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Steve Roden in Hong Kong

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Steve Roden, Various Small Gradual Fires (and a bowl of resonant milk), 2012, Plexiglass, wood, sound composition, and audio equipment.

The LA sound artist, musician, and painter is currently showing a new piece at the City University Creative Media Centre, where I’ve coincidentally also curated another exhibition opening tonight. Over the last few days I’ve been spending a lot of time with Steve’s work, spread over five floors of the building in unlikely corners.

Renovation

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The Saamlung gallery space, photographed just as renovation begins.

Review: Singapore Biennale 2011

By Venus Lau

Biennials are usually considered a marketing strategy for countries and cities, showing off an idealized persona to “outsiders.” This edition of the Singapore Biennale, taking place at the National Museum of Singapore, Singapore Art Museum, Old Kallang Airport, and Marina Bay, continues to demonstrate the cultural strata of the country by coordinating venues of various functions. The show opens with the theme “Open House,” exploring locality and the processes of art production; artistic director Matthew Ngui and curators Trevor Smith and Russell Storer claim that one aim is to eradicate the public fear of art. Some works do, indeed, look quite friendly, including Ceal Floyer’s Overheaded Projection, which places a light bulb on a projector and thereby stirs up prosaic concepts of products and light sources, although the old trick of achieving minimalist form with everyday objects pales in the Old Kallang Airport, itself loaded with architectural density. This “friendly” Biennale, however, also exhibits just like any other exhibition a number of works of sheer scale, the aggression of which can only be softened. Take, for example, Michael Beutler’s Steamed Buns, an installation of gigantic pillars made from paper and metal wire boring down at the audience. Located in the lobby of the Kallang terminal building, visitors walking through to other rooms in the building actually break, through route and trace, the negative space of the work as a whole; intimidation and seduction generate fluctuations of distance between work and viewer.

Ming Wong’s five-track video piece Devo Partire Domani/ I Must Go. Tomorrow. remakes Pasolini’s 1968 film Teorema. The artist plays the roles of the various protagonists in the work, dismembering its linear narrative of a bourgeois Italian family’s infatuation with a mysterious young male even as the partitions of the exhibition space further strengthen the framework of this segmentation, but this acting does not wash away Wong’s identity but rather ironically accentuates the artist as a storytelling subject, just as theatrical make up deepens his facial features. Simon Fujiwara’s installation Welcome to the Hotel Munber, on the other hand, turns the space into a kitschy Spanish bar filled with meticulous details making reference to historical and fictional discourses from homosexual fantasies to the Franco regime., creating a hyperreality with fake Spanish sausages hanging from the ceiling. Michael Lee’s imagined architectural models, too, embody this conception of spatiality through the physical and sculptural bodies of books. Tan Pin Pin’s The Impossibility of Knowing, by contrast, takes the form of a short video documenting the sites of unnatural deaths, these moving images juxtaposed with a calm voice reading news items related to these fatal cases. The use of long, static shots results in a visual effect unlike video but recalling, rather, photographs smoothly breathing; the absence of the human figure runs parallel to death as the eternal traumatic lack on the empirical horizon. The historical, journalistic, and other narratives of the works described here act simultaneously as blind spot sand peep holes, gazing at each other and weaving crystalline images that dream of the future while extending a smooth space into an ontological parallax gap.

Artists in the News is the work by Koh Nguang How, who has collected items related to Singaporean contemporary art from newspapers since the 1980s. Appearing as an enormous collection of art-related clippings, including the obituary notices of artists, personal fates are allowed sneak into public space through lowly newspaper pages. Charles LaBelle’s Corpus, Guilty, and Public Intimacy depict sketches of buildings on the pages of the titular titles authored, respectively, by Jean-Luc Nancy, Georges Bataille, and Giuliana Bruno. Exhibited in three components, all belong to the artist’s ongoing project of drawing the buildings he personally enters. John Low’s installations Ghost Stories and Skying more or less reconstruct the artist’s studio, creating a space for research into media reports on ghosts and the representation of the Singapore River in local art history.

Work involving intervention and social critique is easily accessible in the Biennale, the most outstanding of which may be Jill Magid’s video clips drawn from surveillance cameras in public areas in Manchester, attempting to decode the biopolitcal stare inscribed within the body. Arin Rungjang’s Unequal Exchange/ No Exchange Can be Equal, on the other hand, is an imitation of an Ikea showroom: mass-produced products from the world’s largest furniture retailer are deployed in the space at a high density, while the artist invites Thai migrants in Singapore to meet and rest. This use of workers and products to criticize the capitalism of empire, which can no longer be so simply summarized in the dialectic of use value and productivity, manifests a failure to insert distance between the imagery of the work and the object of its critique, causing a short circuit in potential interpretation. A similar problem can be spotted in the Superflex video Flooded McDonald’s, which appears as a carefully fabricated if futile satire of the global fast food conglomerate, particularly in comparison to the group’s earlier work Free Beer; that double-edged take on the communist ideals of intellectual sharing and the capitalist desire for privatization is absent here. These works become plastic spaces with explicit iconic meanings as “symptoms of political consciousness.” Intended to converge with social space, most appear as statements of position rather than radical criticism.

The Biennale’s gesture of an open door does not bring closeness but rather paradoxically permeates the exhibition with signs of distance as encounters and confrontations between artists, viewers, works, spaces, cultural symbols, and concepts transform into aesthetic vectors that attract and collide. In some ways the curatorial statement, seeking to erase the public’s fear of art, may function as a case study in “paternalistic models of communication,” marking the great gulf imposed between different types of participants in the power structure of the art world. Fear is always an active and essential ingredient in art, working at a specific distance that consumes the outlines of the familiar symbolic and realistic worlds in an instant: fear becomes a reality that demands an immediate reaction, but will be substituted by another fear when it is situated too far from the viewing subject. The Singaporean Biennale seems to mediate this distance and make it, in the words of Rilke, “the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure.” More politically-correct works in the exhibition make an attempt to grope at the shape of political utopia through negation, but ultimately only accentuate the distance whereby utopia lives on–familiar political and exotic symbols do not make it any closer. On the other hand there are works like that of Fujiwara, who re-presents memories of events that never took place through an assortment of of fabricated, personal, and historical discourses. Particularly interesting archival works seduce the bodies of artists and viewers to become a “spacing” of cultural and physical textures via the processes of reading, collecting, and viewing, creating a new ontological “small optics,” a la Virilio, that grounds new vanishing points in discursive space.

Exhibition: “Writing off the Wall”

Samson Young,

Samson Young, "Machines for Making Nothing #1: Triumph of the Spectacle,

“Writing off the Wall”

Nadim Abbas, Bai Xiaoci, Lee Kit, Kitty Ko Sin Tung, MAP Office, João Vasco Paiva, Adrian Wong, Samson Young

Curated by Venus Lau and Robin Peckham
Organized by Kunsthalle Kowloon (S.E.C.P.)

