In this interview, Hong Kong-based installation artist Nadim Abbas discusses his understanding of Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street,” otaku culture, databases, the Umbrella Revolution, military fetishes, the urbanscape of Hong Kong, and how these seemingly remote elements are interconnected in his thinking and artistic practice.
Lux Yuting Bai: While interrogating our postmodern culture with digital technologies, your oeuvre appropriates nineteenth- and twentieth-century existentialist literature, including Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” In 2009, you directly borrowed the protagonist’s catchphrase, “I would prefer not to,” as the title for a series of surreal photographs that feature manga-like fictional characters. Do you interpret the Bartleby story as a manifesto on passive resistance?
Nadim Abbas: If you analyze the phrase from a semantic standpoint, “I would prefer not to” is neither acceptance nor refusal. I'm inclined to think now that Bartleby presents us not so much with a form of passive resistance, but rather a sort of immobility born out of a conviction that all choice is illusory. Bartleby is immobile not as a way of resisting the demands that are placed upon him, rather he is aware of all the contradictions embedded in every choice he could possibly make. He acknowledges the hypocrisy in every form of action and consequently applies an ambivalent attitude towards reality. The Bartleby story demonstrates less a form of passive resistance than pure passivity.
LYB: Non-action is also a form of action. Betraying one’s own freedom to choose is still a decision that entails consequences. By refusing to eat, Bartleby chooses death, despite the passive characteristic of his manner. There seems to be a death drive underlying this surface of passivity.
NA: “I prefer not” is different from “I will not,” which may be exemplified by someone like Gandhi and the hunger strike. The difference between Bartleby and Gandhi is that Gandhi’s resistance is civil disobedience as a direct response or protest against political injustice, while Bartleby signifies a form of literary paradox or escapism, if you will.
LYB: This notion of escapism is reflected in your works that investigate otaku, the Japanese subculture where the introverted male is withdrawn from the society and deeply immersed in anime and manga fandom. Since the emergence of the Internet, the phenomenon has become universal, carrying profound importance beyond the borders of a fringe subculture in Japan. How has otaku culture influenced your thinking and practice?
NA: The rise of otaku into a mainstream global phenomenon since the 90s has led to numerous mutations within various regional contexts. In the specific case of Hong Kong, the common translation of otaku into 宅男 (literal meaning: “apartment male”) carries a spatial emphasis, connoting dense, claustrophobic interior spaces in urban environments. It also somewhat conflates the terms otaku and hikikomori, which remain distinct in Japanese, where hikikomori refers more to an acute condition of social withdrawal. Hence the cliché of otaku as a solitary male figure—a bit like Bartleby.
In the Yaumatei district in Hong Kong, there is a place called “In’s Point,” essentially a condensed shopping center dedicated to otaku culture, like Akihabara in Tokyo. Dozens and dozens of tiny little stores distributed on multiple levels exist to satisfy every individual whim: scale models of mecha robots and historical war vehicles, comics and idol flashcards, Bellmeresque ball-joint dolls and vintage vinyl toy figurines, BB guns and combat gear, video games, hardcore porn, even ritual Thai Buddhist amulets. Each store is like a self-contained niche catering to the particular fetishes of its clientele.
As a childhood and occasionally adulthood consumer of manga and anime, I was drawn to these shopping centres—there are many dotted around Hong Kong—first out of a sense of nostalgia, then almost like a casual ethnographer, taking note of how supposedly asocial individuals could get together and share their mutual obsessions. For the I would prefer not to… piece in 2009, I started collecting mecha, monster, and Tokusatsu action hero figurines, which eventually formed the basis of the photo series you mentioned earlier, a kind of pseudo psychological inventory of character types.
My interest in otaku and hikikomori focuses on how they are nourished by the specifically dense urban fabric of a place like Hong Kong where even the cramped interiors of the shopping centers reflect the cramped interiors of a typical Hong Kong flat. From this psychic vacuum emerges a culture that finds solace in the seemingly, or may I say virtually, infinite space made possible by the Internet, with its anonymous chatrooms and forums. A place like In’s Point, then, not only embodies a real-world manifestation of a virtually driven universe, it gives the virtual a weight in the real world that brings into question the notion of reality itself.
