Loy, 2019. Durga Puja pandal with bamboo, cane, cloth, and rope structure embedded with an interactive electronic and acoustic system, installation view. Photo: Vivian Sarky, Courtesy Asim Waqif

About Potential: A Conversation with Asim Waqif

Recipient of the 2021 Innovator Award

Asim Waqif embraces multiple mediums and materials. Ranging from invented archaeological sites to multisensory and interactive, architecturally scaled environments created from reclaimed timber, demolition salvage, or bamboo, his work cannot be confined by formal parameters or defined by subject matter. Yet there are common threads—the passion and feel for natural materials, the focus on reuse and redefinition of waste. His installations defy boundaries, both physical and conceptual, reflecting something of the artist himself. Waqif is remarkably open to collaboration, synthesizing the thoughts and feedback of others into something whole and altogether new. Everyone contributes, yet the method is resolutely process driven. It is rare that an artist works with such fluidity. Waqif’s willingness to leave the final outcome open-ended and his ability to adapt to ground realities are what make his projects so different and so compelling.

Asim Waqif. Photo: MFA Boston

Chitra Balasubramaniam: How did you begin your journey as an artist?
Asim Waqif: I never thought I would be making art, and I am still reluctant to call myself an artist. I studied architecture at the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi, and graduated in 2000. I started working as a set designer while I was studying. I also worked as an exhibition designer for commercial exhibitions and trade fairs. I really like the fluid, fast-flowing process in exhibition and set design. Since the sets were designed to be viewed through a lens, I got some familiarity with the camera and began to dabble in documentary and independent films. One documentary project was about traditional rainwater harnessing systems in Rajasthan, for which I did extensive field work.

I grew quite frustrated with the marketing of my design projects. I had been visiting Khoj, the artist-led alternative space in Delhi, and had seen many interesting, process-oriented projects there. One day, I fixed a meeting with the director, Pooja Sood, and proposed an installation with bamboo. She encouraged me to go ahead, and so I made my first art project in 2005. That was really satisfying. It was the first time I felt that I was my own client, so I could push ideas as far as I wanted or stop when I wanted. In 2008, Pooja was working on a large-scale public art project in Delhi, and she pushed me to make something at the Agrasen ki bavli, since she knew about my research on step wells and water harvesting. That was my second art project. In 2010, I decided to start introducing myself as an artist rather than an architect. I was lucky to find opportunities, and then there was no looking back.

Salvage, 2017. Materials from demolition sites, city landfill, and North Vancouver Transfer Station, site-specific installation at Vancouver Art Gallery Offsite. Photo: Rachel Topham, Vancouver Art Gallery

CB: Has being an architect shaped your work? What has been your approach to design?
AW: Architectural education is quite broad based. It’s not just aesthetics; there are technical and structural systems to learn, as well as history and theory. Doing large submissions, you become comfortable handling big teams at an early stage. This makes it possible to diversify into many different fields. In fact, more than 50 percent of my classmates are working in fields other than architecture.

Despite all this, I found that although I knew how to make complex drawings, I had very little experience working with materials. So, after graduating, I apprenticed in an old-school carpentry workshop for two months. They taught me how to maintain the tools before they taught me how to use them. After that, not only could I give instructions to carpenters about what needed to be made, but I could also show them how to do it. This completely changed how craftsmen looked at me as a designer. I have continued to learn new skills over the years, including metalwork, electronics engineering, and bamboo and cane craft. I am always eager to learn more. Now I want to explore metal casting, something I’ve never done before.

I prefer an intuitive and process-driven approach to design rather than having preconceived ideas. I am quite critical of the current creative industry, where the designer sits in an ivory tower, declares the best way to make something, and the process of fabrication merely tries to achieve this idea. Design is looked at as a problem-solving technique, which makes the designer feel somehow superior as someone who will provide solutions. For me, design is about potential, not problems. I am keen to include the whole team in the creative process. I want to break the hierarchy of design and fabrication. I want to learn from my fabrication team and empower them to take creative initiative.

Archaeological excavation of a 21st century Rikshaw carrying electronic waste, 2014. Electronic junk and cycle rickshaw from JNU campus, buried for a few weeks and excavated as an archaeological site, installation view. Photo: Asim Waqif

CB: Where has this approach worked best for you?
One of my most productive projects in terms of collaboration was Loy (2019), a Durga Puja pandal. The concept and planning stages took eight months, then we worked on site for three months. It was open to the public for only 10 days. The client, Arjunpur Amra Sabai Club in North Kolkata, had only two requirements. First, the project had to deal with sustainability, which was great for me—that’s intrinsic to my artistic practice. Second, they wanted something unique so that viewers would not want to leave.