Opening 26 May 2011, 14:00 – 20:00
Forum 29 May 2011, 10:45 – 16:00

In and around the Hong Kong Art Fair
Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre
North Wanchai, Hong Kong

Kunsthalle Kowloon is pleased to announce “Writing off the Wall,” an exhibition of recent art concerned with textual intervention to be staged during the period of the Hong Kong Art Fair in public and privates spaces throughout the neighborhood of North Wanchai. The project will open to the public on the afternoon of 26 May and will continue indefinitely until participating works are confiscated, stolen, or destroyed.

The last week of May has quickly become the marked period of the Hong Kong art world calendar: despite previous attempts at organizing a territory-wide art festival across different registers of spaces and galleries, it is ultimately ArtHK that has come to occupy the defining role in determining what the world thinks of cultural production in the city. With this in mind–and of course recognizing that anyone serious about maintaining a curatorial relationship to Hong Kong must do something in this key moment–we began to think of what our program might contribute to this synthetic and ephemeral week-long ecology of vision and pleasure. Seeking to produce the fact of intervention through the most minimal and non-hostile means possible, we consider the possibility of effecting an incident of media engineering that might be legible only within the discursive sphere. We hold no ill will against the commercial activities of the art fair but nonetheless believe that something should occur to insert or at least imply new meanings within this fast-codifying structure of exhibition and presentation. And so we come upon the notion of text: a flexible medium without any necessary presence prior to typography and not necessarily limited by the strictures of language, we are curious about the possibilities of this approach to intervention–a stealth proposition.

Considering the relatively unique audiences that appear during the period of the art fair, consisting not only of international visitors but also a certain category of Hong Kong residents who appear primarily at the fair, we began to examine the various publics and audiences that exist at different spaces and in different situations at various other times of the year. It appears that few in the Hong Kong art world are interested in questions of audience direction, as most purportedly community-based projects tend to define their programs by the coincidence of unconscionably bad art and hostility toward the contemporary art world. “Writing off the Wall” seeks to reconfigure the structural possibilities of relationships with our varied audiences by accounting for the violence of public positioning: rather than demarcating a particular space for the exhibition, artists have been invited to install their projects as they wish throughout the area of the art fair–indoors and out–in hopes that our highly specific public of fairgoers may stumble across or even be forcibly subjected to the work included. We attempts to produce a minor contradiction by making the exhibition as formally accessible as possible by placing much of it in public space, while on the other hand the content and conceptual import of the work may appear vague or absent for unsuspecting passersby not tuned to our chosen channels of communication (of which this mailing is one). The exhibition will be available–for a short time at least–but not obvious, a parody of the certain strand of community art that assumes it public to be “the street” writ large.

Confronting the mass of scholarship and critical reflection on the relationship between art and language produced particularly since the 1960s with the rise of conceptual art and its attraction to text, we find ourselves overwhelmed, enthused, and mildly disappointed in the lack of interest in the relationship between text as a medium that can only be instantiated with the assistance of some other material and language as a category simultaneously more encompassing but less relevant. This project seeks to again look closely at what materiality–and, of course, specific materials–have to do with art practice now, at a time and in a place where studio practice seems to be a sidelined genre in comparison with deterritorialized aspects of fabrication, participation, and intervention. Projects invited for inclusion in “Writing off the Wall” tend to deal with text as a tool, and language as a reservoir of potentiality sublimated by this more utilitarian device; material is typically a support, but also something that melds with and enters into a mutually dependent relationship with its textual superstructure.

We conceive of the exhibition as a platform for chain reactions that might themselves go on to catalyze new and interesting forms of visual or textual discourse. Rather than approaching a theme and commissioning or inviting projects related to our work, the curatorial process for this particular platform involved simply presenting the possibility of minimal intervention in the art fair environment, possibly using text, to a group of artists with demonstrated interests in such practices. Even this statement was written only after collecting proposals from these artists, making the project not so much a curator-driven exhibition as a piece of flexible material for the support of media-driven messages and sly hints at possibilities. “Writing off the Wall,” as a radically collaborative response to the filtered and economical mission of the art fair proper, exists during this time as a possibility of another way of looking. We hope our audiences will learn to read the terrain they tread as if it were a map, seeking out the moments of content within the broader form that we adapt to our own purposes. By making an entire neighborhood the space of an exhibition we seek to call attention to the role of the legend, the key to deciphering our graphic world, without which everything appears to be something.

Artists contributing projects to this textual platform, oriented around this document, include Nadim Abbas, Bai Xiaoci, Lee Kit, Kitty Ko Sin Tung, MAP Office, João Vasco Paiva, Adrian Wong, Samson Young; their work ranges from posters and namecards to monumental sculptural moments and electronic devices. A map will be made available of installed work at www.kunsthallekowloon.org and, in printed form, from the Hong Kong Gallery Guide booth art ArtHK.

In addition to these installations in the environs of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, a selection of critics and curators have been invited to deliver a program of site-specific talks on notions of public, audience, and community in the art fair context. Updated details of this schedule will likewise be available at www.kunsthallekowloon.org.

Distributed forum, 29 May 2011 (Sunday)

10:45: John Batten (Critic and co-convenor, Central and Western District Concern Group), “After Sunday Yumcha: Thirty-three ‘must-knows’ about leisure, money, art, and space in Hong Kong” (Open space between Immigration and Revenue Towers, at Norman Ko sculpture)

14:30: Pauline J. Yao (Co-director, Osage Art and Ideas), “Audience and Client: Curating for the profit sector” (ArtHK, Osage Gallery Booth)

16:00: Jeff Leung (Project Manager, Hong Kong Arts Centre), “Art Out of the White Cube: Public art in Hong Kong (Hong Kong Arts Centre, lobby)

Lee Kit: Watching Soaps

Published on ArtSlant.
Text by Robin Peckham.