LYB: In his book Otaku: Japan's Database Animals, Azuma Hiroki brings forth animalization as the third stage of postwar culture, where human beings abandon any type of relation to grand narratives in favor of the database. Otaku are “database animals,” as their desires are instantly satiated by searching for classified emotional and erotic preferences through online programming. It results in a superficiality and a superflat culture where men find it more and more difficult to articulate meanings beyond surfaces. How do you perceive this new type of consumerism in the postmodern information era?
NA: As far as I have read it, Azuma’s book introduces a way of viewing big data from a slightly more optimistic angle. It describes the database in relation to a Rousseauian idea of general will that ties various social communities and political entities together. Azuma presents an alternative model for thinking about the relationship between culture and deliberative democratic political systems in crisis.
LYB: In your works such as The Last Vehicle (2016) at UCCA, there seems to be a more literal parallel between animals and the otaku way of being.
NA: In The Last Vehicle, a performer, who we affectionately called the “alien,” crawled around a sandscape in a one-piece bodysuit. Elements of the costume were appropriated from the cult anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, as well as being designed to blend like camouflage with the setting. We went through great pains to develop a specific body language with the performer, who was instructed to move, or rather not move, like an insect mimicking a leaf or a branch. Picture a masked body, driven to disappear into its surroundings, to be engulfed by objects whose animation increases in proportion to its own lack of animation.
Another text that I keep coming back to is Roger Caillois’ “Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia,” which presents a striking counter-argument to the standard explanation of mimicry in the animal kingdom; namely as a form of deceptive camouflage used to protect the organism from hostile surroundings. Could mimicry instead be a “dangerous luxury” afforded by the organism’s orientation towards a reduced mode of existence, devoid of consciousness, as opposed to the orientation towards life and self-preservation?
Caillois draws parallels here with clinical accounts of schizoid human subjects, and also this notion of a death drive that you touched upon earlier. This depersonalization by assimilation to space is something that for me resonates deeply with the figure of hikikomori, who, like the schizoid subject, invents spaces of which he is the convulsive possession. Like becoming a piece of furniture in your own flat…
LYB: The Bartleby story uncannily resonates with the Umbrella Revolution in 2014, where tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents peacefully protested against Beijing’s negation of the open election in 2017. Quietly occupying the city’s central financial district, paralyzing traffic and shuttering businesses, the protesters showed an incredibly placid form of resistance. How does your practice relate to this significant political movement?
NA: I think many would agree that the Umbrella Movement was revolutionary in the sense that it transformed the local scene, and in an unprecedented way the way people in Hong Kong could relate to its streets. Obviously, for both supporters and detractors, it was a real rupture in the “business as usual” way of life. I still remember the euphoria of walking down roads and highways emptied of traffic and exhaust fumes, and later all the little ad-hoc gestures made by protestors: post-it messages, repurposed barricades, umbrella monuments…
To be honest, I think it might be an injustice to both Bartleby and the Umbrella protesters to align the two together completely. The Umbrella Movement or Revolution or whatever you want to call it signalled a mass awakening of political consciousness for Hong Kong’s youth, who had, it seems, largely up to this point been content with diverting their wants and desires to an all-pervading consumer culture and letting the government, corporations, and real estate developers run the show.
Otaku culture is, of course, an example of this consumerist diversion! But what I’m trying to say is that in the lead-up to the 2014 protests, a whole host of factors combined to change this apolitical mindset: ever-rising property prices coupled with a critical shortage of social housing; anxieties about loss of freedoms and a sense of regional identity post-handover; even a strange nostalgia for the supposed “good old days” of British rule… In other words, complete and utter despair over the future of Hong Kong.
So democratic self-determination aside, perhaps what the protests were really calling for was a revaluation of the capitalist principles that have for better or worse made Hong Kong into what it is today, about formulating new, divergent ways of imagining the collective future of the city. To come back to your question about the relationship to Bartleby, yes, the means of protest were generally mild-mannered, peaceful, non-violent, etc. But there clearly was a demand, or at least a desire, for change. Bartleby, on the other hand, does not demand anything, he prefers not to… What Bartleby describes is a solitary space, the space of literature, whereas the Umbrella protests marked the emergence of a community or many micro-communities.
LYB: Within the context of the revolution, how do you perceive the relationship between art and activism?
NA: I find the relationship very ambiguous. This reminds me of a comment that a friend made when the protests were in full swing—that there would soon be a lot of Hong Kong artists making work with umbrellas! In fact, but for completely unrelated reasons, I’m currently working on a project that incorporates umbrellas into a performance.