I did not use preconceived forms. The only things I decided on were overall densities and the flow of movement for visitors. I set up a team of collaborators, including cane and bamboo craftsmen, architects, engineers, sound designers, and painters. Everyone came with their own specializations, and we made an effort to provide resources for each skill set. For example, the basket-makers required a specific bamboo species that was still green and supple. Each team member was encouraged not only to teach their expertise to others, but also to interfere and cross-train in other fields.

We decided early on to use bamboo and cane as the basis for the project. These materials are used regularly in pandal construction, but they’re often dressed over and decorated. I wanted to use them in their natural form. Starting with Japanese bamboo baskets as an inspiration, we tried to develop large woven, architectural forms. We tried many, many different forms and techniques—over half were eventually discarded. The long fabrication period gave us the freedom to experiment without the pressure of creating a finished product in the first attempt.

I really enjoy working on site like this. When the fabrication process is finished, I feel a sense of emptiness. I don’t like to visit my finished projects and explain to people what I have done—the form should speak for itself without any written or verbal explanation. It is for viewers to experience the work themselves and come to some understanding.

Loy, 2019. Durga Puja pandal with bamboo, cane, cloth, and rope structure embedded with an interactive electronic and acoustic system, installation view. Photo: Vivian Sarky, Courtesy Asim Waqif

CB: What are your favorite materials?
I love to upcycle discarded materials and objects, changing their form so they become desirable. I want to change the value scale of things that we throw away. I have also worked a lot with natural materials, especially bamboo. It is very versatile and has a low carbon footprint. I have seen bamboo houses in Meghalaya that are over 60 years old and still in pretty good shape. That led me to investigate vernacular seasoning processes. Most bamboo and timber seasoning today involves pushing toxic chemicals into the fiber so insects can’t attack. I was not convinced by this, so now I am seasoning bamboo using a mix of vernacular and new ideas. We have been able to make very resilient bamboo that is also non-toxic and sustainable.

In Bangladesh, I am working on Bamsera Bamsi, a 20-year project with the Samdani Art Foundation. I have planted 14 different species after doing careful soil conservation and fertilization using local organic resources. As the bamboo is growing, I am manipulating it into different forms to create a living, growing sculpture.

Bamsera Bamsi, 2017–ongoing. Bamboo plantation, bamboo craft and seasoning, custom-built aeolian instruments, and soil management, site-specific installation in Sylhet, Bangladesh. Photo: Courtesy Asim Waqif
Bamsera Bamsi, 2017–ongoing. Bamboo plantation, bamboo craft and seasoning, custom-built aeolian instruments, and soil management, site-specific installation in Sylhet, Bangladesh. Photo: Courtesy Asim Waqif

CB: You have a focused approach to the idea of recycling trash into art. How have you made this notion integral to your designs?
AW: My projects begin with detailed research into site and context. When I was invited to make All we leave behind are the memories for the 8th Asia Pacific Triennial in 2015, I started looking at waste and construction in Brisbane. We chanced upon a huge depot of old-growth timber that had been collected from dismantled buildings and bridges. Current construction regulations make it easier to use steel and concrete, so older timber structures are being broken down. I used this material for my project. The museum was very insistent on having construction drawings before starting fabrication, so although I prefer a more fluid process when working with found objects, we made proper drawings. But when construction started, it took half a day to put one piece in place according to the drawing. I managed to convince them to abandon the preconceived drawings and go with a more organic approach.

Similarly, while working on Salvage (2017) in Vancouver, I came across a guy who had been collecting objects from people’s trash for over 15 years. He kept everything in a room at the waste segregation center, which was being pulled down to make a larger unit. Since there was no place for his collection in the new plans, I convinced him to give it to me. The museum wanted the objects to be glued in place so people wouldn’t take them. I was very happy when people took them anyway, despite the glue.

All we leave behind are the memories, 2015. Reclaimed timber from demolition sites around Brisbane, interactive electronic and acoustic system, and metal hardware, site-specific installation for the 8th Asia Pacific Triennial, Brisbane, Australia. Photo: Asim Waqif/Richa Sahai

CB: Has the pandemic affected your work over the last couple of years?
I focus on interactive design, where people participate. I like them to come and play with my installations. People tend to appreciate art in a very formal manner. I want them to lose themselves and become juvenile, jumping on things and touching objects. I want them to think of questions and arrive at their own answers. This interactive space has become tough to negotiate. I will have to find other ways
to engage with viewers. It is a big challenge, but I like change and want to learn new processes and explore new avenues. We’ll see where we go with this.