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Interview with Asim Waqif
by Iona Whittaker

Hong Kong, May 2011 - Visitors to the Art Futures section in Art HK were paused in their tracks and enticed into a big, complex structure that stood in a clearing between the booths. It was possible to climb into this installation - a mass of natural bamboo poles bound into multiple and layered grids with string - which was fitted with motion and light sensors to trigger sound as visitors moved about inside it: a combination of traditional and modern technologies. This was Indian artist Asim Waqif’s ‘Zuk’ (2011), brought to Hong Kong in several crates by Delhi-based gallery Seven Art Ltd.

Born in 1978 in Hyderabad), Waqif studied architecture and worked as an art director for film and television. He subsequently began making independent videos and documentaries, and is now a practising artist. He describes this work at Art Hong Kong thus:

Asim Waqif, 竹 (Zuk), 2011, Bamboo, Rope, interactive Electronic Peripherals and Video Projection, 35 x 15 x 12 feet [Dimensions Variable];  Courtesy Asim Waqif

Asim Waqif: This work is called Zuk, which means "bamboo" in Cantonese. This word and this fair I think are very relevant because India, China, Hong Kong, South-East Asia we have a very strong tradition of the use of bamboo. Unfortunately because of a combination of industry and technologies, institutions and techniques, so much of traditional practice is dying and very often most of these new modern technologies are propagated like the opposite of traditional technologies. And it’s almost as if, if you adopt these modern technologies, all your old problems will be solved, and so when modern technology really takes hold of the social situation the traditional practice slowly starts receding. But mostly modern technologies are very universal and standardised; if you look at local situations, sometimes they have un-thought-of by-products in terms of what results are happening. Mostly traditional technologies are very local; they use local methods - local renewable resources that are available. I think now that high science has started looking at sustainability, we can actually learn a lot from traditional practice and a mixture of both traditional and contemporary or modern technologies. This is not against modern technology, but I think that a blanket propagation of it is not so good.

Iona Whittaker: How have you found the atmosphere of the Fair?

AW: It’s my first time here, and I quite like it, actually. I think it’s very well organised, and there’s interesting work. I especially like this [third floor] level rather than the lower level that holds established galleries. It’s more experimental, a little more edgy, and I think that’s a fair point – downstairs there are a lot of works we’ve already seen, and lots of really famous artists but not their best work. But the fair is good.

IW: And what do you think has been the reaction to your installation?

AW: Well, I think it has been really good, and somehow children really enjoy a lot of my work. I don’t really intend it that way, but…it’s been really good.

Asim Waqif, Hazard, 2011, Bamboo, rope & interactive video, Variable;  Courtesy Asim Waqif

IW: What inspires you to make art?

AW: (Laughs) I don’t know! I’m actually a very reluctant art practitioner. I never thought of myself as an artist. Even today, although I have positioned myself like an artist for the art world as such, there are many other projects I have continued to do - ecological projects, design projects, anthropological sorts of things, even video documentary. But I don’t advertise that too much to the art world because they like to think of artists as artists only. But initially when I was doing everything - not really dedicated art practice - I was not really being taken seriously, so over the last two or three years I have decided to sort of firm it down.

IW: How do you start?

AW: It depends on every project, but a lot of it has got to do with the context of where it’s going to be situated or where it’s going to be made, who’s going to make it, what is the time period. A lot of my work is very process-heavy, and intentionally a lot of the time it’s very laborious: physically laborious in terms of process and also in terms of the structure.

IW: So how did you install this?!

AW: This is one of my most organised pieces. These are just single crates which are made up as whole components. Usually when I start off I choose not to decide the end product; I don’t really have an image of what I’m going to make, but I choose a method or process that I’m going to follow, and that I think is a very interesting process because strange things start developing which you had not thought of. I trained as an architect and now I’ve moved into art; my main problem with architecture was, you know, that all the design was happening in the studio on these plotting tables or computers or whatever, and then it just went straight into production. I like to work with my hands, and to some extent that’s what precipitated my move into fine art.

