"I just didn't grow out of the childhood scrawling on the wall thing." That's Nadim Abbas. Thoughtful and soft spoken, wearing a nondescript black sweater and Buddy Holly glasses, he seems more like an academic than one of Hong Kong's hottest artists. "It just naturally extended into school activities and then a profession."
From his start drawing on walls, Abbas has become a prolific, exacting craftsman and an influential presence in Hong Kong's art scene. This weekend, his installations can be seen at the Freespace Festival on the West Kowloon waterfront.
He studied ceramics at the Chelsea College of Art in London but the open nature of British arts education encouraged him to experiment with different mediums and he found himself returning time and time again to the darkroom. "A lot of my work sort of emerged out of this dialogue with photography and images."
In his work, Abbas explores the nature of the image and reality - namely, the ambiguity inherent in every image "and the way in which images possess this kind of reversible aspect. That's what makes them ambiguous. It applies to everything."
He uses a range of techniques: animation, sculpture and photography to expand and explode the very notion of the image. "For me an image is not necessarily this two-dimensional thing like a photograph or a picture. An image is also a psychological projection that you have in your mind. A moment can become an image, because it impresses itself on your memory," he says.
This has been a seminal year for Abbas, who holds a master of philosophy in comparative literature from the University of Hong Kong. His pieces were ambitious, showcased the scope of his technical abilities, and deepened his investigation of his favourite themes: the image, reality, and the often fraught, ambiguous relationship between the two.
His major installation, Afternoon in Utopia, recreated a concrete traffic island in Sai Ying Pun out of sand. The sand island took up nearly the whole floor space of a gallery. One of the earliest photos of Mars, taken by the Viking Lander spacecraft in 1976, hung on the wall alongside the text: "NO PLACE LIKE HOME".
The piece forcefully explores the ambiguity of space and non-space. Are these concrete islands, intentionally designed so nobody can inhabit them, public space? Who owns them? They are at once present and entirely inaccessible. Abbas faithfully recreated the island but removed the concrete from the process, leaving only sand. "I wanted to do something that looked very permanent visually but then if you looked again you would realise that in fact it was totally ephemeral and would only last until the end of the exhibition."
It is hard not to see the installation as both more political and more local than most of Abbas' work. It confronts notions of public and private ownership in Hong Kong, and the premium placed on space.
But his other projects this year were of a different type entirely. "I think my work fluctuates between these two modes: installed work where there is this kind of special relationship to the site, and then work which involves documentation and the relation between the image and the documentary aspect … I've been working so much in the last few years on site, things that would be impossible to do in a studio. I wanted to do something more in the conventional artistic practice mode where I go to the studio and I tinker away at something."
The results of his tinkering were a series of photographs and animations inspired by interstellar objects and molecular biology, the gigantic and the microscopic. The photographs are landscapes and seem to portray the cold surface of the moon; each titled using US space agency Nasa's system of coded serial numbers.
In fact, they were photos of miniature models Abbas created in his studio from sand, concrete and flour. The models may have been small but the images feel, in a way, vast. They are empty, desolate and expansive, and convey the flatness and compression of mid-century space photography. "I was interested in how big a photo I could take with my limited camera and how that would reflect the history of photography. The whole thing revolved around the Apollo moon landings, that aesthetic."
Other pieces he made in the studio this year featured photos that looked like asteroids, stop-motion animations of manipulated fruits and vegetables modelled to look like real molecules and viruses, and an animation inspired by footage of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
What they have in common is Abbas' fascination with things we can't see. Objects which we are told are real, but which we cannot experience personally because of their remoteness, size, or danger. "It's really a fascination with the fact that I can look at something and at the same time understand that it is impossible for me to see it with my naked eye. There's always a leap of faith that it exists at all."
Abbas' obsession with the ambiguous, the contradictory, the literal spaces between imagination and reality means he inhabits a grey area as an artist: "If you consider yourself a realist and everything is very objective, then you're missing something. And if you wallow in the anything-goes illusion, you're missing something else," he says.
Perhaps it is this constant balancing act that is so thrilling for Abbas, and is responsible for the intuitive sense of danger that comes through in his work: "For me it's sort of like walking on a tightrope. I'm interested in the thresholds between things: between an image and an object or between reality and illusion. I always like to tread the line in between."