typical of Hong Kong – everything moves really fast. It’s not like it was unexpected. 
But it’s always difficult to be an artist wherever you are – if you’re in New York, where there is a very big scene and everyone is an artist, it’s very difficult because of the competition and to survive you really have to hustle to get anywhere. Whereas in Hong Kong, it’s a much smaller scene, everyone knows everyone. There are less resources but at the same time, because it’s smaller, there are slightly more opportunities for artists here. There is always a pro and con wherever you are. 
Nadim Abbas, HBV, 2013, GIF animation. Image courtesy the artist.

How has the proliferation of art fairs changed life for artists in Hong Kong? 
The art fair was also something that contributed to this rapid transformation. Hong Kong became the most logical logistical hub for something like an art fair. Art fairs became very conscious of the fact that they are here and then they want to reach out to local practitioners. There is a kind of resistance locally, as well as a kind of acceptance, it’s always double edged. Some parts of the art community are more resistant to the influx of the art fair, other parts are more open to working with this situation. It really depends on your position. 
For me, it’s a question of not having one dominant mode of experiencing art. A few years ago it was biennials and it seems like now it’s art fairs. The only issue would be if that becomes a kind of domineering situation where there is no other way of seeing or experiencing art. The most important thing is to maintain a kind of open situation where you can have different kinds of art being made and developed. I’m less critical of the art fair being here, it is what it is, and you make what you make out of it. For me, it’s interesting to work on a project here at an art fair and maybe the next month I’m doing something totally different in a different context.
What are the challenges and advantages of being a Hong Kong artist right now? 
One of the big challenges is space, but of course these spatial problems also lead to interesting results. With that limitation you end up producing something very specific to that limitation. Sometimes the challenges are also the opportunities. I’ve never had what you might call a proper studio in the industrial sense, in a warehouse or industrial building. I’ve always worked in a residential situation and that’s also reflected in the kind of work I do. Now, I’ve moved my studio back to my flat and I have a separate smaller workshop nearby, which is also residential space. 
What do you think – or hope – might change for you as an artist this year and what do you have coming up? 
The kind of projects I’m doing in the second half of the year are very different. This year is very collaborative for me – I’m working again with composer Steve Hui on a couple of projects and they are performance based: we’re doing a music project in Korea. That project is related to our common interest in a southern Cantonese singing tradition called Naam Yam, which is quite different from anything I’ve ever done. We were also supposed to do a performance project with a choreographer, which involved dance and music, but I’m not sure if that’s going to happen, because we just got notified by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council that we’re not going to get funding. Steve is also writing an opera and I’m involved in that project as a set designer and I’m also working with Steve on writing the libretto for the opera. 
Kriti Bajaj