Hong Kong Artist Nadim Abbas and his dead coral reef
Things are going well for Nadim Abbas, one of Hong Kong’s most intriguing young artists.
Last November, the 30-year-old held his first solo show, "Cataract," a two-part exhibition at Experimenta and Gallery EXIT. It featured light-box images of a waterfall framed in a window with metal grates typical of Hong Kong's residential buildings, and a functioning shower.
Critic Robin Peckham described it as an “ambitious and sensually domineering” exhibition. It served as a culmination for much of Abbas’ past work, which draws inspiration from literature and psychology, often making use of mirrors, frames, windows and tanks.
Abbas' next high-profile show will be at the much anticipated Hong Kong International Art Fair (ART HK 11), which runs from May 26 to 29 at the Convention and Exhibition Centre.
On a humid Friday afternoon, we found the Hong Kong-born installation artist in a Sheung Wan café, rifling through a stack of drawings and notes. Abbas approaches his art the way a doctoral student does his dissertation, with seemingly endless amounts of reading, research and meticulous planning.
“Here, I’ll show you some diagrams,” he says, pulling out a sheet of paper that depicts a corridor studded with small, irregular objects.
“This is a petrified coral landscape. There’s a black light on the floor and the walls are covered in white coral, so it should glow.”
Titled "Marine Lover," the 18-meter corridor covered in white artificial resin coral will be Abbas’ installation at ART HK 11.
Abbas hopes to recreate a bleached coral reef that seems to have existed in the exhibition space "for an untold geological period of time." The alleyway-like set-up forces the viewer into a kind of tunnel vision mimicking what a diver sees through a diving mask.
"Marine Lover" draws its energy from a fascination with coral that has preoccupied Abbas for years.
“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 says. "Conceptually, it’s like a cross between an object and a living thing.”
Each piece of coral is actually a colony of thousands of tiny organisms known as polyps. They exist in a symbiotic relationship with zooxanthellae, a kind of single-celled plant that provides nutrients to the coral, which in turn provides it shelter.
It’s the zooxanthellae that give the coral its mesmerizing colors, and when there is too much environmental stress, the plant dies, causing the coral to turn white, a phenomenon known as coral bleaching.
While that is reflected in Abbas’ use of white in his installation, his interest goes beyond the coral itself to the relationship people have with it.
Coral reefs have been a source of obsession for centuries. The debate on the origins of coral reefs first consumed the scientific world in the late 19th century. Today, the contention surrounds whether or not coral will survive man-made environmental disasters.
Then there are the marine enthusiasts who build perfect artificial coral environments in aquariums for their fish. Aquarium-keeping is a popular pastime in Hong Kong, and Abbas' corridor is a direct reflection of the miniature marine Utopias.
“I’m interested in these hobbies that people have that turn into these obsessive situations,” he says. “I’m mimicking that in my work.
"Basically, I think I’m a pathologically obsessive person who has to read an instruction manual from cover to cover before I can lift a finger. That manifests itself in my work through a kind of fetishistic approach to my subjects.”
"Marine Lover" will be installed in a one-meter wide fire passage between booths at ART HK 11. It risks being in a rather discreet location, but Abbas says that is part of the intended effect.
“It’s less about blocking the flow than it is about opening up an unexpected space.”