The first impression of artist Asim Waqif’s installations is a visual of sheer frenzy. Created out of waste materials collected through scouring the selected city sites, Waqif’s experiential works bring to the light an unconventional demeanour of matter, which seemingly presents no value in the urban environment. Informed by a keen sensitivity for context and built spaces, the crux of each of his works lie in response to challenging the waste cycles in cities today. One chilly afternoon in Delhi last year, I caught up with the artist at his studio to talk some shop.
Zohra Khan (ZK): Your installations have been critically lauded worldwide and yet after having donned the hat of an artist for years, you do not like to be called one. Why is that?
Asim Waqif (AW): There are so many fine arts and architecture students who graduate and feel that now they are artists and they have to be creative for the rest of their lives. That is just too much pressure to put on oneself - to be creative forever. Right now, the opportunities in the art world are interesting for me, in terms of the work that I want to do and the topics I want to deal with. Yet, there is no compulsion for me to work as an artist forever.
ZK: ‘Destruction’ and ‘decay’ appear to be recurring threads in many of your works. What is the intent behind depicting such overpowering subjects?
AW: I think there is too much emphasis on durability today. Though there is nothing wrong with it but perceiving a creative field only through durability as the primary criteria becomes counterproductive. I think that for things to adapt change is very important and it comes hand in hand with destruction and decay. These processes play a critical role in our lives, even though we have a very negative perception of them. This is essentially what I am trying to address psychologically. Perhaps not all, but some of my projects have delved into the creative potential of destructive processes.
ZK: What do you think defines the relationship between an artist, his work and the viewer?
AW: Considering the art domain, there are not many good museums in India. In museums abroad, the visitor is expected to appreciate art in a certain preconceived manner. Whether it is heritage or contemporary art, this notion creates a barrier between the viewer and the work. In many of my projects, I consciously try to create a laxman rekha that creates a threshold beyond which the curious viewer can discover new layers that the passive viewer may miss. I use game strategies to create a path for the viewer.
ZK: Does material play a crucial role in your process of weaving a narrative?
AW: I am not so particular about materials; more important than that is the idea. I work closely with materials but usually do not pick them to articulate an idea. The key is to select the material that will work well with a certain concept. I love working with my hands, different tools and different teams. I always try to look at the potential of where a material can be pushed. Most of my installations appear very chaotic but there is a very systematised way in which I try to reach that chaos. Testing and handling materials with different techniques are what I find really interesting in the process. The key, however, remains the idea. The material is something that supports it.
ZK: You have mentioned earlier that white cube spaces intimidate you as they nullify the context of a construct. Could you elaborate?
AW: I use different strategies for different projects. Even though I never consciously avoided the white box, I have to say that it has always been easier to work in other, more contextual spaces. My first solo show in a gallery was at Nature Morte in 2013. It was a challenge to tackle the white cube space there. In this case, I internalised the whole process and started looking at waste in my own life and in my artistic production. This created the context, which became more like a work environment and its by-products. In other situations, the context has usually been derived from something that was relatable to the viewer. The space itself doesn’t necessarily have to bring out the context.
ZK: What have been some of your most challenging projects?
AW: All we leave behind are the memories in Brisbane was a very challenging project. Strict systems, tedious protocols and the bureaucratic nature of work were frustrating hindrances during the installation of the mammoth work on site. The committee insisted that I deliver drawings, whereas I usually draw instinctively with materials. To actually realise the project, I had to make drawings, which were then replaced by handmade drawings and sketches at the time of installation. I always work with a team of local people, wherein I give them control to take creative decisions aligned with the final objective of the work. I had to struggle with the Australians, as no one was willing to take responsibility for what was to be made.
ZK: One of your most recognised works, Venu references very traditional practices with bamboo. How was this piece conceptualised?
AW: Looking world over at traditional building practices one realises that vernacular societies have always followed very sustainable processes. What contemporary scientists refer to while talking about sustainability are notions such as closed-loop systems, local renewable resources, low carbon footprints - techniques, which are already inherent in vernacular practice. Yet, I think there is no dialogue between the old and the new. In India, however, we are able to inhabit both the worlds with little conflict and Venu was actually based on that idea. It was made up of vernacular materials like bamboo and rope together embedded with robotics and a complex electronic system. The entire installation reacts to the viewer, which makes it interactive and experiential.
While destruction and decay continue to haunt our collective psyche, art remains a solitary medium that endearingly assures that there is life even in disruption. Architect, artist and visual experimenter – Waqif does exactly this through his immersive works.