142. Nadim Abbas

Nadim Abbas, Chamber 664 “Kubrick”, 2014-2015. Mixed media. Dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist.

Susie Pentelow interviews Hong-Kong based artist Nadim Abbas about his upcoming solo exhibition ‘Camoufleur’ at VITRINE, London. For ‘Camoufleur’, Abbas will produce a new, site-specific installation which will use camouflage to explore how urban living conditions can dictate our relationship with, and in some cases submission to, the spaces we inhabit. The installation will be accompanied by a series of scheduled performances in the space.

 

You currently have a solo show at Antenna Space in Shanghai, ‘Chimera’. Could you talk a little about this work?

The starting point was the image of the human rhinovirus (serotype 14), AKA the common cold, which I constructed using various kinds of open source molecular and 3D modeling software. The title connotes both phantasmal and biological origins. The elaborate way that I have chosen to present, or project these viral images into the gallery space, using air blowers and beach balls is an attempt to maintain the ambiguous quality of an image which wavers between real and imaginary, fact and fabrication. 

Nadim Abbas, Human Rhinovirus 14, 2016. Mixed media installation. Dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist and Antenna Space.

The choice of the common cold virus was deliberate - as something familiar to all, to the point of banality, yet appearing at the same time completely alien. Everything else in the show is an extension of this viral metaphor. This is most blatantly played out in the two isolation chambers (with echoes of my piece at the 2015 New Museum Triennial), which contain a series of modular geometric forms that act as a playground for renegade toilet rolls.

There are many visual parallels between my work and cinema, simply because much of what I do involves the notion of converting (lived) space into an image (memory), which is something that comes almost second nature to the cinematic process.

The work ‘Blancmange, n ways’ acts as a separate counterpart with similar thematics. Here, white forms become specific manifestations of the first four iterations of the fractal Blancmange function, which derives its name from its resemblance to the famous dessert. In England of course, ‘blancmange’ also connotes a boring or uninteresting person. The photograph on the wall depicts an actual blancmange pudding, as does the pattern design on the wallpaper - setting up a visual pun of sorts.

Nadim Abbas, Blancmange, n ways, 2016. Mixed media installation. Dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist and Antenna Space.

Works like ‘Chamber 667’ and ‘Chamber 664 "Kubrick”’ could almost be sets from a science fiction film. Is sci-fi an influence?

Regarding the sci-fi influence - the short answer is yes! I am a big science fiction nut. I wrote a short text on this connection (between sci-fi and my work) many years ago. It was around that time that I discovered these molecular renderings of viruses, which were later to become the central motif of ‘Chimera’. The text was never published, and I’m not even sure that it makes any sense. Basically, 'Chimera’ was my way of materially resolving some of the concerns that were started in writing.

There are many visual parallels between my work and cinema, simply because much of what I do involves the notion of converting (lived) space into an image (memory), which is something that comes almost second nature to the cinematic process. Given the popularity of sci-fi blockbusters today, I should clarify here that I’m less interested in constructing seamless, illusory images like you might see in the latest Star Wars spin-off. Rather, I’m fascinated with finding ways of letting the inconsistencies show through, like in a low budget B-movie. In other words, there is always an element of theatre present in my approach.

Nadim Abbas, The Last Vehicle, 2016. Mixed media installation with durational performance. Dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist.

You are working with camouflage for this installation/body of work. How do you think this idea reflects broader themes in society?

I am also fascinated by what at first glance seems like an unlikely correlation between domesticity and warfare

A lot of my recent work tries to unravel how certain conditions of urban domesticity have produced specific types of sociability and subcultures. I am also fascinated by what at first glance seems like an unlikely correlation between domesticity and warfare; how technologies developed on the battlefield have found applications in quotidian contexts and vice versa. More chilling perhaps is the notion, suggested by theorists such as Paul Virilio and Beatrice Colomina, that the dream of domestic bliss is but a dormant extension of an ongoing militarised state of emergency, where the household finds its mirror in the bunker/fortress. 