Lee Kit: ‘Watching Soaps (I can’t recall the day that I last heard from you.)’
Osage Gallery
5/F, Kian Dai Industrial Bldg., 73-75 Hung To Rd., Kwun Tong, Hong Kong
22 January – 22 February 2011

In his fifth major solo exhibition in two years, Lee Kit demonstrates his ability to think not only in terms of projects and series of work but also through the apparatus of the body of work–an agglomeration of practice similar in scale but evidently distinct in quality from the exhibition, connecting multiple styles and series through a thematic or perceptual axis of experience. Working at an almost superhuman rate of studio production, he has recently consolidated one of his many styles–that of the iconic painting on cardboard–in the course of just over a year, indicating a trajectory that diverges from that of his better known cloth paintings. Work produced through this newer method, in which the artist reproduces in a rich palette the logos of skincare product brands to which he is almost fetishistically attracted on the smooth surfaces of cardboard boxes folded in architectural if flat variations, has been seamlessly integrated into the artist’s wider practice, most notably in the “Story” series. Each of these narratives is constructed through a set of objects and images in different modes, typically including a printed photograph, a cloth sometimes mounted on board, and a cardboard piece. The paintings themselves are remarkable for the depth of tone and pigment, the placement of graphic devices originating in found logos, and, most notable of all, the way bits of text and stray brushmarks interact with the folds and undulations of their cardboard base; never are we allowed to forget that the precise and poetic economy of signs brought forth here derives, in fact, from the materials of waste. The maturation and consolidation of such works, included in this exhibition in greater numbers and monumental compositions for the first time, signifies that Lee may be preparing himself to move on–aesthetics perfection, after all, has never interested him.

Already pushing away from the exhibition of pure systems of painting and video that characterized his last two solo projects in Tokyo and Hong Kong, Lee Kit here splits this body of work into two components that speak to each other only indirectly. While the major portion of the gallery space consists variously of works belonging to the “Story” series, independent cloths and cardboards, and something resembling a cabinet of curiosities containing compelling objects from the inspirational phrase of the artist’s practice, an adjacent screening room contains a theatrical environment for the presentation of a video that moves far deeper into the territory of art-video than Lee has previously ventured. His last exhibition with Osage Gallery, in a much smaller downtown space, orbited a set of videos with similar imagery but presented in an installation setting drawing strong parallels with the karaoke experience; here, the moving images are made to stand on their own in a large wall projection, seemingly absorbing entire symbolic systems of communication into the flickering of meaningless speech and deliberately weak video moments.

But this pairing is nonetheless marred by the insertion of a gimmicky curatorial platform, that visible in the title: Watching Soaps. The exhibition is organized as if the gallery portion of the project were intended to prepare a particular emotional or psychological state in the person of the viewer, readying her to see the video within. Although the relationship between the two spaces might sound interesting in theory, in terms of experience it actually constructs an untenable hierarchy favoring the site of moving image production despite the visual dominance of the increasingly attractive cardboard paintings. Despite this cumbersome rhetorical structure, however, Lee Kit’s work is very much a part of the organic mass of his subtropical home, growing between and across the gaps between the more ordered concrete aspects of the city: even given this gaffe, his work continues to produce new systems of communication within the gallery space. Expanding from the levels of the single work and the thematic series to that of the body of work, here it is a strategy of choice, inclusion, and layering that manages to overcome the constraints of the exhibition itself. Like the artist himself, the work never quite belongs to the exhibition, remaining radically open to the intimate gestures of viewing through an uncanny tactics of independence.

Nadim Abbas: Cataract

Published in LEAP, Vol. 2 No. 1, February 2011
Text by Robin Peckham.

Nadim Abbas, "Cataract I," 2010

Nadim Abbas
Experimenta
LG/F., 89-95 Hollywood Rd., Central, Hong Kong
5 November – 11 December

Nadim Abbas, in his first complete solo exhibition, composes a scene that so resists interpretation that the viewer defaults into passive observation, submitting to a rather flaccid presentation of spectacle in the absence of a plausible guiding narrative. Several of the artist’s earlier projects fall into the category of conceptual assemblage, consisting of fragments of art historical imagery, design objects, and other components that collectively produce a surplus of information that ultimately numbs the viewer to the production of specific meaning, but here the problem is reversed: Abbas has fabricated an alternative to the white cube within the white cube, a blinding void of display space that displays nothing at all. Entering the environment through a glass door, hidden away from the neighboring gallery cluster in a rear alley, the audience is held at bay by a steel bar laid horizontally across the space. Directly ahead, a raised platform built over the floor is covered with white tiles, a shallow pool carved out of its center. Beyond this pool a freestanding vertical wall, also of white tile, faces the entryway; near the top, a shower fixture streams luminescent water into the reservoir below. On either side, hanging in parallel with this wall, translucent white shower curtains are illuminated from behind, masking also a large sound system playing a bass-heavy recording of a waterfall, enhancing and deepening the tinny sound of the shower installation. On the true wall to the left of the space, two sculptural hanging pieces mimic the rather slight aluminum window frames common to Hong Kong apartments, replacing their glass panes with the white tiles of the shower situation. The exhibition continues in a neighboring gallery with two similar window treatments in which kitschy backlit posters of waterfalls scroll from top to bottom to the accompaniment of another waterfall soundtrack.

Entitled Cataract, the project is ambitious and sensually domineering, commanding a certain depth and duration of attention rare to exhibitions so ambiguously imbricated within artistic motivations of the typical gallery space. The official narrative provided by the artist interprets the work as an experiment in optical effect that stages an attack on the crumbling edifice of purely retinal art, developing the concept of opacity (and, in particular, the moment at which transparent water becomes solid white at a certain speed) as a critique of the place of visual perception within cultures of contemporary art. Although the foundations of this idea are fundamentally literary, originating equally in psychoanalytical and phenomenological readings of textual modernism, the environment itself is profoundly antiseptic, allowing little of the raw sentiment required for such an interpretation; due to the barrelling sound and sight of the shower-as-waterfall, the viewer is instead required to submit, to remain external to and intensely critical of this vision from which she cannot pull away. There is a distinct refusal of immersion, of which the bar across the entrance is only the most literal manifestation. This entire architecture, warped as it is to create a singular physical effect and designed to provoke the cultural interpellation of sensory input, never progresses beyond the vacuum of concrete meaning it creates; references to decorative kitsch and actual window features are uniformly absorbed into the spectacle of the ceaseless flow of water from white to clear and back again. It would be simple, too, to approach anew Abbas’s prior production through the lens of this disastrously attractive monument to blankness: suddenly, his predilections for mirrors, frames, windows, and tanks all appear as tributary streams leading into this larger moment. Perhaps what the artist wishes to pursue is, after all, precisely this clarity of opacity, a defining situation in which to funnel the energies of artistic practice today–an environment that turns upon its audience by positioning the viewer as the only truly legible actor within the system at stake. Far from producing meaning via the mechanical architecture Abbas might have anticipated, the glaring white void swallows any possibility of interpretation, enacting the code of the inexplicable so fetishized in post-conceptual strategies.

Nadim Abbas, Rendering of "Cataract I," 2010

Who Cares? Essays on Curating in Asia

Published in LEAP, Vol. 2 No. 1, February 2011
Text by Robin Peckham.

Fominaya, Alvaro Rodriguez, and Lee, Michael, eds., Who Cares? 16 Essays on Curating in Asia. Hong Kong: Para/Site Art Space with Studio Bibliotheque and seed | projects, 2010. 187pp. ISBN: 9789889896393 (pbk.).

