The day-long itinerary plots a course through a handful of sites in the city, which have in one way or another influenced the form, content, and processes of Nadim’s practice. Since Hong Kong has been his home for most of his life, some of these places have been all too familiar to him since childhood. This project now offers him the opportunity to spring fresh surprises on unsuspecting “tourists”, and possibly on himself as well.
To complement the tour, check the twitter and facebook and soundcloud posts via storify, as well as the text "The Pathology of Hong Kong in the work of artist Nadim Abbas", an account of the tour by Zoe Li on ArtInfo.com (includes a slideshow).
Follow future events on Twitter: #IncidentsOfTravel #Moderations
Incidents of Travel: Hong Kong
by Nadim Abbas
19 January 2013
Although I usually speak about my work in terms of images and the imaginary, there is always an equally important component that describes an encounter with externalspace. By that I am referring to the heterogenous space in which we live, which we rarely have time to reflect upon except in a state of distraction. But just because there is no time to reflect doesn’t mean that these spaces don’t affect our thoughts, subtly penetrating the internal space of our imagination; in some cases to the point where one can no longer distinguish between the internal and the external, or between dream and reality. It is these moments of uncertainty that interest me the most, and which, in my own experience, transforms art making into a perpetual balancing act on the threshold between banality and oblivion.
The itinerary outlined below plots a course through a handful of sites in Hong Kong, which have in one way or another influenced the form, content, and processes that define my practice. Since Hong Kong has been my home for most of my life, some of these places have been all too familiar to me since childhood; waiting for the right opportunity to spring fresh surprises on this unsuspecting tourist.
Waterfall Bay Park, Aberdeen, Hong Kong
Waterfall Bay is said to have attracted Portuguese and British ships to its shores to collect fresh water from its namesake as far back as the 16th century. Today, about 30m from the falls lie the ruins of a WW2 military pillbox and petrol powered searchlight, referred to officially as “Beach Defense Units” by Allied troops during the Japanese siege of Hong Kong in 1941. A few minutes walk from the rocky beach along the coastline, residents of a nearby public housing estate have over the years converted what looks like a disused pier into an veritable seaside resort for the local community. Despite numerous government placards warning against swimming in ungazetted waters, residents eager for an early morning dip in the South China Sea have gone so far as to add ad hoc steps, pool ladders and even fresh water facilities for an after-swim wash.
For the less adventurous, there are shelters and seating areas where the elderly gather everyday to play chess/cards, chat or simply watch the boats passing by. But perhaps the most endearing aspect of this site are the hundreds of porcelain statues of various Chinese deities clustered along the hillside and shoreline. I don’t know what started this particular outdoor collection; perhaps a makeshift shrine to protect local fisherman, or to commemorate a traumatic event? Or because it is considered unlucky to throw away statues of deities, they were quietly transferred to this idyllic setting instead. Needless to say, this latter aspect lends the whole site, already steeped in history, with a certain sacred quality. In a city like Hong Kong, where the regulation of land use usually falls into the purview of one dimensional governmental policies or market driven real estate developments, such elaborate appropriations of public space are a rarity. They represent in my mind a kind of fragile heterotopia, or an unwitting piece of relational art par excellence.
Nadim Abbas, Cataract (Iguazu Falls), 2011. Kinetic lightbox with Duratran print and aluminium window frames. 70(h) x 85(w) x 15(d) cm. Courtesy of the artist.
Concrete Islands, Eastern Street, Hong Kong
My fascination with marginal spaces in the urban landscape began with this network of concrete islands that are located beneath the Connaught Road West flyovers next to the Western Harbour Tunnel (WHT) entrance. It is a site that I regularly pass by on bus rides to Kowloon side, and it became the model for a 46sq/m sandscape that was built in a warehouse space as part of an installation titled Afternoon in Utopia(2012).
Man Cheong Street Housing Complex, Jordan, Kowloon
As we all know, Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. This is typically illustrated via descriptions of crowded streets in districts like Causeway Bay, Sham Shui Po and Mong Kok, or of the ubiquitous high-rise public housing estates around the territory. This latter aspect is indicative of the tendency, which began under colonial rule, to build upwards rather than outwards to meet the demands of a growing population. Ackbar Abbas, in Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance (1997) writes:
"Hyperdensity is partly the result of limited space, but it is also the result of how this limited space could be exploited for economic gain. On the one hand, the colonial government deals with the problem of hyperdensity by constructing cheap housing estates. On the other hand, the government policy of releasing crown land bit by bit at strategic moments and its prerogative, which it duly exercises, of designating land as rural (where strict building restrictions apply) or urban, ensure that building space remains scarce and property prices remain high."
