Apocalypse Postponed: Nadim Abbas at Art Basel Hong Kong

The opening of Art Basel Hong Kong on 15 May sees the return of the popular Absolut Art Bar, a collateral project that for the 4 days of the fair turns a cocktail bar into an art installation and vice versa. This year, Absolut is collaborating with Hong Kong artist Nadim Abbas, whose installations often combine the kitsch and the scholarly to create immersive works that challenge commonalities of perception and cultural narrative.

Referencing influences as diverse as pharmaceuticals, cult sci-fi and Kafka, Abbas’ site-specific art bar Apocalypse Postponed will explore the grey zone between peace and war.

A:Can you describe what you’re creating in the Absolut Art Bar, and what kind of events you have planned?
The early thinking behind the project was that I wanted to construct a kind of safe haven inspired by bunkers and things like that. Ive been working with an architect friend of mine, Sebastien Saint-Jean, who’s been advising me. We came up with this sand bag enclosure idea; the whole space is really made out of sandbags. You walk into a kind of room, and its a trench basically.

We’ve been tweaking it a long time and we keep changing the plan, because there are all these things that need to work inside the space. Its different from making a sculpture or something like that- there are certain briefs here, like how to incorporate the bar itself. And because we’re going to have performance and there’s going to be music there’s also a stage. These are the two main things – the bar and the stage – and one of the interesting things was to find ways to incorporate these into the whole design of the space.

A:Will there be an installation inside the bunker or are you just creating a sort of superstructure?
For me, the structure is the installation, if you can even call it that. I don’t know, I’ve started to become more wary about using the word ‘installation’ actually. Most people call me an installation artist, but I’m starting to think maybe not. I wouldn’t prefer any other term necessarily, but its become a kind of fixed thing in itself, this idea of installation. I just do what I do.

A:Military themes and the idea of war obviously play a big role in this art bar project. Can you tell about how you use the image of war and whether you use it consciously in your work more broadly?
I would say this is the most explicit war reference that I’ve ever made. In my other work the war theme is much more sublimated: it’s really more about how the military state manifests itself invisibly in everyday life, in domestic situations or through different forms of technology. So in my work outside of the bar, I guess I think about how even the technology behind a vacuum cleaner can be related back to a certain military situation or invention. That crossover between wartime and peacetime know-how is a recent interest of mine, and the question for me is whether the war ever ends. Is it a perpetual thing even though we think we live in a peacetime state? Maybe peace is a kind of hippy illusion.

A:These themes of come up in the Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now. How much of a direct reference are you making to the film?
Obviously the title is derived from that, but I wouldn’t say the project has too much to do with the film. There is a kind of interesting way in which Apocalypse Now deals with a media blitz and replaces that with the napalm blitz, that satirical element; for me there are elements like that in Apocalypse Postponed but they play out in different ways. If I go back to this question of why the bar is a much more explicit rendition of the war theme, I think it’s because it’s an immersive installation. I’m was very conscious that lot of my other work its about the act of looking- yes I make installations, I make environments, but it’s always about the act of looking. Because of that there’s a certain distance between the looker and what they’re looking at, and there’s always a liminal distance with that set-up. But with this bar project that’s not possible because you inhabit the space. So you can’t stand back and look, you’re inhabiting it, you’re consuming things inside it, you’re watching a performance inside it… you’re part of it. Which is why it made more sense to construct the space to inhabit, rather than to do what I normally do which is to think about how a space is turned into an image.

A:So you would say this is a first for you, making an immersive space of this sort?
NA:You could always argue that the installations I made before are immersive too. But the fundamental relationship to space here is quite different, and that’s something I was conscious of. It’s more ambient here, setting up an ambient environment and getting a reaction to that. The space itself is a big statement in a way, but its also about the details that we add to the space, from the cocktails to the sandbags.

Actually, we’ve been thinking of printing stuff on the sandbags. Silhouettes of rice weevils. Originally I wanted the rice weevils to be part of the drinks. I was thinking of this David Lynch insect thing, eating away at the edifice of humanity. I’ve been growing rice weevils at home, but its more difficult than I thought… I have a little bucket of weevils but there are nowhere near the millions I need for the project! So I decided to make it more symbolic. Insects, cockroaches surviving nuclear holocaust, and the insects being the food of the future, that’s why I wanted that to happen. It’s a pity that couldn’t happen, really.