We find in Hong Kong something of a curatorial anxiety: there are very few makers of exhibitions active in the local art scene, and, though this is entirely in keeping with the small scale and number of available exhibition spaces, intimate connections between institutional academic research and critical writing in the territory lead to a general sensation of lack in this regard. It is fitting, then, that the leading nonprofit art space in South China, Para/Site, should team up with the omnipresent Jockey Club Charities Trust for a curatorial training course purporting to link international curators and writers with emerging local practitioners. This publication represents an outcome of that venture (perhaps more productive than the concluding exhibition), collecting essays on the state of curating in Asia by instructors and others involved. Taking advantage of the position of Hong Kong within an English-language discourse of international art in a Chinese context, this could be a fascinating project for exhibition practice across greater China.

A broad range of ideas are introduced here, many familiar but some, on occasion, quite novel. We read of the shock of the European curator operating in China for the first time, as Alvaro Rodriguez Fominaya describes how curators function as agents and alternative spaces as galleries. Singaporean artist Michael Lee outlines a range of roles, from art direction and publicity to administration and writing. Lee Weng Choy speaks of wonder. Most interestingly, Jans Hoffmann calls for a return to experimentation within the space of the gallery space rather than beyond it, a conservative notion that has become a minority position. Some of the more valuable perspectives here come from unexpected angles: artist Cedric Maridet writes on the necessity of an amateur approach to context-specificity in the sphere of sound installation, while art fair director Magnus Renfrew warns curators against becoming the ultimate consumers in the pursuit of the new.

The most striking summary of the publication can be found within the brief description on the rear cover: “ … these texts constitute primary notes towards ‘curatorial criticism,’ a subfield of cultural criticism that identifies the new in curating today.” This self-conscious positioning of the work as explicitly “curatorial criticism” rings true with the tone of virtually all of the essays included: the close reader will find banished from these pages any lingering aroma of the modernist idea of the heroic critic as an author of a certain literature in her own right, replaced with the cold and scripted discourse production of curatorial writing. Many of us working in these fields today may harbor sympathies for both ideologies of the pen, but it would appear that the time for a definitive choice between textual production and word craft may be close at hand.

Some (Special) Things an Artist Can Do

Published in another version in LEAP.
Text by Robin Peckham.

BizArt, the previous incarnation of MadeIn Space

This past year has seen the consolidation of a number of strategies for adapting to the at times paradoxical but always parallel challenges of survival and production, many of which would be unrecognizable or even barred from the institutionalized cosmopolitan alternative systems by which they are often inspired. Take, by way of example, MadeIn Space, a reincarnation of the storied BizArt project now as a component of the corporate practice of MadeIn, the shell company that produces work for artist Xu Zhen. Although it continues to show work somewhere left-of-center, the organization no longer abides by the necessarily strict non-profit-generating guidelines of its former self. Indeed, it would seem that the more artists and other art workers are given to embrace such alternative functions the less interested in institutional structures they become; at this moment, it would appear that Hong Kong remains the lone bastion of small-scale independent spaces in the form of Para/Site Art Space and 1a Space.

The Shop, a project from Vitamin Creative Space

Artists involved with spaces and collectives out of the mainstream have found new and novel ways to work both in and around the more established commercial gallery world, a relatively recent system dating to several years after 2000 that has nonetheless become strikingly rigid. In terms of artists who could reasonably be called a part of any alternative scene, the majority of those eligible for commercial representation (ethnically Chinese, typically resident in a major city, and willing to produce objects of some kind) tend to circulate throughout a handful of galleries known for a curatorial or artist-centered approach to exhibition programs, namely Beijing Commune, Boers-Li Gallery, Long March Space, Platform China, ShanghART Gallery, and Vitamin Creative Space. While most are now recognized as powerful commercial entities active internationally, increasingly professional management has curtailed any notion of wildly creative tactics of differentiation, conveniently allowing a growing set of artists to avoid the pitfalls of sole representation.

Liang Yuanwei exhibition 'Golden Note' installed at Beijing Commune

In particular, artists of the generation that includes Yang Fudong, Liu Wei, Jiang Zhi, Qiu Zhijie, Zheng Guogu, and Xu Zhen have managed to put this delicately balanced system to work on their behalf, inverting relationships that can be torturous for less experienced artists. Their younger colleagues, significantly more open to alternative strategies from the outset, have taken to accepting the necessity of the gallery model (often for storage and fabrication if nothing else) while speaking realistically about how it actually affects their work: even as their studio production cycles begin to fall into the rhythm of art fairs instead of primary gallery solo shows, artists from Chu Yun to Liang Yuanwei are exploring alternate exhibition possibilities in institutions and other commercial spaces. While very few artists can afford to reject gallery overtures outright, several have begun to look further afield to galleries in other international centers for primary representation while spreading their work around within China across a range of spaces and dealers.

SHIFT in Shanghai

Other organizations and ad hoc groups presenting public exhibitions refuse to focus on models of funding and vetting, preferring to view their projects as extensions of individual artistic and curatorial practices, as with Observation Society, Homeshop, SHIFT, Arrow Factory, Forget Art, Manufactura’s Studio, and the Donkey Institute of Contemporary Art. In many cases, these monikers mark an inertia of self-publicity more than self-organization, as more straightforward artist collectives seem to have sputtered in recent months; the vibe surrounding event-based collaborations of young artists like Double Fly Art Center, Small Productions, Company, and the Shufu Collective has ebbed considerably over the past year.

Jiang Zhi, 'Leaders Go First,' 2009

Further strategies beginning to make inroads via visiting artists and those educated abroad, if not yet accepted universally throughout the portions of the Chinese art world still dominated by the two major art schools, include grant funding and international residencies. Both are supported locally to some degree by organizations like Arthub Asia and the Mommy Foundation, but few artists based within China are able to get by on institutional commissions and foundation sponsorships alone; such attempts may nevertheless begin to gain ground at an accelerated pace as alternative spaces and collective projects are increasingly invaded by cultural workers with experience in the mechanics of this parallel system. Opportunities to bridge the commercial and the critical are likewise well-received, as with the Beijing section of the Artist Pension Trust that holds work from a number of remarkable and considerably undervalued artists from across greater China; as the earliest APT trusts first began selling work over the past year, there has surfaced the question of the extent to which the looming initial sales of work by Chinese artists will affect their markets and practices.

Su Wenxiang, 'The Disappearing 2RMB,' 2007

Finally and perhaps most notably, the bothersome stigma attached to artists with careers outside the studio has begun to fade. Although there has indubitably been a certain aura of romance surrounding the idea of the artist as an outsider cultivated since the image of the aloof humanist intellectual in the 1980s, the past several years have seen a willingness to rely on educational and curatorial work to support a lifestyle of cultural production–a strategy that was once seen as an admission of failure, either old-fashioned or simply embarrassing. Artists of a younger generation like Wang Yuyang and Zhang Liaoyuan, for example, remain dedicated to teaching at the Central Academy of Fine Arts and the China Academy of Art, respectively, while a range of players from Su Wenxiang to Zhou Tiehai have accepted significant positions at art spaces and museums.

