By Madhusree Chatterjee
Contemporary art in India is a mirror of urban realities and global concerns — painting the canvas with imagery in colours and structural forms that speak of stark truths — the nation of 1.2 billion contends with in its daily grind in the larger context of world issues.
The notion of contemporary in the history of Indian art is distinctive in the sense that it combines the local with the global, universal with the micro in a language of aesthetics that is essentially indigenous in soul but international in practice.
Young New Dehi-based architect-turned artist Asim Waqif blends the local concerns of the mindlessly-growing capital city in global art mediums to portray harsh urban realities- and their drift away from the vernacular salt of the earth in his installations and mixed media art. He draws from a variety of western ideas — like Dadaism, abstract expressionism, arte povera, surrealism, cubism and minimalism.
Waqif uses bamboo, coir, paper, recycled waste and photographic prints as his primary material for installations that explores issues related to ecology, town planning, kinetics and the mechanics of sound, light and digital aids in synergy with natural elements and ancient art traditions. In an exposition, “Disruptions” at the Nature Morte Gallery in the national capital (New Delhi), Waqif has used paper, metal scrap and organic substances as tactile mediums to build a “pop-up” landscape of the capital— throwing the spotlight on the enormous urban decay that threatens to consume the capital’s current skyline.
An installation, “Urban Ruins at Ashram Chowk 1 & 2” capture the waste generated by the demolition drive that the civic authority of the national capita had unleashed on the encroached concrete spaces in the capital to rid the megapolis of its spatial bottlenecks and inhabited illegalities accumulating over the decades in violation of the city’s masterplan (that goes through a 20-year cycle). But the half-hearted nature of the drive – abandoned midway — left behind modern ruins of putrid builtscapes made of empty highrises, sealed buildings, demolished homes, walls and plinths, in ramshackle, eerie and ungainly mess around the capital.
Waqif uses this geopoloitical social situation as an inspiration to create a photographic wall shelf. The flat surface of the photographic wall (UV print folded and mounted on a black wooden frame) is blown up to create three-dimensional contours of the city’s masterplan — that serves as the town planning template — and at the same time points to the distortions as well.
Fold 1 ( at the showcase) is a photo-effect plate that the artist has cut and fold to craft “Hazard”, a urban narrative of the manifolds of layered images that pile on one to suggest the blueprint of a de-constructed building — and advocate new and alternative use of them.
“I trained as an architect. I have studied experimental structures. Structures which have very good strength but the sameness in relief become heavy and boring,” says Waqif, explaining the necessity of feasible structural alternatives in art as well as in the layout of cities.
Waqif punctuates his solid city landscapes with video essays of life along the river Yamuna – the contaminated yet the sacred lifeline of the capital. A two-part art documentary, Help, swivels the camera on people inhabiting the banks talk of sustenance in the lowlands — motley characters like Jagdish, a scavenger from Madhya Pradesh who ekes his meals from the trash thrown into the river.
While a floating installation made of plastic water bottles cries “HELP” on the surface of the river, Jagdish narrates his everyday treasure hunt in the dirty foaming waters that have thrown up a new laptop (which he sold at Rs 20,000) and Rs 100,000 worth jewelry for his daughter, Pooja, who goes to an “English school”. He rears Pooja and Rani – his pet monkey whom his dog had rescued from a dying brood — with the same zest. Man and animal cohabit in peace along the river. The bank of the river Yamuna is one of the capital’s favourite dumping sites that no amount of “government and private action” can clean.
“It was difficult to make the documentaries,” Waqif said. … Money was the crunch. “But an advertising agency pulled him through,” the artist divulged.
The artist sees the city as a vast urban jungle with “so many ruins”. Most of them the ruins are left to die as the city grows. They either disappear or are sucked into the race for fresh spaces and more new urban milestones. “I document the ruins and throw them in a computer-controlled mechanical environment to corrupt the images to look into the playful aspects of decay,” Waqif says.
The result is distortion and new structural landscapes – where the ends merge into beginnings.
Two digital images “Acid on Free Paper 1 & 2” prints on archival paper worked with hammers and then covered with bubble wraps alk defacement and degradation. The artist says it is a critique of the art market “where buyers are conscious about the money and the archival value of the work”. Waqif believes that the “residua memory of the object is more important than the object itself” and hence he uses a peel-off effect on the surface of the archival print to compare art and decay. The array of odd articles used by the artist includes empty cigarette cases, sheep skin, wood panels from an old dining table and old metal scrap.
The young artist – who shown his works extensively in India and Asia- has been experimenting with bamboo as a vernacular medium for a long time. “I have trying to explore the vernacular method of treating bamboo because it takes time to do the treatment. The bamboo stalks have to be of good quality to ensure long years,” Waqif says.
An installation, “Jaandaar Savaari, Shaandar Savaari” sets off a treated Rajdoot Excel T motorcycle of 1979 model inside a grove of treated bamboo. The two-wheeler, which belonged to the artist’s father, is an auto-biographical reference in a medium (bamboo grove) that is alien to the mechanical junk. The bamboo — connected to the mysticism and magical myths of the Nagaon district of Assam (Afoliyabori village) from where it comes to New Delhi — is a symbol of adventure for the modern biker to follow.
Another installation, “Besuri Baansuri”, in Jati bamboo turns a grove of treated bamboo stalks into a musical instrument with speaker amplifiers and radio spares. “Modern technology is often ropagated as the solution to an old problem – and this turn leads to the polarization between the old and the new,” Waqif says.
The traditional vernacular is contrasted against the new age digital in these two installations that juxtaposes bamboo with mechanics- India and the west, which is the pulse of the emerging idiom in Indian contemporary art today.