It is no coincidence, for instance, that iRobot, a manufacturer of automatic vacuum cleaners, displays on its website products dedicated for the “home” side-by-side with similar technologies repurposed for “defense and security”.  Taglines such as “Welcome home. Your house is clean” are made in the same breath as “Placing a safer distance between people and danger”. Since the machinations of modern warfare destroy the very condition of human habitats, military constructions have become increasingly geared towards the possibility of inhabiting such artificial climates (e.g. the underground bunker as a refuge from nuclear fallout).  The modern household simply adapts this formula by providing increasingly artificial climates optimised for human habitation (e.g. the fully automated, air-conditioned high-rise service apartment).

Nadim Abbas, Zone I, 2014. Lightweight concrete casts, robotic vacuum cleaner, rug, skirting board, house paint. Dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist. 

The title “camoufleur” is borrowed from the name that was given to people who designed and implemented military camouflage during WWI/WWII.  Many of these camoufleurs were artists but there were also zoologists and naturalists such as Hugh Cott, whose book, Adaptive Coloration in Animals became a seminal text for the study and development of camouflage techniques in the military.  For the setup at VITRINE, I will design a wallpaper pattern that becomes the backdrop and point of reference for everything that is subsequently placed in the space. 

For this body of work, your focus is on the figure of the “otaku” or “hikikomori”, terms which originated in Japan. Can you explain these?

Otaku and hikikomori are (Japanese) terms that have come to represent stereotypes of socially ill-equipped, middle-aged males who wall themselves up at home in an escapist world of manga and anime consumption. Otaku generally refers to participants of a subset of cultural practices that revolve around manga and anime fandom. Hikikomori refers to the specific phenomenon of acute social withdrawal. In Chinese, otaku is often translated as “jaaknam” or “zhainan”, which literally means “resident male” (as in resident of a housing complex or tenement block), thus conflating the connotations of otaku and hikikomori. It would take a lot more explanation to unpack the respective nuances of these terms and their ongoing mutations, so I will just focus on the fact that otaku culture arose, or at least thrives, within a uniquely urban, post-industrial context. 

Nadim Abbas, The Last Vehicle, 2016. Mixed media installation with durational performance. Dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist.

My concern then is not why otaku do what they do, but rather, what kind of space allows this to happen?  It is as if the extremely dense accumulation of cramped interior spaces that characterize so many cities today encourages a turning inward, or a vacuum of mental space itself; a vacuum that disturbs the distinction between the animate and the inanimate, or subject and object. This logic is made visible in the practice of mimicry:  picture a masked body, driven to disappear into its surroundings, to be engulfed by objects whose animation increases in proportion to its own lack of animation.

How will you respond to the position of the space in the public sphere?

The unique positioning of the VITRINE space, which stays open and visible at all hours of the day, creates an interesting set of possibilities for the public display of domesticity.  The window display, which can more easily facilitate instances of repeated daily viewing, structures an encounter that varies according to the state of each visit.  It is this durational quality that pushed me to find different ways of inhabiting the space at different points of the day/week/month.  States of habitation that when considered together start to overlap, and become harder to distinguish from one other: a performer who behaves like a machine, or a machine that is performing? 

Nadim Abbas, #4, 2016. Cosplay helmet mounted on green screen / cyclorama. Dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist and Luke Casey. 

There will also be a performance aspect to the exhibition - can you talk about your ideas for this?

The performer will be presented with a set of instructions, or perhaps a distilled script of some sort.  We will work together in advance to develop a specific body language.  I’m looking for someone with the type of movement training that would facilitate the emptying of gestures, or gestures that do not call attention to themselves, the gesture of stones.  If the objective is to perform a disappearing act, it would seem that the magician has already disappeared before the act has begun. Likely candidates might include people who are trained in physical theatre, mime, Butoh; or even life models, who like stick insects are inclined to assume the same pose for extended periods of time.

 

‘Camoufleur’ will run between 1 March and 15 April 2017 at VITRINE, London SE1 3UN, with a preview on Tuesday 28 February 2017, 6.30 – 9 pm. For more information, visit http://www.vitrinegallery.com.

‘Chimera’ continues until 22 January 2017 at Antenna Space, Shanghai. Visit http://www.antenna-space.com for more information.

Find out more about Nadim Abbas’ work at http://www.nadimabbas.com.