Zhang Peili with the Pond Group, 'Tai-chi Series,' 1986

The dominant narrative of Chinese contemporary art history in the English language literature has consistently reflected a driving obsession with commercial activity, focusing narrowly on the immense financial movements of the past decade and a tight circle of artists better known through auction catalogues than through exhibitions. But while a handful of artists have found and even concentrated on astronomical commercial success, the full picture has always been more complex: we must recall that the first decade of new art in China, 1979-1989, saw the emergence of a vibrant alternative system marked by pervasive collective action and the absence of a single commercial gallery. Artist groups associated with the 85 New Wave and its precursors like the Stars, the Southern Art Salon, Xiamen Dada, the Northern Art Group, and the Pond Society are by now familiar to general audiences, and successive waves of alternative artist-initiated exhibition projects like Big Tail Elephant in Guangzhou and Post-Sense Sensibility in Beijing have had an immeasurable influence on both the aesthetic content and the working methods of younger artists looking to work in slightly less mainstream directions.

Chen Shaoxiong performs at a Big Tail Elephant exhibition

All of this is simply to say that collective and alternative ways of organizing have, over the past 40 years, been the norm more often than the exception; nevertheless, there has been a recent wave of excitement over the appearance of artist-run spaces and collective production that, coinciding with a period of market recovery after the absurdity of 2008, may seem particularly meaningful to observers entrenched in the curatorial and critical models of the institutional non-profit exhibition culture of other parts of the world.

Lin Yilin, 'Safely Crossing Linhe Road,' 1995

The central question, of course, remains that of striking a balance between the production of critical work and the pragmatic necessity of supporting that work within a fundamentally skewed and necessarily imperfect system. Each new possibility that arises–and there have been many over the past year–allows for slight but significant changes in the forms of artistic practice, an open dialectic process that presents a fascinating case for research into the evolution of contemporary culture.

The Border Show: Notes toward an exhibition

Text by Robin Peckham

MAP Office, 'Lean Planning Thin Pattern'

This is an experiment in exhibition-making. It begins with the situation of cultural production and circulation throughout the Pearl River Delta, a conurbation that forms a cyclical distribution structure through which goods travel more freely than people. Encompassing a near continuous metropolis that stretches from Hong Kong and Shenzhen in the southeast through Dongguan, Guangzhou, Foshan, Zhongshan, Zhuhai and ultimately Macau in the southwest, the region is marked by fascinating paths of growth (a form of just-in-time urbanism that Hou Hanru has called ‘post-planning’ and MAP Office has termed a ‘thin pattern’), unbelievable demographics (a population of some 120 million and an average age below 30 in certain cities), and an uncertain position in global exchange: although it was once known as the face of the Chinese economic miracle for its transition from farmland to manufacturing hub in the space of a decade, many factories have since decamped to interior regions with cheaper labor, and the Yangtze River Delta centered on Shanghai is increasingly usurping its role in finance and shipping. Nevertheless, contemporary Cantonese art has consistently been most interested in the possibilities for personal freedom and alternative visual production that emerge under the urban conditions made possible by these economic structures rather than manufacturing and trade per se, a fact evident in the growing list of alternative spaces and collective moments in the recent art history of Guangzhou and Shenzhen (and, as the territory becomes increasingly dominated by mainland Chinese cultural thinking, Hong Kong as well).

Installation view with work from Leung Chi Wo (Photo courtesy of Jon Phillips)

The most interesting nexus within this system occurs at the point of friction between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, a functionally-international border that operates as a point of exchange between China and non-China even as it regulates the definitions of these terms through a complex diagram of class, race, nationality, and power. Here, there is a privilege of passing that entails more than appearance: this is the right of passage, a rite in which many thousands indulge every day, but it is also a ritual of consolidation from which many millions are excluded on ambivalent terms. We find it productive to think of the border in this particular scenario as a mechanism, as something more than a gate that selectively allows visitors and other bodies in motion to pass from one side to the other; much more so, it also produces these very bodies and enacts a particular visual culture of passing. From the types of goods offered for sale at the entrances and exits to the border crossing to the luggage in which they are transported, from the types of clothing and hairstyles of those crossing to the uniforms and modes of transportation on either end, the figure of the border exists as a very special moment in the cultural imagination of south China, positioned somewhere between 1980s Hong Kong cinema, reform and opening, and grocery shopping.

Installation view with work from Hu Xiangqian (Photo courtesy of Jon Phillips)

This exhibition emerges as an experiment in adopting this structure as a culture of display. The central strategy is simple: to produce a cultural space that might take on such a border-mechanism function. Within this strategy of course, is embedded a set of tactics contributing to a field we might classify as the curatorial; our tactics include balance, representation, space, sound, re-use, displacement, and so on. The exhibition takes place within the archetypal conceptual architectures of the border, installed first in a set of disused shipping containers placed between the harbor and the hulking post-industrial buildings of the New Territories, an effective cultural border zone between the urban cores of Hong Kong and Shenzhen. It is then to be installed again in an empty factory complex on the edges of Shenzhen, and the process of moving these containers from one pole to the other–including the legal and financial labor involved in pushing art-and-idea from one side of the border to the other–will become a central component of the exhibition project. These two forms of architectural space, linked in the middle by the container truck, constitute the central shipping apparatus of the Pearl River Delta, summarizing through the use and re-use of space a process of movement and production spanning half a century from the rise of Hong Kong as an industrial hub to its rebirth as an export control point for the factories of Shenzhen–and again into a third stage as the latter complexes began to go bankrupt or move further inland. This is a history of failures, and one ripe for incorporation into the artistic trajectory that we might call an ontology of cross-border living.