Perhaps one of the dangers is when political engagement becomes just another subject or theme for the artist to the detriment of both art and engagement. From a strictly practical standpoint, think of all the more direct ways of engaging with something politically: protests, social work, legal injunctions… It seems to me that art that is politically engaged can often only do so in a roundabout way, and that is both its strength and weakness.
LYB: Your works often carry a military undertone, such as Camoufleur (2017), Zone I (2014), and Apocalypse Postponed (2014), which involves cocktails critiquing Art Basel. Do they imply how urban habitants view their environments, including art fairs, as war zones and battlegrounds?
NA: I’d be interested to know how you think the cocktails from Apocalypse Postponed were critiquing Art Basel! Granted, the art bar project—which was commissioned by Absolut, who were partnered with Art Basel—was developed in a very reflexive, self-aware manner. The question of how artists can maintain a critical distance from the engines of the culture industry is always in the back of my mind. So you could think of this bunker space that we built as a sort of reflection of the encapsulated bubble of an art fair.
But it was also a big party, with quite an open-ended design brief, which was to incorporate a functional bar and serve drinks. My approach was to take this already collaborative brief and bring in more collaborators. To work with architects, musicians, dancers, film makers, graphic designers, mixologists, even other visual artists; to develop a program that felt more like a collective effort than just the work of one artist. This, I think, helped to attract different audiences rather than the usual VIP art crowd, although there was plenty of that too.
Regarding the military undertones, I have this ongoing fascination with the correlation between domesticity and warfare, like how technologies developed on the battlefield, and other extreme environments, have found applications in everyday contexts. Canned food, for example. Or the “blood bags” that we used for one of the cocktails in Apocalypse Postponed, which was inspired by a method of food consumption used in space travel. Then there’s the paranoid cold war notion that the dream of domesticity is just a dormant continuation of a militarized state of emergency, where the bunker finds its counterpart in the modern regulated household.
After reading a lot of Paul Virilio, it dawned on me that the modern home simply reverses the architectural logic set in place by the bunker: while the bunker enables humans to inhabit artificial climates of aerial bombardment, poisonous gases, and radioactive fallout, the modern, technological household provides increasingly artificial climates optimized for human habitation, like the fully automated, air-conditioned high-rise service apartment.
This brings us back to otaku culture, which also performs an odd domestication of the military, with its fastidious obsession with Gundam, model tanks, and battleships. There’s a combat gear and BB gun shop in Kowloon with the ridiculous name Guns ’n’ Guys, and I often wonder if the male fantasy that is fed here acts as some kind of surrogate for the lack of military service, or a military, for that matter, in Hong Kong. War games and increasingly sophisticated video games all enact a mediated relationship to violence that is quickly becoming the norm in an era of drones and telematic warfare.
Nadim Abbas is an installation artist based in Hong Kong. His recent solo exhibitions include: Blue Noon, Last Tango, Zurich (2018); Camoufleur, VITRINE, London (2017); Chimera, Antenna Space, Shanghai (2016); The Last Vehicle, UCCA, Beijing (2016); #4, Holy Motors, HK (2016); Zone I, The Armory Show, Armory Focus: China, New York (2014); Satellite of ⁂, CL3 Architects, HK Arts Centre, HK (2013); Tetraphilia, Third Floor Hermés, Singapore (2013); and Marine Lover, ARTHK11 Special Projects (2011). His recent group shows include the 7th Moscow International Biennale of Contemporary Art and Interval Space, the second part of a Switzerland Cultural Exchange Project with the NAIRS Foundation at Osage Gallery, Hong Kong.
Lux Yuting Bai is an independent curator and writer based in New York City. She received her MA in Curatorial Practice at the School of Visual Arts and her BA in English Literature at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She was also the assistant curator at Hong Kong Contemporary Art Foundation. Her recent project Becoming (2018– ), in collaboration with Liang Shaoji, is an ongoing curatorial experiment and documentary film that involves multilateral interventions among curators, artists, poets, and silkworms.
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"Nadim Abbas." Vitrine Gallery. Accessed January 26, 2018. www.vitrinegallery.com/artist/nadim_abbas/.
"Otaku Philosophy." Public Seminar. Accessed January 26, 2018. www.publicseminar.org/2015/09/otaku-philosophy/.