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Asim Waqif’s art of waste

The use of waste materials in Asim Waqif's art highlights our precarious relationship with nature

‘Chrysalis: Famous Studio’ by Asim Waqif. Courtesy: Jhaveri Contemporary
‘Chrysalis: Famous Studio’ by Asim Waqif. Courtesy: Jhaveri Contemporary

Asim Waqif’s art is trash. Quite literally. What others throw away, he reclaims to make sculptures and mega installations. Discarded plastic bottles, scrap metal, doors, furniture, lumber from demolished houses are things that find new life in Waqif’s hands.

Consider his works in the ongoing show at Mumbai’s Jhaveri Contemporary, Crash Dig Dwell (running till 13 January), where he’s displaying with the US-based artist Yamini Nayar. It is one of those exhibitions that elicits a knee-jerk response which goes something like, “what on earth is this?" Is that just bits of metal stuck on wood? That Gulmohar trunk with an emblazoned photographic print looks too bizarrely disfigured to qualify as “art" as one may know it. Yet, spend a while and there emerges a method in his madness.

It is difficult to think of a living Indian artist of more daring than Waqif. Sure, the likes of Ranjani Shettar and Vivan Sundaram take us to the edge of what art can be, but they still offer what a lay person could safely identify as “art" without fear of ridicule. On the other hand, Waqif isn’t so much pushing the boundaries of the kind of art being produced in India as refreshingly redrawing them.

Born in 1978 in Hyderabad, he trained as an architect in Delhi, following this up with a 10-year designing stint in film and television. In 2010, he chucked it all in to become a full-time artist, bringing to art his diverse interests from architectural training: waste and water management, recycling, upcycling, sustainability and the built environment.

Approaching art by way of architecture is liberating. It allows his installations to assume thrilling proportions, combined with the uninhibited use of whacky materials. Bamboo is one he’s worked with since his student days. It later manifested in installations like Venu (2012), where he erects a bamboo scaffolding—an everyday sight on Indian buildings under construction—and combines the traditional methods with tech wizardry. As one negotiates the labyrinthine structure, hidden motion and sound sensors trigger recorded sounds, making the whole space come alive.

Compared with his usual gigantic works, the scope in Jhaveri is much humbler and, hence, more intimate. Take Chrysalis: Famous Studio, where fragments of aluminium panels are mounted on a bougainvillea tree trunk, giving it an unprepossessing appearance of being choked by the metal. It may mean different things to different minds, but it disturbingly plays out as a metaphor for nature’s asphyxiation at human hands.

Waqif locates the work in a specific environment by telling us its story of origin. Playfully evocative descriptions accompany each work. For Chrysalis: Wasp’s Nest, it warrants quoting in full: “Bamboo, cane and a wasp’s nest removed from a south Delhi tree by the municipal corporation of Delhi. Coated with high gloss polyurethane." It’s as if Waqif is grounding us, preventing any attempt at over-theorizing. It’s a real nest mangled by invasive knots of bamboo, a common urban consequence of the unforgiving human march into nature’s territory.

“I am trying to explore the creative potential of decay and dereliction," he says on email. Then, in a statement laden with chutzpah and an irreverent glee that only an eco-conscious architect-turned-artist could muster, he says, “The challenge I want to address is to put objects designated as trash into people’s drawing rooms and climate-controlled art collections." He thinks there is undue emphasis on durability in the art world, and the sanctity ascribed to works is counterproductive. Therefore, not only can many of his artworks be touched, they can also be entered, thumped, patted or caressed.

Cynically, however, one might ask: So it explores environmental issues, but then what? The end stage of a work is, ultimately, on a drawing-room wall, in a garden or a waste site after its disassembly. Is it, then, a momentary indulgence by the artist in the garb of ecological vocabulary?

Probably not. For it is in such spaces, with works that trigger uncomfortable questions, that a viewer can have a profound experience. It makes one rethink conditioned behavioural patterns. Is what I’m throwing away really waste? Do I need more stuff to replace it? Where will that end up?

Art can pack a visceral and, sometimes, gut-wrenching punch. Chances are the raw power of works like Waqif’s will continue to shape our emotional responses and remain with us long after the passive viewing of an eco-documentary or reading a polemic has receded from our memories.

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