Installation view with work from Nadim Abbas and Leung Chi Wo (Photo courtesy of Nadim Abbas)

Conceptualized during the global financial crisis of 2008, when the number of empty factories and discarded containers in Shenzhen and Hong Kong, respectively, had reached an all-time high, the project has, rather ironically, been forced to shift focus and downsize due to an increased demand for the tools of global export trade in 2010. The exhibition thus moves into yet further marginal spaces in its attempt to materialize both sides of this complex machinery, positioned in a former refugee camp (now golf course, naturally) in the middle of the eastern New Territories. Occupying five containers in a row of 10 on the edge of a storage yard–small by any standard–of several dozen, the site is dusty, windy, and cold. When evening sets in and the only light comes from the handful of barebulbs hung within the containers the effect becomes something along the lines of a night market, or, more appropriately for our purposes, a grey market. This is one of the major logics to inform our curatorial practice with regard to this exhibition: rather than working with artists to produce polished and resolved work that attempts to explore the border at a critical distance, we asked our collaborators to physically cross the border, often carrying materials, in order to complete their projects, essentially making for a grey market of ideas not quite ready for appearance at the real markets. It is also an instantiation of shanzhai culture, a phenomenon that has received much attention from the press in recent years. Stemming from the word for distributed domestic factory units that have emerged at various junctions of tension throughout early modern and recent Chinese history, this is a fascinating culture of reverse engineering, copying, reinvention, improvement, and innovation that has produced many of the partially non-functional technologies widely available in the regional electronics industries, the epicenter of which is located at Huaqiangbei in Shenzhen. The works described here are thus not-quite-ready, not-quite-unique, and not-quite-real; the same goes for the exhibition as a whole.

Matt Hope and Jon Phillips, 'Laoban Container Sounsystem,' 2011 (Photo courtesy of the artists)

The first container belongs to Matt Hope and Jon Phillips, inventors of the Laoban Soundsystem based in Beijing and Guangzhou, respectively, who have here produced the “Laoban Container Soundsystem” (2011). Fabricated under close observation at two factories outside Guangzhou, the work consists of a massive steel front plate cut and welded to custom dimensions in Huizhou and 40 speaker drivers made by hand to custom dimensions in Panyu. The steel plate is set flush several inches inside the mouth of the container and the speaker drivers are then wired into the empty holes left on its face, ultimately transforming the empty volume of the container into an infinite baffle prepared to take advantage of some 4000 watts of amplification. Hope and Phillips see their work as the tracing of a line between production and consumption, first taking advantage of the highly customized production situation in South China and then attempting to draw consumers–here, those moved by the sound produced by DJs at the helm of the system–into direct contact with the factories. The resulting piece fits in aesthetically with a peculiar erotics of the post-global manufacturing situation while on another level remaining a fantastically pragmatic piece of equipment for mobile event situations. Each and every element of the fabrication process becomes a telling signifier of this paradoxical situation: in this case the steel plate was made just millimeters too large, requiring the artists and curators to file, finagle, and otherwise negotiate the standardized geometry of ISO parts in order to complete the work. Interestingly, this error occurs as digital models–drawn on Hope’s computer according to the indicated ISO dimensions–clash with the reality of production when it at last becomes material with the collusion of steel and fire at the hands of underpaid technicians. Here, the engineering of sound can only be a political act: fabrication there, assembly here.

Leung Chi Wo, 'Fish Farm House,' 2006-2007, (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Hong Kong artist Warren Leung Chi Wo deals with this notion of the same object enacting different functions on opposite sides of the border in a less oblique way albeit with the distance of the documentarian, contributing the series of photographs entitled “Fish Farm Houses” (2006-2007). Executed in collaboration with anthropologist Sidney Cheung, these 60 images depict the transitional structures erected over the past half century in the northern New Territories in order to house owners and workers at aquaculture complexes; now that this industry is no longer economically viable, the buildings are used only as temporary resting places or housing for guest workers from the mainland. Often positioned in or adjacent to the closed border zone against the Shenzhen River, they are dwarfed by the rigidly designed skyscrapers and residential complexes built on the mainland side of the border. In this scenario the same architectural feature is able to reflect macroscopic shifts in economic flows, indicating the Hong Kong occupation of the fish farm territory during a period of economic and cultural growth in the city (namely, the 1960s and 1970s, when a mushrooming population of immigrants stressed the resources of the region) and then the later reoccupation by mainland immigrants themselves as the farms declined in productivity. Once known as fishing settlements, Hong Kong and Shenzhen alike are now far and way net importers of seafood; aside from demands of quantity, the waters here are now too polluted for a significant catch. In this exhibition these photographs are split into two groups: half of the images, those depicting interiors of the wood and metal structures, are placed inside the containers, presenting intimate views of kitchens, living rooms, and sleeping areas with their own liminal aesthetics of occasional habitation, while the other half, those depicting the structures from without, are instead printed as banners and hung over the entrances to the container volumes in an attempt to activate these standardized spatial units as objects. As the sun sets to the rear, the sky depicted in these external shots appears to change also from blue to grey.

Hu Xiangqian, 'Flying Blue Flag,' 2005, (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Hu Xiangqian, too, plays with the ideas of settlement as a counterpoint to migration, here through a video recording a hypothetical intervention into Chinese local political machinery entitled “Flying Blue Flag” (2005). Democracy is actually alive and well (or at least surviving) at the lowest tiers of municipal government in rural China; in an attempt to define its possibilities through a humorous aesthetics of breakdown, the artist tried to run for village head in an election for which he was ineligible, making a mockery of the democratic process and using every tactics available in order to win votes: in the less egregious cases he plays on racial prejudice and shows small business owners ridiculous renderings of his plans to redevelop commercial zones, while at the other end of the spectrum he offers outright cash bribes. All of this is executed in a style clearly derived in large part from American political drama and Hong Kong triad films, complete with waving flags, victory signs, ill-fitting suits, awkward handshakes, and copious backslapping–reminiscent, perhaps, of the early days of government in Shenzhen. Taking place in the small town of Nanting outside of Guangzhou (where he was based until a recent move to Beijing), this dramatic video delivers an intriguing study in the flow of styles and ideas across borders: here it is largely this aesthetics of political process that commands attention, particularly in light of the fact that elected leadership in this part of the world is rarely ever less farcical than Hu Xiangqian makes it. It is a game of rhetoric, one filtered through the populist political imagery of Shenzhen that is itself a shadow of the Hong Kong legislative system. Installed here on an old security monitor and placed on a stool in the rear of a container otherwise occupied by the photography of Leung Chi Wo, we begin to approach an aesthetics of border crossing, albeit one defined by the passage of ideas at the lower end of the economic spectrum.

Li Jinghu, 'Untitled,' 2011 (Photo courtesy of Nadim Abbas)

The third container is given over to Li Jinghu, widely but perhaps apocryphally labelled the only contemporary artist in Dongguan–the Pearl River Delta factory town best known for producing plastic consumer products and building materials rather than electronics, a massive migrant population compared even to Shenzhen, a thriving sex culture, and a pseudo-syndicalist style of government by corporation. Given this background, Li Jinghu had originally wished to fill an entire container with water and salt to mimic synthetic human sweat, materializing labor in an ambiguous way that would leave its biopolitical products locked up and unavailable to the spectator. And while labor is always invisible, for this exhibition it also proved difficult to control: given a nonporous ground surface and a large number of electrical cables attached to a generator in the immediate vicinity, this proposal proved practically impossible. The artist later proposed an alternative version in which detergent fluid (coincidentally, the old-fashioned “Labor Band”) and water filled a barrel also housing an air compressor, thus filling the container with bubbles. Although it was never fully filled, this did prove to be an interesting approach to social sculpture, birthing bizarre pseudo-organic forms that grow, shrink, morph, and move, traveling around the space of the mouth of the container over the course of each day. Initially viewed through doors closed so as to leave only a thin sliver of space through which to peep, as these forms grow the doors can also be opened, allowing the soap structures to leak out the bottom of the doors and grow toward work in neighboring containers. I admire most in this work a fidelity to material despite the contextual failure of the original proposition: interested in the productive capacities of the region, Li Jinghu creates his work entirely out of the plastic and metal domestic objects and appliances so widely available–produced in Dongguan for consumption in Hong Kong and beyond.