A:You couldn’t put rice weevils in the cocktails, but otherwise did you get to design them have they been specifically for Apocalypse Postponed?

NA:The cocktails are very specific. Absolut asked me if I could design them, which is one of the most fun things I’ve ever done.You get the most professional mixologists on the planet to work with you; you send them ideas and they come back to you with amazing possibilities. I was interested in messing around with the way you drink the cocktails- not only must they taste good, there must be a different form of drinking happening.

I took all these military applications, so some of the drinks come in these steel vessels, like a World War 2 mess tins. And one comes in a vacuum pack, which was inspired by space food- and you drink it directly from the bag through a nozzle. For the other drink I though a bit about pharmaceuticals, so we’re using an actual calcium supplement tablet that you buy over the counter; it’s an effervescent tablet, so you have the drink and then you drop the tablet in and it fizzes up, and then there’s a weird pipette thing with ginger juice. It’s a lot of fun.

A:Last year you wrote a short story for a project at Spring Workshop (Hong Kong) which also had a post nuclear, post-apocalyptic theme. Why do these concerns inform your work so often?
NA:Why? Maybe I’m just absorbing all the current anxieties. It’s the kind of thing that you see in the news and movies all the time. I guess it’s also because of my obsession with science fiction. I’m a sci-fi geek, and dystopian worlds are an archetypal subject for science fiction.

A:What performances will be happening in the space?
I don’t know if that’s why they contacted me, but I guess you know I’m in a band. Originally I thought it would be nice to be performing but I don’t think I could handle so much attention. So I started by talking to people from the local music scene and drawing up people in an intuitive way who I think would work with this project. There are two sides to this project: one is that this is some sort of art installation, but on the other side I’m also throwing a big party. I don’t mind that part at all, it’s a fun thing to get to do. So Ive been talking to friends of mine, bands that I like, asking them to perform.

There’s a lot of variation in the kinds of music performances. There are more conventional onstage performances, and I’ve also been talking to jazz and experimental musicians about doing improvised sessions. The improvised sessions won’t necessarily be on the stage, they might be distributed through the space. Apart from having a main stage, we’ve got some ad hoc areas where musicians can set up and play. Also, an ongoing collaborator friend of mine who’s a composer, Steve Hui, is composing an ambient soundscape for the space based on the apocalypse theme. The idea is you have the space which is like a shell or enclosure, which gives you a certain kind of environment and ambience, very walled in and insulated from the outside. But it’s not just the structure, there’s also a sonic element and how this sort of background muzak will animate the space. And you also have the performers, who’ll be playing either in response to the ambient soundtrack or will be playing amongst themselves, and that’s also related to this idea of trying to activate the space itself. So the activation happens in many kinds of ways.

A:Are you going to play movies in the installation?
I wanted to shoot a short film originally, but then I couldn’t really think where I would show it in the space. It seemed a lot of work for something that wouldn’t fit. But there are visuals for the performances that are attached to the musicians themselves, and then I asked a local animator, Wong Ping, to put together a series of animations which will be shown on TVs. The animation is going to be something with weevils, a Kafkaesque giant weevil. Ping had a nice image of an office worker with weevils crawling out of the suit and eating the person, and in the end the person’s head is replaced by a gigantic weevil head. I wanted to throw this party but make something dark about it, something off colour. It’s more real that way. Everything’s so unreal with art fairs, and I wanted to make a fantasy, unreal space with some sort of subterranean violence to it. Weevils, war, and you’re standing around with your cocktails in the middle of it all.

Cassandra Naji

Apocalypse Postponed will run from 15-18 May, during Art Basel Hong Kong.

1. Nadim Abbas, ‘Zone (1)‘, (2014), lightweight concrete casts, robotic vacuum cleaner, rug, skirting board, house paint, dimensions variable. Image courtesy Gallery Exit and the Artist.