Asim Waqif, Control, 2014. Commissioned and produced by the Samdani Art Foundation for the Dhaka Art Summit 2014. Courtesy of the artist, the Dhaka Art Summit and the Samdani Art Foundation.
Asim Waqif (b. 1978) has been interested in different forms of protest in his work, and he challenges the public to question the often-ridiculous rules imposed by societies and governments. For Waqif, how it is, is not how it has to be, and he is constantly challenging the ideas of the impossible, merging high-tech systems with the genius found in low-tech vernacular solutions. Waqif pushes the boundaries between humor and artistic practice with a uniquely critical edge and aims to bring art to the public in the widest sense of the word.
Hyderabad-born Waqif has exhibited extensively internationally, including a solo exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo and at Mumbai’s Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum in their project space, and will be a part of the 5th Marrakech Biennale. He has been receiving international acclaim for his work that pushes materials past the surface potential they are thought to possess. Bamboo becomes a channel for sound, left-over exhibition materials en masse become material for an entirely new exhibition, decaying dog carcasses become muses, and crumpled water bottles and LED lights floated in water to become beacons for environmental awareness. These examples are but a few of the artist’s fascinating choice and manipulation of materials that many people would simply overlook. Waqif is not interested in creating works that are technologically superior and immune to nature. His poetic work often documents the ways in which weather and time affect his work and almost collaborate with his sculptural structures. “Decay and destruction have an important role to play in adapting to the dynamism of society” shares Waqif.
Like his talent for finding potential in everyday materials, Waqif also finds humor in the serious. In his 2012 public intervention in New Delhi entitled Lavaris Vastu, Waqif subtly transformed a common police announcement (which droned fear of “the other” into public spaces) into a jest-filled instructional audio piece that prompted the public with alternative ways to deal with unattended objects and unknown people, using a voice that sounded exactly like one in the police announcement. This intervention cleverly encouraged healthy curiosity in “the other” rather than the usual paranoid suspicion, and the work suggested that the Lavaris Vastu, or unidentified object, had the potential to be a treasure to be discovered and cherished. Waqif collected objects and baggage from the community, and created a pile of them that evoked curiosity and welcomed the public to engage with the objects and even take them home if they wished. In this, and many of his works, the artist rebels against the thought of the commercial value of experience of art eclipsing experimentation.
Following the rabble-rousing spirit of his previous works, Waqif decided to make his message fly in his new commission for the Dhaka Art Summit, Control, 2014. This work is inspired by the intense protests that have been happening all over the world for the last few years, and specifically those in Dhaka, which Waqif has been following closely, seeing them as almost a continuous series. Last year, there were limited protests in New Delhi (where Waqif lives), but the police and security apparatus managed to suppress them through strong-arm tactics like water-cannons and tear gas. Large parts of New Delhi were shut down and people were not allowed to go near the India Gate, and nine metro stations were temporarily shut down. This made the artist think about police tactics in crowd control, and their manipulation of infrastructure and public space.
Control is a continuation of Waqif’s humorous finesse in questioning “systems.” Using cane, rope, and thousands of helium-filled balloons, Waqif creates a levitating sculpture that upon closer view, reads “No Fly Zone.” Waqif’s choice of material, one of the most basic elements of furniture in South Asia (cane) and one of the most basic2adornments to a child’s birthday party (helium filled balloons), is interesting when juxtaposed with the charged phrase of “No Fly Zone,” a phrase that carries serious mortal weight during displays of political might. Waqif reflects “It is indeed ironic that the public cannot do much in a public space except leisure. In fact the really iconic public spaces are the most controlled. But what about the sky, does it belong to the public or the police-state? There are already a lot of controls on private aerial vehicles in most cities in the world, but there seems to be ambiguity about flying balloons in the sky and this is what I am trying to exploit. The text itself is ironic, like pasting a ‘Stick no Bills’ sign on a wall.”
Waqif will set this work loose to fly across Dhaka on the first day of the Dhaka Art Summit (February 7th), subverting the control that the sculpture, and political forces, attempt to assert over the public. Adding more irony to the work, the artist and public will cease to have full “control” over the work once it is let loose in the sky. Volunteers and visitors who arrive to the venue on motor bikes will be instructed to draw attention to the floating installation by blowing their horns in unison, pointing toward the sky, an asking passer-bys to see what is in the sky. “It’s a bird…it’s a plane…no, it’s an artwork!”Viewers will be requested to take photos and videos and to upload them online, extending the life of the work past the Shilpakala Academy and into the city of Dhaka and the global world of the Internet.