Nadim Abbas, 'Cataract II,' 2011 (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Aside from further photographs from Leung Chi Wo, the fourth container is dominated by an installation produced by Nadim Abbas entitled “Cataract II” (2011). Although similar in concept to a recent solo exhibition in two crisp galleries in downtown Hong Kong, here the container setting brackets this work as if it were an altar of sorts: set several feet ahead of the innermost wall, a clean white wall appears as a freestanding monolith. At is center a pair of window frames of the flimsy aluminum style so common to Hong Kong apartments (intended to keep children in and thieves out) block a backlit photograph of Iguazu Falls, the South American tourist landmark infamous locally for its starring role in the 1997 Wong Kar-Wai film Happy Together. The falls, in that film a metonymical reference to the enthralling depths of a lover, are here further mechanically enhanced by a scrolling water pattern between photograph and light source, clumsily animating the water effect and gesturing toward the wall hangings and digital clocks also–surprise, surprise–produced in the Peal River Delta. Less interested in such politics of production, however, Abbas seeks a more universal grammar of psychoanalytical architectures of the self based on the experience of viewing; in this space, a loud amplifier sitting behind the window plays a waterfall recording that serves to further immerse the spectator within this image. Such immersion, however, can only come at a distance–the production values of the environment are low enough to force viewers into a vacillating relationship of absorption and boredom, drawing attention to the apparatus of the window frame and pushing into the background the literary or poetic references of the waterfall and water itself. Although it sits on a small peninsula just several dozen meters from Tolo Harbor, the immediate site of the containers is dusty and barren, leading the artist to insert this particularly restful moment into the harsh metal space of the exhibition galleries. This is a very conscious psychology of architecture, one that requires no context but interacts with site and place wherever it is located.

Huang He, 'Lilliput,' 2011 (Photo courtesy of Nadim Abbas)

Probably overlooked by many visitors, this container also contains the diminutive work of Guangzhou-based artist Huang He. Consisting of nothing but rock sugar and folded paper, this piece, entitled “Lilliput” (2011), is intended as an intervention into the fengshui and general spatial environment of the container setting. According to the standard ISO dimensions of the shipping container and the location and style of art works within it (paying particular attention to the aspect of water in Abbas’s work), the artist was able to diagram the proper actions to take without ever seeing the site or indeed ever entering Hong Kong. As a result, the photographs to the left of the space have a short line of rock sugar along their inner edge, while the white wall opposite the frontal opening of the container is preceded on its right side with another such line. Directly to the right as one enters the space there is a third line, here also including two sheets of standard computer paper folded tightly into square shapes, both of which are covered with a typed segment of text but only one of which reveals this writing on its exterior. The latter such text, authored by the artist’s sister Huang Shan, consists of a poem that touches upon the Shenzhen River, the idea of a homeland, regional accents, Hong Kong television, and consumer culture in these two Pearl River Delta cities. The other, three paragraphs of prose written by Huang He herself, approaches similar themes through a different tone, recounting anecdotes from a childhood spent on the banks of the Shenzhen River–all the while keeping in mind the fact that she was born in Guangzhou and counts as her ancestral home the town of Zhanjiang. We find here the derivation of the work title: Huang He’s mother, at least as recounted in this text, worked in “Lilliput,” or the land of the little people, a colloquial name given to the theme park Splendid China, which reproduces in miniature the great nationalist landmarks of Chinese history. As to whether these talismanic texts and pieces of sugar had their intended effect on the space, of this I cannot play the judge; nevertheless, it may be worth noting that this container was consistently warmer than any of the others.

Adrian Wong, 'Kucheza Na Sisi: Footketballe,' 2011 (Photo courtesy of Nadim Abbas)

The final container is occupied by Hong Kong artist Adrian Wong, who uses it for a performance engaging with the history of the site as a refugee camp during and after the war in Vietnam. Leading up to the exhibition opening, Wong hired two African immigrants seeking refugee status in Hong Kong and asked them to think of how they are stereotypically perceived within the racially rather monotonous society of Hong Kong; an acting coach then taught them how to act out these attributes in an exaggerated manner and assisted them in developing characters based on such a persona. Equipped with these new theatrical personalities, the actors then went on to invent a bizarre ball game inside the container involving a ball balanced between the eye and nose, brooms, heavy metal balls, chalk circles, and piles of dirt. As audience members arrived the men attempted to teach the rules of this game to their new students, all the while casting the questions of political identity, race, and belonging into high relief. Wong consistently employs this strategy of overacting as a tool in his performance-based work, and the results typically make for aspects of documentation that remain strong even after the factor of liveness disappears with the passing of time: in this case, a sound recording of raised voices, whistles, and balls clanking on steel walls, continues to animate the container space. As during the performance proper, this creates an atmosphere of participation that can only be described as forced or partially unpleasant, interpellating the viewer as a component of the work without ever asking for permission.

Installation view of exhibition site (Photo courtesy of Jon Phillips)

This is the beauty of an exhibition in containers on a patch of dirt by the sea: it could be anywhere but, for the moment at least, it is here.

Void on Fire: Work by Nadim Abbas

“Void on Fire: Work by Nadim Abbas”
Published by Gallery Exit.
Text by 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 a trajectory 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 calling 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 voyeuristic bliss. One portion of the installation “I Would Prefer Not To” (2009) consists of 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 cityscapes 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 pornographic magazine clipping resembling Duchamp’s “Étant donnés,” window grates framing images of waterfalls, and a chair covered with cacti.

Liu Chuang, 'Split Landscape,' 2005

Within the household, the installation of window grates is typically intended to either prevent robbery or keep children from falling out–two different aims that are actually one: the prohibition of traversal (with respect to 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 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.” It goes nowhere and everywhere.

