As you enter the main hall of GOMA, there gracefully sits a multi-level sculpture made of rustic, recycled structural wood. Gallery visitors are sitting on the work, walking through it, touching it, and pressing their ears against it. Twinkles of sound enters the crowd, activated by movements. There is a certain kind of presence with Asim Waqif‘s ‘All we leave behind are the memories’ (2015), a site-specific commission work for APT8. A major installation, both in size and concept that challenges the waste cycles in cities today, Asim’s work breathes life into the white cube gallery in an impressive however unusual way.
PERIL: Can you please tell us about your practice?
AW: I trained as an architect and worked in the design field for almost 10 years before moving to a dedicated arts practice in 2010. I never thought I would become an artist and even today I feel odd referring to myself as an artist.
A large part of my work deals with issues of sustainability and the built environment. Often I work with materials that have been discarded and some of my projects have been based in abandoned and derelict spaces. Usually I try to work with contexts, materials and teams that are local to the site.
PERIL: Site seems to be crucial to your practice. From a derelict ruin in Delhi, Palais Badii in Marrakech, to Palais de Tokyo in Paris, your work always responds to the history and memories of the site. What is your process of creating these site-specific work, and why is it important to you?
AW: Frankly I don’t have much of a studio practice. I refer to my workspace as a workshop and over the years it has accumulated a lot of things from various projects. I find the white-cube space rather intimidating as it tries to nullify the context within which it is built. Rather I find the seed of the idea for a project from the surrounding environment, both natural and built. When I encounter a new place one of the first things I research is waste-management and I have often used discarded materials to make elaborate installations. Usually I do not make any drawings and don’t really plan what the end product will look like. Instead I try to plan processes of creating the work and let the form evolve by itself. It is very important for me to develop a relationship with the workers/assistants and I try to encourage them to take creative decisions under an overall objective rather than try to micro-manage each detail.
PERIL: Can you tell us about the process behind ‘All we leave behind are the memories‘ (2015) at APT8?
AW: I first visited Brisbane in January 2015 for research. I was trying to investigate municipal waste-management but that information is very well protected and I was not able to get much information on waste processing except that it is “safely disposed”. In my experience, this is a very common in most industrialised and post-industrial economies. It seems that the mechanism of segregation of waste is more to take care of the consumer’s guilt of consumption, and that most waste (except glass and paper which is easy to recycle) is recombined and dumped into landfills or burnt in incinerators.
However I was researching the intense transformation of built environment in Brisbane over the last few decades and chanced upon a massage salvage yard of timbers from dismantled buildings and infra-structure. This material became the base for this particular project.
I visited Brisbane again in July 2015 to work on technical details. QAGOMA was understandably nervous about the structural integrity of the proposed project as well as the overall load of material on the floor of the building, especially since I had till then refused to give any specific drawings of what I planned to make. They persuaded me of the need to develop a detailed 3D model with structural loads and at that point I gave in to their demands in the interest of the overall project.
When I arrived to install the actual work in October 2015, I abandoned the drawings developed earlier and worked instinctively. I would make hand-made drawings on a day-to day basis but often earlier drawings would be abandoned in favour of new ones. I had a great time working with the museum installation team although it was difficult to get them to make decisions on their own as they did not want the responsibility of what was made. I was slowly able to get the team to get around this to some extent by the end of the installation period.
Sometimes I got quite frustrated with the bureaucratic and systemic nature of production. There were too many protocols and meetings for trivial things. I understand the need to systemise processes for efficiency but I feel that sometimes the system becomes so dominant that it becomes difficult for people to innovate.
PERIL: ‘All we leave behind are the memories‘ brings in used timber locally from Queensland for a sound sculpture that responds to its audience. There is a sort of cycle for the material (wood) to re-generate, and to be re-purposed into a public space for leisure and reflection. In some ways, the material is the work. How do you see this material within the context of a gallery? Is it the object, the subject, or both?
AW: The timber is both the subject and the object. In fact it is this ambiguity that has a lot of potential in my view as it does not easily fit into either bracket and forces the viewer to look at his/her preconceived notions.
The gallery specifically told me that over the years they had been criticised for being too slick and well-produced, and they wanted me to mess up the gallery with my installation. I was happy to work with this brief, but perhaps I did not mess it up as much as the gallery and I had initially anticipated.
PERIL: There is a tension in your practice that pushes between sustainability and traditional practice. Some of your works encourage your audience to take risks in engaging with such tension. Can you tell us why is participation an important part of your practice?
AW: I find it really boring to visit museums. It seems like there is an invisible barrier between art-objects and the viewer, and the commercial value of artwork has eclipsed its experiential value. Similarly the traditional and vernacular have been fetishised and made into holy museum objects while the idea behind the object is often forgotten.
I try to use interactive design to entice viewers to be curious and adventurous with the art-viewing experience. If a viewer is passive he/she will only have a visual experience, but if he/she explores then they will find many hidden layers within the work.
PERIL: What are you working on at the moment?
AW: I did an extensive solo exhibition, Autolysis, in a derelict ruin in Delhi soon after the opening of APT8. Right now I am going to Boston to install a work at the Museum of Fine Arts for the show “Megacities Asia”. I don’t like to work more than 6-7 months in a year on art projects so I am going to take a long break after that.
Delhi-based Asim Waqif studied architecture at the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi and was visiting faculty there from 2005-2011. After initially working as an art-director for film and television he later started making independent video and documentaries before moving to a dedicated art-practice in 2010. His recent projects have attempted a crossover between architecture, art and design, with a strong contextual reference to contemporary urban-design and the politics of occupying/ intervening/ using public spaces. Concerns of ecology and anthropology often weave through his work and he has done extensive research on vernacular systems of ecological management, especially with respect to water, waste and architecture.