Photo: Trevor Yeung.
Stuck in traffic conversations (Left: Mimi Brown and right: Nadim Abbas).
In the early 90s, a group of Japanese architects conducted an in depth survey of the city, extolling the virtues of hyperdense living, and going so far as to liken this still existing complex of apartment blocks off Man Cheong Street (another regular sight for me on weekly cross-harbour bus rides) to the infamous (now demolished) Kowloon Walled City:
Circulation inside the apparently solid block is not horizontal but vertical. Each slab-building is actually a grouping of towers, separated by slender slots. [...] Within these slots of space, like everywhere else in Hong Kong, however, residents have built illegal elements. Thus, although at first glance this highly ordered building complex looks nothing like the chaotic Walled City in Kowloon, it shares with it many features, such as its density of use and its vertical circulation.2
My own concerns regarding the phenomenon of hyperdensity have to do with the kinds of sub-cultures, or modes of (anti)sociability that emerge as a result of extended inhabitation. This has translated into research and immersion in otakuculture, which carries with it stereotypes of socially inept male subjects walled up alone in their apartments; as if the dense accumulation of cramped interior space encourages an introversion, or vacuum of mental space itself. Interestingly, the Chinese word for otakuis宅男 (zaak naam), where 宅 is short for housing (complex) or tenement (block), and 男 means male.
The final leg of this tour takes us down a number of well-known streets in Hong Kong, which are prime examples of the kind of vibrant street culture that characterizes a hyperdense city like Hong Kong. They also provide a historical cross section of architectural styles in the region, from pre-WW1 “Verandah” type buildings to modern-day podium towers. Each street is known for its specific cluster of specialized shops and/or stalls. Tung Choi Street, for instance, is affectionately known as “Goldfish Street” since it is almost exclusively lined with pet shops and aquarium suppliers. My choice of these 3 streets in particular reflect my own interests as a consumer as much as producer. In fact it is often the case that I get ideas via shopping, or window shopping - there is always an excuse to pick up another piece of useless junk...
Shanghai Street, Yau Ma Tei, Kowloon(Kitchen and restaurant supplies)
Tung Choi “Goldfish” Street, Prince Edward, Kowloon(Pet shops, aquarium supplies, bicycle shops)
Nadim Abbas, Marine Lover, 2011. Mixed media (Polyresin coral casts, fluorescent black lights, plywood, door frames, mirror), 300(h) x 100(w) x 1900(d) cm. Courtesy of the artist.
Ap Liu Street, Shum Shui Po, Kowloon(Electronic components, consumer electronics, camera accessories, hi-fi & AV equipment, hand/power tools & accessories, flea market)
...as well as fishing nets
1 In his visual essay, On Marginal Spaces: Artefacts of the Mundane (2011), Peter Benz devotes a whole section to the discussion of concrete islands. For a fictional account, see J. G. Ballard’s Concrete Island (1974), a kind of Robinson Crusoe for the twentieth century.
2 See architectural journal, SD (Space Design) Hong Kong: Alternative Metropolis No. 330, March 1992.
Nadim Abbas (Hong Kong, 1980) is a Hong Kong-based installation artist. His work explores the intricate role that memory-images play in the intersection between mind and matter. This has culminated in the construction of complex set pieces, where objects exist in an ambiguous relationship with their own image, and bodies succumb to the seduction of space.
Abbas studied sculpture (B.A.) at the Chelsea College of Art and Comparative Literature (M.Phil.) at the University of Hong Kong. He currently holds teaching posts at the Hong Kong Art School and City University of Hong Kong. Notable exhibitions and projects include: “No Longer Human”, Osage Kwun Tong, Hong Kong (2012); “Marine Lover”, ARTHK11, Hong Kong (2011); “Cataract”, EXPERIMENTA & Gallery Exit, Hong Kong, “FAX” Para/Site, Hong Kong (both 2010); and “Louis Vuitton: A Passion for Creation – The Hong Kong Seven”, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong (2009).
Soundscapes of "Incidents of Travel";
Storify "Incidents of Travel";
Flickr album of the four tours of "Incidents of Travel";
'Incidents of travel' tour with Yuk King Tan on 24 January 2013;
'Incidents of Travel' tour with Ho Sin Tung on 29 January 2013;
'Incidents of Travel' tour with Samson Young on 7 February 2013.
All photos: Latitudes | www.lttds.org (Except noted otherwise in the photo caption)
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.