Before you even reached the banks of the Yamuna river, you could hear the incessant beating of drums, coming from somewhere far off shore and mingling with the heavy rush and rattle of a passing train making its way across the old iron bridge that leads from near Lal Qila over to Kailash Nagar. After crossing a clearing you mount an incline and, suddenly, spread out across the dismal refuse of liquid scum of the dying river, hundreds of illuminated plastic bottles snake up and down the waterway, twinkling like stars in their peaceful meandering, throwing their oily setting of filthy reeds, rubbish and iron beam-work into sharp contrast. Squint, and you can make out three-four drummers on a small island off under the bridge, beating away in a furious rhythm, calling you out onto the pathetic river upon whose banks they live and farm and dream of better days. Welcome to a site-specific installation by Asim Waqif. One of those complex characters whose approach is formed through an educational background other than art (architecture, although he'll be the first to admit that he had abandoned the idea of practicing even before his studies were completed), his conceptual grounding and site-specific approach to art defy what is normally expected from an object-based field of production. The Fuschia Tree caught up with him to probe a bit deeper into who he is as a person and what motivates him to do what he does.
The Fuschia Tree: The theme of the current issue is Regeneration – an appropriate angle to view at your work and practice from. Can you talk to us a little about why it's important to you to give new life to old trash?
Asim Waqif: I think trash or waste has a very negative connotation in society today. We throw away many things after designating them 'trash', and once so designated they seem to have no value. Trash is put into bags and disposed at the local garbage dump and then people forget about what was thrown away. Ironically, we also have a huge community of waste-segregators in India who actually live off this trash, so clearly waste has at least some value as a recyclable product. But I have tried to explore other potentials of materials designated as waste, trying to upcycle the materials rather than recycle them.
Not surprisingly, people who are well off create more waste. In that sense I find that looking at waste is almost like archaeology: one can speculate about the habits of a person by looking at the waste he/she generates. At the same time, rich people control the art market through their economic power and, sometimes, I try to play a bad joke on them by upcycling waste and selling it to them at a premium as Art!
TFT: How does this relate to your work with urban design?
AW: I find that design and fabrication lay too much emphasis on durability today, especially if you look at our cities. We are surrounded by infrastructure that is built to last (of course, there is also the contrast of planned obsolescence in most contemporary design, but that only generates more trash). I find that from the time infrastructure is designed to the time it is used, often the parameters of the city have changed drastically and it becomes a constant battle of stopgap mechanisms. I believe it would be more productive to develop infrastructure that can evolve and adapt with the changing city. If deterioration and adaptability were part of the intent of the design, then we wouldn't have so much redundant infrastructure to clog our cities.
TFT: You often work on public sites that are characterized by messy litigation over property rights, zoning, public safety hazards, people and animals who have squatted, etc. There must be some beauty in doing what you do; where does it come in?
AW: The poetry is there for anyone to access. It's just that most derelict buildings seem to fade into the greyness of a city and people stop looking at them. It's actually all this 'mess' that allows for some very unexpected situations.
TFT: As someone who deals with issues of ecology and sustainability and has worked extensively with water bodies, what about the quality of the water in your life? Have you ever harvested groundwater? Are you sentimental about things like the purity of water...is it a question of ethics or logic?
AW: I think it's a mix of sentiment and logic. Most 'planned' Indian cities are equipped with a storm water system that is essentially a flood-control mechanism that flushes out excess water. Traditional Indian cities were designed almost like a bowl to collect as much water as possible and allow it to seep into the ground. Since it rains for only a few months in the year, it was essential to replenish the local aquifer. So, logically, it makes more sense to follow the traditional system – the modern system seems absurd.
On the other hand, there is a peculiar emotion associated with personally doing something. Perhaps there is also a sentimental pride about our heritage. In 2004 I initiated a community-revitalization project around a baori in Bundi, Rajasthan. Since 2008 I have been working intermittently in Badrinath on waste management and water and, on a macro level, on the master planning of pilgrim centers in the Himalayas. Personally, I have hardly done any water harvesting at all. Yes, there is a rainwater harvesting pit in my apartment complex, but I had nothing to do with it.
TFT: Where does your drinking water at home come from?
AW: I am embarrassed about my water situation actually. We get the 20 liter refillable bottles and I can only hope that it is filtered properly, but I strongly suspect that it isn't. My wife was very keen to install a filtration unit in our house and I did a lot of research about them. Most of what I found was advertising propaganda, nothing objective. They are trying to say that we all need reverse osmosis, even though it removes almost all essential minerals (but not most chlorides and fluorides). And then this water is 're-mineralized' with unspecified industrially produced minerals. Sounds like a scam to me.
TFT: You ride an old Bullet motorcycle. Do you find parallels between maintaining your motorcycle and living your life or making art?
AW: Not sure about that. I am quite lazy about maintaining my bike, but then I ride a 40-year-old motorcycle that was made before planned obsolescence became fashionable amongst designers and engineers. My bike doesn't need that much maintenance.
TFT: What kinds of tools do you keep in your studio? Do you maintain them yourself?
AW: I have many tools in my workshop. A full set of carpentry, some metalwork, cane, bamboo and many other assorted things. I have many knives and blades, some traditional and others hi-tech. I enjoy sharpening these blades myself. I find it very difficult to keep the workshop clean.
TFT: As a child, what kinds of toys or games did you enjoy?
AW: Actually, I don't have very vivid memories of my childhood. I remember flying kites a lot, especially trying to grab ones that were cut and drifting. We used to make our own manja by rubbing crushed glass bulbs and overcooked rice onto cotton thread. I've been told I was caught chewing on glass. I also played some hockey.
TFT: Speaking of childhood, you have a baby girl. What are some of the skills and life lessons you are looking forward to teaching her?
AW: Well there many skills I want to help her with. Right now I am trying to encourage her to roll over and to crawl.
As told to Heidi Fichtner, a Delhi-based curator who has lived and worked in India since 2007 where she has curated exhibitions for private galleries and at independent art spaces.
Asim Waqif is an artist based in Delhi. His first solo exhibition was at Palais de Tokyo, Paris, in December 2012, and his first solo in India will take place at Nature Morte gallery in September 2013.
Every sunbeam, every strain of music, every sapling and starfish is ultimately the regeneration of a previous something, a collection of somethings, taking on new shape. At the most indivisible level we can comprehend, all life is nothing more than atoms and molecules dancing their way through various forms. And if everything comes from something, it stands to reason that everything must go to something as well.Read More
By Heidi Fichtner, Issue 27, Regeneration: Revolving Growth