IW: And what are your aims for your work, your ambitions?

AW: In some way I think - I don’t know how to put it - but I think it comes back to the fact that I’ve done a lot of research into anthropology and into traditional practice – not really architecture, but even for water systems, for base management systems which we had earlier in India. I somehow really want to try and see if we can do something about it before we forget all that we had assimilated over thousands of years of experimentation. This is one of the keys things that is not evident on the face of it in most of my work, but that is underlying in many works.

IW: And do you usually work with installation?

Asim Waqif, Install, a prototype for Jumna's protest 1, Video - HDV, 2010;  Courtesy Asim Waqif

AW: Yes, mostly. A lot of my work is installation, although because of some gallery pressures I have made smaller works also. This one [Zuk] behind us is actually not one of my bigger ones. A couple of months ago I made a massive floating sign on the river in Delhi. It must have been about a hundred feet long. It was a temporary work, and also had to do with ecology; the river in Delhi is really, really polluted. So, I’m trying to bring back the river goddess, and not only as an idea, but as a persona. And this river goddess is really pissed that all this stuff is polluting the river, so she’s doing something like a media campaign. My artwork is actually the media campaign that she’s doing.

IW: How do you approach art as a cultural undertaking?

AW: I find this move towards the global context very unnerving; I think what happens when the global becomes really important is that the local completely loses out. It could be a mineral resource – for example, there’s so much copper mining happening in India, and all that copper goes to China and gets made into chips and computers and whatever, but that copper is no longer available to the local people. And the forest that is on top of the copper is also not locally available. So in that sense I think it’s really going to cause a lot of disaffected people – it already is. The problem with globalisation is also that I think it’s very disrespectful of other people’s practices and beliefs. So, I think that culturally I would like to try and somehow – I am trying, actually, in a lot of my work – to see if there are some local aspects which can in fact dominate over the global concerns. Global concerns are often very capitalist-oriented, very money-oriented, and not so much to do with life and emotions.

Asim Waqif, Hazard, 2011, Bamboo, rope & interactive video, Variable; Courtesy Asim Waqif

IW: So for you, is art very much something collective rather than something individual?

AW: Yes, I prefer my artwork to be in the public domain and not so much in private collections because in a private collection art just becomes a commodity which is traded. But there are other problems with the public domain, of course, which have to be negotiated; there are a lot of political, human, security and police issues, and also the art of trespass, because although the public domain is "public," it’s not any one person’s public, so if you do something in a public space, then are you allowing for some other people to also do something there? Or is it taking over that space? That is very important. So quite often, although my work can be public, temporarily, I sometimes also put in systems that promote the degradation of things (not only organically but even through people) so that there’s a chance for something else to happen after that rather than a monument which stays.

IW: What do you think you’re most loyal to in your work?

AW: I think physically laborious tasks. I find it’s just a completely different emotion, working with your own hands, making something. But, unfortunately, today, the more educated a person is, the less hard work he wants to do physically. It’s almost engrained in our education system everywhere that once you are educated you’ll have a nice desk job and this and that, and the physical work has been fetishised into sports activities. But the work is never physical; I like my work to be very physical.

IW: When you create art, do you think about how people are going to write about it; does this concern you?

AW: Not so far, no. In fact I find – not so much from a critic’s point of view, but in terms of artists writing about their work -- there’s too much writing by artists about their own work. Rather, I think an artwork should stand for itself; if it has to be explained by too many things, then it’s just intellectual masturbation.

IW: What are your hopes for the future of your creative practice?

AW: I’d like to see some interesting discourse on public artworks in India – right now there’s very little. And although there are many established artists in India, very few are doing public work without formal, institutional backing, and there are some problems with having formal backing. There’s only certain things you can do.


Interview conducted between Iona Whittaker and Asim Waqif next to his installation ‘Zuk’ on the final day of Hong Kong Art Fair - 29th May 2011.

ArtSlant would like to thank Asim Waqif for his assistance in making this interview possible.

-- Iona Whittaker

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