On the occasion of his solo exhibition Poor Toy, which opens on Monday 10 June to coincide with Art Basel 2019, Hong Kong-based artist Nadim Abbas discusses his new work and influences. Incorporating references from design, the domestic and the every day, Abbas explores how contemporary living conditions have produced particular psychological patterns, trends, and subcultures. He positions the domestic space as a site of horror, using groupings of sculptures – produced from hacked flatpack furniture, cast concrete, and custom-made mattresses – and vacuum-packed drawings.
Susie Pentelow: Could you start by telling me about the title of the show, Poor Toy, and how you choose it?
Nadim Abbas: In a roundabout way… it’s a quote from the Dhammapada that I found in a book by horror fiction writer Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, which deals with the problem of pessimism and/or nihilism; often associated with the genre of supernatural horror and H. P. Lovecraft.
Susie Pentelow: Poor Toy explores an overlap between domestic space and the horror genre. What inspired your interest in this?
Nadim Abbas: IKEA, in part. Who hasn’t had that humbling moment in an IKEA megastore, trapped in a vortex of repetition; where life slides into an empty void of meaningless consumption? I say this, but with equal awe for IKEA’s integration of global logistical infrastructures into all aspects of their designs. In other words, no item in the IKEA inventory exists unless it can be fabricated within a certain price point, en-masse, and is easily broken down and transported according to standardised methods. The lengths at which IKEA has gone to achieve this is staggering. Then there is the strange intimacy of a homeware manufacturer peddling goods that sit somewhere between desire and banality. The way I see it, modern horror, starting with Lovecraft and inherited by Ligotti, also sits on this intersection between desire and the banal. There is a mystique that draws you in, even to the most ordinary of things, only to discover lurking beneath the surface, not monsters and demons, but something even more terrifying: a ruthless and efficient system of pure rationality. The way in which modern horror capitalises on this relationship is to accentuate the ambiguity of the everyday, where the most innocuous object or setting has the potential of creating a situation of abject terror. The point here is that one cannot differentiate between the ordinary and the terrible, as they have become one and the same. There are certain classics of the horror film genre that have exploited this ambiguity to great effect, such as The Thing (John Carpenter) and The Shining (Stanley Kubrick).
Susie Pentelow: Due to the positioning of VITRINE’s gallery space on the public square, your exhibition will be visible to the public 24 hours a day. Has this informed the way you’ve developed this work?
Nadim Abbas: There is an image that I have in mind, where the windows of the gallery are transformed into virtual screens of light, throwing all the objects inside into sharp contrast. More importantly, there is an uncertainty about where this light is actually coming from, much like the eerie stillness of paintings by Edward Hopper or Giorgio de Chirico. With the VITRINE installation, I have attempted to reverse this relationship somewhat: instead of having light coming from nowhere, the objects manifest their own material “shadows” by nature of their construction/modification. So there is this impression that no matter what hour of the day, this image of a shadow is fixed in place, unaffected by the actual changing light conditions.
Susie Pentelow: Your work draws thematically from a large variety of sources – from art and literature to psychology and biology. How do you balance a research-rich practice with the need for your work to ultimately exist independently of this?
Nadim Abbas: I have an obsessive compulsion to get lost in my subjects of enquiry before lifting a finger to make anything. This potentially endless condition of accumulative mental wandering and physical immobility usually lasts until an imminent deadline forces me to act. When I am faced with the material reality of the construction process, a whole host of limitations come to the fore, which I see as liberating rather than a hinderance. The material acts as a kind of editor or guide that sharpens the focus of ideas, or introduces new possibilities altogether. Another way to put it is that I make in order to forget. But there is always something that is translated into the process of making, even if not in an entirely conscious manner. There is always this push and pull between one’s intentions and where the process ends up taking you. When I look back at my own work, I usually notice the things that have been left out, or things that I wish I had left out. Perhaps these absences are a way of keeping things open to interpretation, to let the work take on a life of its own when confronted with changing contexts and audiences.
Susie Pentelow: In your recent installation 4 Rooms (一梯一伙) for the 12th Shanghai Biennale, a performer occupied a space furnished with simple white structures suggestive of flatpack furniture. Is there a thematic link between this installation and the work you will be producing for Poor Toy?
Nadim Abbas: To date, all of my work with performers has attempted, through various choreographed languages, costumes, masks and settings, to achieve a state of assimilation into the environment. The performer wants, effectively, to become an object, to mimic and succumb to his/her surroundings like a stick insect does with a twig. Poor Toy is really just another manifestation of this death-drive, where the assimilation is complete, leaving only questionable traces of a former existence. The irony is that in the absence of the living, it is the objects that come alive, in our heads, going through the motions as it were.
An interesting parallel here would be the phenomenon of “hikikomori”, or urban shut-ins which informed 4 Rooms, and some haunting photos that I recently discovered of “kodokushi” (AKA “apartment of lonely deaths”) in Japan. From the latter, there is this particular image of a pair of false teeth left behind by the deceased on a stained mattress that I have borrowed explicitly for Poor Toy. What is significant for me is how both hikikomori and kodokushi have this relationship to domesticity and confinement as forms of social alienation in an excessively positive achievement society. When all is said and done, is there something other than “positive” that can be gleaned from these extreme cases of negativity?
Nadim Abbas: Poor Toy
11 June – 25 August 2019
Private view: Monday 10 June, 7-11pm
Artist in Conversation with Aoife Rosenmeyer: Thursday 13 June 2019, 11am-12noon