5 fictional characters who inspired my art practice – Nadim Abbas, Hong Kong artist

Hong Kong artist Nadim Abbas reveals five fictional inspirations in honour of Art Radar’s fifth birthday.

Art Radar turned five in July 2013 and to celebrate we are bringing you a collection of top fives from artists and arts practitioners across Asia. In the third of the series installation artist Nadim Abbas lists five fictional characters who have inspired his art.

Nadim Abbas, 'I would prefer not to (宅男)', 2009, C-print. Image courtesy the artist.

Nadim Abbas, ‘I would prefer not to (宅男)’, 2009, C-print. Image courtesy artist.

Hong Kong’s Nadim Abbas is known for his thought-provoking installations and recently took part in Spring Workshop‘s 4 day project A Fictional Residency, during which seven authors, including Abbas, wrote and published short stories.

Bartleby, Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street (1853)

The quintessential “man without qualities” who provides the opaque face of Herman Melville’s eponymous short story or novella. The story is narrated by an elderly Manhattan lawyer who runs a lucrative practice processing “rich men’s bonds and mortgages and title deeds.” Bartleby is employed as a scrivener (or copyist – these were the days before photocopiers and computers were invented) in this lawyer’s office to tackle the increased workload and balance out the counterproductive tendencies of the existing scriveners under his employ.

After a brief period of promising industriousness, Bartleby starts to perform fewer and fewer tasks around the office to the point where finally he ceases to do anything at all. To the increasing dismay of the lawyer, Bartleby’s stock response when asked for a reason for this inactivity consists of the indeterminate turn of words, “I would prefer not to.” I once borrowed this same phrase to frame a series of works from 2009 that dealt with otaku (geek) subcultures and passive forms of contemporary resistance.

Etsuko/Old Cho, Domu: A Child’s Dream (1980-1982)

Domu is a graphic novel written and pencilled by Katsuhiro Otomo. Similar to his more well-known sci-fi epic, Akira, the story arc of Domu centres around the use and abuse of power as embodied by individuals with psychokinetic capabilities. But, whereas Akira takes place in the larger setting of an imagined post-apocalyptic (Neo) Tokyo, Domu is set almost entirely within the confines of a fictional housing complex, which lends it a more uncanny interior/domestic inflection.

The “child” that is mentioned in the title refers to both of the main characters who possess psychic powers: Etsuko, a young girl who has just moved in with her family; and “Old Cho,” a senile old man who is responsible for the spate of mysterious deaths that have plagued the complex. Perhaps the enduring appeal of this story lies in its believability, where the psychological condition of the inhabitants is inseparable from the nature of the spaces that they inhabit.

Nadim Abbas, 'Untitled (24th March),' 2010, pencil and inkjet on paper. Image courtesy the artist.

Nadim Abbas, ‘Untitled (24th March)’, 2010, pencil and inkjet on paper. Image courtesy artist.

Thomas Jerome Newton, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963)

A character who was rightly made famous by David Bowie in Nicolas Roeg’s film adaptation of the novel, Walter TevisThe Man Who Fell to Earth depicts a super-intelligent humanoid alien who travels to Earth seeking to construct a spaceship to ferry the dwindling population of his dying planet to safety.

Moving past the extra terrestrial thematics, the story is really a heartrending depiction of what it means to be human. Newton, despite his superior intelligence, finds it difficult to cope with the intensity and contradictions of human emotions, as he becomes exposed to the different facets of Earth culture, from television to alcohol. One of the key moments in the novel for me occurs when a CIA agent uncovers Newton’s alien identity, via a discarded fake Bayer pillbox originally constructed on Newton’s home planet Anthea, out of information derived from stray television signals beamed through space. This scene provides a marvelous analog to the kinds of reconstructions that Earth scientists are producing today out of interstellar footage from Mars and beyond.

Nadim Abbas, 'Afternoon in Utopia,' 2012, mixed media installation. Image courtesy the artist.

Nadim Abbas, ‘Afternoon in Utopia,’ 2012, mixed media installation. Image courtesy artist.

Solaris, Solaris (1961)

Another depiction of extraterrestrial life forms, this time in the guise of a sentient planet. Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris masterfully avoids the problem of depicting the alien as caricatures of human thought (swamp monsters, little green men…) by opting instead to depict the impossibility of our ever communicating with the alien other.

Psychologist Kris Kelvin arrives onboard a scientific research station that has been hovering over the churning oceanic surface of Solaris for decades in the hope of gaining contact with its alien inhabitants. Shortly after, he begins to experience traumatic hallucinations, in which the simulacra of his dead wife materialises, confronting Kelvin with the guilt and painful memories of her death by suicide.

Eventually, it turns out that the other members of the crew have also been experiencing similar episodes of long repressed memories returning to haunt them in material form. It is later deduced that such phenomena were, in fact, caused by Solaris itself, which has in turn been “studying” the minds of the human subjects by probing into the hidden recesses of their psyche.

The result is that the more we know about the human protagonists, the less we are capable of understanding the motives of the alien. In Lem’s own words: “Science fiction almost always assumed the aliens we meet play some kind of game with us the rules of which we sooner or later may understand. However I wanted to cut all threads leading to the personification of the Creature, i.e. the Solarian Ocean, so that the contact could not follow the human, interpersonal pattern.”

Nadim Abbas, 'Satellite of ⁂,' 2013, mixed media installation (detail). Image courtesy the artist.

Nadim Abbas, ‘Satellite of ⁂,’ 2013, mixed media installation (detail). Image courtesy artist.

Simone, Story of the Eye (1928)

Since I first read the book as an impressionable university student, George Bataille’s first published novel has had a profound and lasting impact on the way that I have thought about my practice. As the title suggests, Story of the Eye tells the story of an object through a cycle of avatars “down the path of an imagination that distorts but never drops it.” Hence the love story and debaucherous sexual exploits of the teenage narrator and his angelic companion Simone become the vehicle for this migration of the “Eye” throughout the narrative.

For instance, in a particularly revealing chapter where Simone recovers from a minor accident, she describes her mania for breaking eggs in her behind in the following terms: “Upon my asking what the word urinate reminded her of, she replied: terminate, the eyes, with a razor, something red, the sun. And egg? A calf’s eye, because of the colour of the head (the calf’s head) and also because the white of the egg was the white of the eye, and the yolk the eyeball. The eye, she said, was egg-shaped. […] She played gaily with words, speaking about broken eggs, and then broken eyes […].” The image of a razor slitting the eye of course brings to mind another hallmark of the Surrealist imagination, the famous scene from Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou; and it is through such images that one is afforded the possibility of transcending simple form-content dichotomies towards something that touches the very depths of one’s being.

Nadim Abbas, 'Tetracycline,' 2013, video loop (still). Image courtesy the artist

Nadim Abbas, ‘Tetracycline,’ 2013, video loop (still). Image courtesy artist

Nadim Abbas, 'HBV,' 2013, GIF animation. Image courtesy the artist.

Nadim Abbas, ‘HBV,’ 2013, GIF animation. Image courtesy artist.

Nadim Abbas


Related Topics: Hong Kong artists, lists, installation art

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