Dialogue with Nadim Abbas: Images in Reverse

“Death to the author, long live the reader… that to me is the spirit of Comparative Literature”

NADIM ABBAS 唐納天 (MPhil 2006) is a Hong Kong installation artist. He is interested in exploring the structural and political properties of images and their unstable relationships with reality. With a solid theoretical basis, his sculptural installations are immersive environments of ambiguous forms that challenge our perception of space. Drawing from his hands-on experiences and observations as an art practitioner, he shares how two seemingly disparate modes—the theoretical and the artistic—may converge and complement each other.


As Nadim humbly described, his development as a visual artist was conventional and almost unsurprising. He finds the visual medium “easiest” for him, and feels most confident working with it. His bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts provided him the practical training, but not the tools to unravel the theories and concepts behind. “I felt I was not well-equipped enough to delve into these concepts. I was in that phase of life where I was trying to come to terms with these ideas.”

Interestingly, as a visual artist, Nadim was not as interested in visual arts as in philosophy and critical theories. “I remembered approaching a professor from the Art History department first about supervising my MPhil research, and after we talked he felt that my interests were more aligned with that of Comparative Literature.” He ended up developing his MPhil thesis under the supervision of Prof. Jeremy Tambling, who guided him through his peripatetic research interests. “I was reading the works of all these important literary figures like Barthes, Bataille and Blanchot. During this period, I was living an ‘absorbed’ and ‘absorbing’ life, having the time and space to get around those issues that I wanted to unravel.”

Besides engaging with intellectually stimulating ideas, Nadim had the opportunity to work on a task related to his interests as a film buff—compiling the Department’s film library. “Basically we were drawing up a ‘wish-list’ of films. We emailed other faculty members and postgraduate students to ask what films they wanted or were doing research on, and then ordered a ton of DVDs from kubrick (the bookstore next to Broadway Cinematheque).”

Capturing Ambiguity Through Precision

A prominent question that Nadim’s works revolve around is the intricate interaction between urban space and the psyche. For instance, how cultural and social phenomena like otaku and hikikomori relate to the effects of hyper-
dense urban habitation, especially in the context of Hong Kong. “It’s the familiar trope of the artist holding up a mirror to reflect the world we are living in. Many things surrounding us are very ambiguous and hard to pin down,
but my works try to capture such ambiguity in the most precise way possible.”

In addition to its social relevance, his visual art practice is deeply reflective. He maintains a critical distance with what he is primarily working with. “I’m preoccupied with the question of what an image is, and the ways in which the physical space intertwines with image space. The collision of these two perspectives, or dimensions, frames the world we see and experience.” Through his works, he prompts us to rethink what has been taken for granted.

In his recent piece at an exhibition on cyberpunk in Tai Kwun, he incorporates durational performance into an installation, with masked performers dressed in costumes creating images with their bodies. This approach, taking inspiration from methods used in physical theatre, extends his previous explorations into the inherent performativity of his work with place and objects. “I wondered how the state of a performer trying to become an object would change the dynamics between the living and the inanimate. This is an interesting territory, and can be read as an analogy of the contemporary condition, where inanimate objects are coming alive and living things are reverting to a zombified or death-like state.”

This duality manifested and experimented in his works also characterises his experience as a creative artist. “You find yourself in a situation that’s almost paradoxical. Every day can feel like a holiday and simultaneously a prison sentence. The creative process brings pleasure and stimulation, but it also consumes your being.”

Blending the Theoretical and the Artistic

To Nadim, Comparative Literature embodies hybridity by drawing from varied disciplines and locating unexpected associations. This strategy provides him with a new way of articulating what he wants and also what is not normally made up of words. “I can take theory and insert it into studio practice—to create a symbiotic relationship. As one continues to experiment, theoretical practice itself becomes art practice, and vice versa.”