Nadim Abbas’ take on images, reality and why precariousness is best.

On 13 April 2013, as part of Para Site Hong Kong’s International Conference, installation artist Nadim Abbas gave a talk about images and reality, and how his art-making explores the ambiguous relationship between the two.

Nadim Abbas, speaker at this the Para/Site International Conference in April 2013, sits among his installation 'Afternoon in Utopia' (2010).

Nadim Abbas, speaker at the Para/Site International Conference in April 2013, sits among his installation ‘Afternoon in Utopia’, 2010.

For the lecture at Para Site, which was part of a three day forum bringing together presentations on the conditions of contemporary art, Abbas introduced listeners to his idea of the “poor image”, a visual cliché with predetermined meanings, and spoke about how artists can use “precarious images” to reverse those clichés.

Images, objects, illusions

A graduate in both Fine Art and Comparative Literature, Abbas now teaches at City University Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Art School. This background informs his artwork which, according to CNN Travel, he “approaches … the way a doctoral student does his dissertation, with seemingly endless amounts of reading, research and meticulous planning.

In an interview with the South China Morning Post, Abbas revealed that it was while studying that he developed a fascination with images. “For me it’s sort of like walking on a tightrope,” he told the newspaper, “I’m interested in the thresholds between things: between an image and an object or between reality and illusion. I always like to tread the line in between.”

Nadim Abbas, 'Cataract (Victoria Falls - Main Fall / Rainbow Fall)', 2010,  kinetic light boxes w/ith duratran print and aluminium window frames. Image courtesy Gallery EXIT and the artist.

Nadim Abbas, ‘Cataract (Victoria Falls – Main Fall / Rainbow Fall)’, 2010, kinetic light boxes with duratran print and aluminium window frames. Image courtesy Gallery EXIT and the artist.

Ready-made images

Abbas outlined three examples of what he constitutes a “poor image” in his talk. The first he termed the generic image, often seen on social media forums and typified by visual tropes which have become overused and depersonalised. Generic images are in some way the result of developments in visual and communication technologies, said Abbas.

Many images that are circulated on a web are compressed into smaller sizes and portable file formats like the images on mobile phones. Here the visual quality of the image is sacrificed for the sake of a quantitative increase in its circulation; but more importantly the situation that this increased circulation necessitates is a wholesale impoverishment of meaning in all its richness, and contextual or historical contingency. Which is not to say that generic images are meaningless, only that their meanings have distilled to the point where they can be understood immediately, bypassing the necessity of reflection to illicit an automatic response. Cat means cute, coral reef means nature, pyramids mean the exotic. So a generic image is a ready-made image, since its meanings are always and already predetermined.

Related to the generic is Abbas’ second kind of poor image, the decadent image. The artist described this as a generic image but with high production values, as seen on billboards and in blockbusters. Primarily a marketing tool, the decadent image is, in Abbas’ words, “a kind of socialist realism for an advanced capitalist economy”.

A precarious state of being

The third poor image is the precarious image, and it is this theoretical notion which informs Abbas’ artistic practice. Precarious images look the same as generic or decadent images, explained Abbas, but as an artist he attempts to re-contextualise them and reposition them in reality. Through this methodology, “precariousness can a be tool to work out contemporary problematics involving economics, social, religious, political and cultural issues”.

Nadim Abbas, 'Cataract', 2010, site specific installation (ceramic tiles, aluminium window frames, recycling shower system, nylon curtains, stainless steel tubing, 45 min looped sound recording of Victoria Falls courtesy Gary Sze). Image courtesy EXPERIMENTA and the artist.

Nadim Abbas, ‘Cataract’, 2010, site specific installation, 45 min looped sound recording of Victoria Falls courtesy Gary Sze. Image courtesy EXPERIMENTA and the artist.

Fake and real waterfalls

Abbas used his installation Cataract to demonstrate precarious images in contemporary art. A 2010 exhibition straddling two galleries in Hong Kong, Cataract saw Abbas install a continually running shower in EXPERIMENTA Gallery and a kitsch animated light-box depiction of Victoria Falls in nearby Gallery EXIT. A looped soundtrack of waterfalls played in both spaces, and a metal guard rail was used to hold viewers back, mimicking a tourist site.

“When you go online and look for images of waterfalls, they’re almost all the same,” he told culture magazine Surface Asia in 2011. “It’s supposed to be a unique experience but it [has] become so generic and modulated, it’s like you don’t have to go to see it at all. Even if something is real life, you’re always seeing it as an image, from a distance.”

By combining “the generic with [the] more generic” in this way, Abbas stated that he wanted to present two different visceral experiences to the viewer, neither of which were reality but both of which highlighted the tenuous connection between reality and the preconceived image.

Watch the video to get a better picture of Nadim Abbas’ Cataract (Victoria Falls – Main Fall / Rainbow Fall), from Gallery EXIT on Vimeo.

Abbas’ previous work has also explored the notion of precarious images. Marine Lover, an installation by the artist that was exhibited at ART HK 11, took the coral reef, another generic image of nature, as its starting point. Instead of using the image to convey cliché, Abbas wanted to draw out its complexity: “Coral has this ambiguity – it’s not a plant, it’s an animal, but it’s an animal that exists in such a totally different way from us,” he told CNN Travel. “Conceptually, it’s like a cross between an object and a living thing.”

Making the poor political

By exploring and exposing visual clichés, the artist claimed it is possible to re-contextualise images, not just in their physical sense, but also by re-situating them in history and society. For contemporary artists to do that, said Abbas in his Para Site talk, requires belief in art itself,

For an artist to engage with the image in such a fashion requires faith in the autonomy of art, in its contradictory capability to position itself at a remove from the world, yet somehow still contribute as an active agent of change and transformation. In other words that art can be political without becoming a glorified form of social work: this is the contradiction of art.

The Para Site International Conference was held from 11 to 13 April 2013 and featured talks by curators, art writers, artists and critics, such as David Teh, Ruth Noack, Erika Tan and Charles Merewether.


Related Topics: Hong Kong artists, art lectures and talks, installation art, political art

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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