Nadim Abbas, 'I Would Prefer Not To,' 2009

Besides the window, the figure of the Rorschach test image makes a significant appearance in Nadim Abbas’ working practice. The window grate patterns from “I Would Prefer Not To” actually correspond to ten strictly symmetrical inkblots from the Rorschach tables, while “Untitled (14-03)” (2010) consists of a set of drawings mingling the outlines of such inkblots with the floor plans of thee apartments in Hong Kong in which there has been recorded an instance of either homicide or suicide occurring on 14 March over the course of the past 15 years. This project creates an imaginary non-space defined only by absence. Less obviously, “Ornament and Crime” (2008) involves an installation constructed out of white pipes through which observers roll ceramic fengshui balls that ultimately smash against 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 containing manga action figures intended to correspond with the disorders listed in the MCMI-III (Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory-III). Diverging from the hyped version of psychoanalysis adopted as cultural theory in the art world, Abbas is 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), continues this distinct obsession with windows and grates in two distinct spaces on a small street in the Sheung Wan district of Hong Kong. In one, two light-boxes show (subtly) moving images of waterfalls, while the other contains an installation with all the qualities of the theatrical set: glossy white bathroom tiles cover a low platform and a square indentation in its center, creeping all the way up a vertical wall punctuated by a protruding shower head from which water pours down ceaselessly into a recycling drain. The shower system, constantly running within this environment, makes reference to a certain filmic anxiety, mirroring the imagery of the waterfall in a different register. At the same time, the soundtracks of a roaring waterfall is juxtaposed against the crisp, white structure, colluding with the monumentality of the shower stand to endorse the cycling of water in a ritual sense. On an adjacent wall are hung two metal frames that cage white square tiles, their gleam muffled under the reflective surface that stands in for that of the glass panes. A metal bar in a matte silver tint extending between the bathroom set and the audience constructs a peculiar sense of viewing distance with its fleshy, disconsolate curve. The sound of the waterfall spirals through the space, trembling beyond it along lines of metaphor. Through the tonal undulation of the audio track one may even be able to visualize the bubbles and foam that, infuriated by the force of gravity against mass of water, burst in reasonless bliss, visualizing the transient glint of light on each bubble that recalls the eyes of aquatic animals.

Still from Wong Kar Wai, 'Happy Together'

The continuous artificial waterfalls may resemble the cylindrical lamp depicting the Iguazu Falls that features prominently in the Wong Kar-wai film 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 other Buddhist imagery on one side and a 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 modes of production or clichéd cinematic reference. The piece may instead shed some light on the politics of artistic production: the monochrome installation not only demonstrates a minimalist aesthetics revealing a process of abstraction, but also reminds the viewer of the white cube space–often considered the most convenient, if not ideal, space for the exhibition of art for its supposed neutrality and lack of presupposition. Nevertheless, this white cube space never embraces the actual work of art with open arms and a neutral context. The white cube arises historically with modernism, as argued by Brian O’ Doherty, who writes: “The history of modernism is intimately framed by that space.” This spatial ideology is heavy-handed, putting its own image before the art work. The bathroom mise-en-scène of “Cataract” may function as an attempt to deal with the gallery as an object rather than an empty structure waiting to be filled with events and other objects that take up portions of the space like actors moving around props on a stage, or even, for that matter, the laughing philosopher’s notion of the atom moving around the void. “Cataract,” on the other hand, interprets space as an object by changing this space into a place through the psychological mapping of daily experience (in this case, the act of showering). We have many curators and artists who treat space as an object: the exhibition Voids: A Retrospective at the Centre Pompidou makes for a strong example. Described as an “exhibition of nothing,” the display consisted of nine empty rooms created by artists from Yves Klein to Maria Eichhorn and Art and Language. Instead of pondering the ontological fable of verticality and horizontality in the spatial perception of art, “Cataract” investigates the possibilities of the cubic space as an object with precise dimensions that function as the limitations and fringes of semiotic implosion.

The title of the project relates to 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. Opacity, from the window grates that cut short 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 might appear. 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 for the viewer what Zizek calls a “universalized process of recognition,” quite similar, in fact, to the function of the Rorschach test. For Abbas, the production of the space of possible symbolic engineering is a fire that simultaneously burns down and illuminates its object; the singularity of space is always followed by a vanishing, remaining in an unavoidable moment of becoming or morphing into a new and ephemeral likeness. Opacity, sometimes, is a void choked by symbols and language.

Nadim Abbas, 'Untitled (Trinity Buoy Wharf),' 2001

Upon closer examination, the void is ubiquitous in Abbas’ work. Some of these voids are physical , as with the white tubes through which ceramic spheres slide to their self-destructive fates in “Ornament and Crime” or the empty cage of “The Fasting Artist.” Others are basically abstract, or otherwise diverge from the classical Western concept, as with the linear grates that teeter on the edge of metaphor in “I Would Prefer Not To,” creating a dimensional contrast between inside and out; or the mirror reflection of “False Mirror Tests;” or elsewhere, in the dysfunctional shower scene in which the physical bar and mental distance between audience and work prove that no transgression is possible (for it is not discernible in the work).

These manifestations of the void are linked with other elements of the artist’s work. Taking “I Would Prefer Not To” as an example, Abbas adopts explicit cultural references, including the genealogies of different Japanese manga heroes and the psychological paradigms of the MCMI-III. Such discursive systems are sutured together to form a net of connotations, as with the abstract insect-like Rorschach images paired with Hong Kong floor plans. The intangible void, including the heterotopia formed amongst the mirrors reflecting different aspects of his Duchampian peep-show, retains an impossible distance in order to protect a certain utopian narrative; this wall of imagination then creates an illusion of completeness that allows the imagery of the spotlight to emerge, inviting the void to glide across the discursive plane formed by these various paradigms as a trace of the inability to be subordinated to any other system of signification. The void becomes a surface across which additive or reductive traces roll in the form of allegory, metaphor, and random mental association. As a permanent transition between presence and absence in “I Would Prefer Not To,” it etches an extra semiotic layer into the scales of the MCMI-III. But this trace never wants to remain static, instead inherently dynamic and always resulting in a crack–something totally out of the hands of the artist and his practice–when exposed to the interpretations of the viewer. These cracks may interrupt traces just as, in the words of Tim Ingold, “a path of travel may be interrupted by a precipitous gorge in an otherwise level plateau.” This dynamic sense of mutation in and around the void actually creates and erases the traces of the discourses from which the artist borrows and reshapes; the void can not be reduced for any teleological ends, leaving us only to gaze upon its emptiness until we are passively blinded by the “beams of darkness,” to borrow the language of Agamben, that define the presence of the work.

Yves Klein, 'The specialization of sensibility in the raw material state into stabilized pictorial sensibility,' 1958

For Nadim Abbas, contrary to the Orientalist and anti-visual functions to which Yves Klein motivated this key figure of the void, the generic notion of emptiness calls for the void as a specific poetic machine to latch onto existing semiotic systems: opacity becomes adornment, a wildly blank fire of dazzling folds.