Sunday, November 7, 2010

Void on Fire: On Nadim Abbas' works

photo courtesy of the artist

Void on Fire

Venus Lau

“The fire runs, and hollers on the blank page”

Liu Wai Tong, “Mysticism, a Song of Failure”

Telling stories with the body itself, narrative cannot avoid the trajectory of moving from one door (material or imaginary) to another, walking or rushing between being and becoming, presence and absence. The window, which constitutes one of the primary moments of imagery in the visual language of Nadim Abbas, acts to interpret the door, demonstrating its dialectics of inside/outside without bringing it into ontological existence. For Abbas, the window is sometimes a gasp voiced in the midst of a confrontation between mirror images and sometimes a fountain of bliss for the voyeur. One portion of the installation “I Would Prefer Not To”(2009) is a line of windows formed by dark glass mounted with window grates. In “Untitled” (2000), the viewer is seduced to look through a window into a boxlike white room without doors. “Perspective Studies” (2001) places wheelchairs, light, and windows in a set intended to test the viability of optical illusions, the black-and-white checkered floor twisted nauseatingly out of space.

This interest in windows also extends to the grates and frames so ubiquitous throughout the city-scapes of of Hong Kong and South China. “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Again” (2007) represents yet another attempt to interact with the possibilities of the window, here in the form of a sound installation making explicit reference to Marcel Duchamp. The work develops strata of signification, juxtaposing a porn magazine clipping resembling Duchamp's “Étant donnés,” window grates framing images of waterfalls, and a chair covered with cacti.

Within the household, the installation of window grates is typically intended to either prevent robbery or avoid small children falling out--these different aims that are actually one: the prohibition of traversal (through the window). Abbas further consolidates this interdiction by hanging his window frames on solid walls, a limit in contact with the rejection of continuity. Abbas is not, of course, the first person to transform observations of these grates into art. Mainland Chinese artist Liu Chuang's “Split Landscape” (2005) marks a similar such interrogation of the spatial functions of such extensions to the window, extracting the visual elements of a three-dimensional cage-like grate form once popular in Shenzhen and turning it into a stainless steel sculpture with a highly formalized and flattened visual presentation. This same object clearly serves different purposes in the practices of these two artists: Liu is concerned with researching a geometric aesthetic of the grate as an image by peeling it off from the functionality of the defensive structure, while Abbas displaces the windows in order to dissolve the dialectics of inside/outside through a discontinuity in visual perception raised by a physical aluminum veil. The window, here, is like a ship--Foucault's heterotopia par excellence--a “placeless place ... closed in on itself and at the same time ... given over to the infinity of the sea” (Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces”). It goes nowhere and everywhere.

Besides the window, the figure of the Rorschach test image makes a significant appearance in the practice of Nadim Abbas. The window grate patterns from “I Would Prefer Not To” actually correspond to ten strictly symmetrical inkblots from the Rorschach, while “Untitled (14-03)” (2010) consists of a set of drawings mingling the outlines of such inkblots with the floor plans of apartments in Hong Kong in which there occurred a homicide or suicide on 14 March within the past 15 years. This project creates an imaginary non-space defined only by absence. Less obviously, example “Ornament and Crime” (2008) involves an installation constructed out of white pipes through which observers roll ceramic fengshui balls before smashing on the floor. The symmetrical design of the pipes here certainly resonates with the Rorschach test images, if remotely. Abbas makes reference to clinical psychology again in “I Would Prefer Not To,” another component of which is a specimen box of different manga action figures intended to correspond with MCMI-III (Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory-III) disorders. In comparison with the hype of psychoanalysis adopted as cultural theory in the art world, Abbas is far more concerned with psychopathology. The body, which Schilling calls an “unfinished biological and social project,” is manipulated and fragmented by the clinical gaze, while psychology expands and limits the possible dimensions of the subject through language. Here, art cuts into the human body without the presence of the latter.

Nadim Abbas’s latest project, “Cataract” (2010), is consistent with a certain obsession with windows and grates, including a light box highlighting an image of a waterfall (similar to that used in “The Bride Stripped Bare”). But this is only half of the project: the other half is a continuously running shower system within an environment making reference to a certain filmic anxiety, mirroring the imagery of the waterfall in a different register. The continuous artificial waterfalls may resemble the cylindrical lamp depicting the Iguazu Falls that features prominently in Wong Kar-wai's movie Happy Together, or perhaps the digital fengshui calenders mass-produced in mainland China, typically consisting of a large light box occupied by a lush landscape or Buddhist images on one side and digital clock on the other. It would be overly hasty, however, to cloak this work in the narrative fabric of social criticism related to the extremes of Fordist production modes or clichéd cinematic reference.

The title of this project relates the imagery of the waterfall with a pun, a linguistic forking path. Semiotically and physically, as translucent water is beat into a milky color by virtue of its own velocity, the project speaks in opacity. But opacity, from the window grates that divide the fabricated continuity of an imagined landscape to pieces of dark glass, deformed floor plans, and inkblot images, far from acting to block vision, can actually open up space for new interpretations of the phenomenology of space. This space, however, is never as simple as a large void or volume to be filled with whatever appears. Opacity in some ways wipes out the visual markers of certain objects while producing new schematics of signification and metaphors, but, on the other hand, it also provides a “universalized process of recognition” (Slavoj Zizek, “The Matrix, or the Two Sides of Perversion”) for the viewer--quite similar, in fact, to the function of the Rorschach test. For Nadim Abbas, the production of the space of possible symbolic engineering is a fire that simultaneously burns down and lights up its object; the singularity of space is always followed by vanishing, remaining in an unavoidable moments of becoming or morphing into a new and ephemeral appearance.

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