“There’s something really interesting happening on this stage right now”,
someone said to me as we stood at the front of a crowd enchanted by a Ming Wong performance best described as anime drag. Wong was dressed all in white—white tights, white knee high PVC boots, white corset boosting an ample bust, and white plastic shoulder pads: the kind American footballers wear. He wore a half mask with the facial features of an anime darling— large eyes painted like a blue sky and a tiny, button nose—and donned a pink wig cut into a blunt bob (not unlike Grace Jones’s in that awesome, eighties movie, “Vamp”). He lip synched to songs that traversed the Canto-Western Pop divide, including a mash-up of Olivia Newton- John’s 80s hit “Physical” with the theme tune to the classic Chinese TV series “Shanghai Bund.” Then there was the transcendent rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”.
Of course, this was just another night at Nadim Abbas’s Absolut Art Bar, “Apocalypse Postponed”: a cyberpunk bunker located on the 17th floor of the newly-opened Soundwill Plaza II–Midtown located in Causeway Bay, a notoriously dense and overpopulated section of Hong Kong. The location was perfect. Not yet renovated and thus still a grey concrete shell, the space was conceived by Abbas in collaboration with Sebastien Saint-Jean, with wall-to-wall sandbags framing metal-framed windows. A soundscape designed by Steve Hui filled the gaps in a performance programme co-curated by Xue Tan and Shane Aspergen, while a series of animations produced by Wong Ping added to the weird science fiction. In one four-screen installation, Wong Ping presented images that included a man humping a rice weevil (the rice weevil being one of the conceptual anchors for the project), a woman rope-bound and hanging from the ceiling, and a figure sitting alone in a room. In all, the project recalled an obvious reference: “Blade Runner,” a movie that is often associated with Hong Kong’s urban landscape, while referencing certain themes in Abbas’s work—for one, the concept of the Otaku—the isolated cyber-obsessive who lives reclusively, finding company in a virtual world.
But far from being an isolated space, the bar quickly became the hottest ticket in town, thanks in part to the incredible line up of performers, which included Silver Apples and Paragon Soundsystem, and in part to the unique cocktails on offer (including CA+, a drink that completes when you drop in an effervescent, citrus-flavoured calcium tablet). On the night of Ming Wong’s performance, there was a thirty-minute plus wait to get in, and a fight going on at the door. “I have never experienced such a thing and I manage large events. Never. Not even at the Oscars,” one woman shouted as she tried to get her “CEO of a large French company” partner through the door. Later that evening, one curator posted on Facebook his apologies to Ming Wong that, even though he was “friends with Nadim,” he couldn’t see the performance because the line was—as everyone else called it that night—“crazy”.
“I have never experienced such a thing and I manage large events. Never. Not even at the Oscars.”
I’ll be honest, I felt lucky to have made it to this. Having navigated the labyrinthine tunnels of the Causeway Bay MTR and after having swept both halls of Art Basel in Hong Kong, I had found myself lost that night in the very city Abbas’s art bar showcases through the view from the 17th floor—an urban jungle if there ever was one: hot, humid, crowded and illuminated by neon lights. By the time I got to the bar—cool, spacious and strange—I was cursing art and all its infrastructures: a known symptom of art fair fatigue. Nevertheless, I arrived just as Ming Wong’s transformed form—that anime goddess in drag—was being carried out to the stage by two mignons in full black bodysuits and black wigs. And as I watched the spectacle unfold, I suddenly found myself smiling like a child with eyes as wide as Sailor Moon’s. Looking around at all the other delighted faces, I remembered something: even during an art fair, art can be fun. And this was definitely art.
Text: Stephanie Bailey Photo: Roberto Chamorroa