New Delhi

Asim Waqif, Urban Ruin at Ashram Chowk #1, 2013, digital C-prints, ink-jet print, wood, MDF, aluminum, 48 x 84 x 6".

Asim Waqif, Urban Ruin at Ashram Chowk #1, 2013, digital C-prints, ink-jet print, wood, MDF, aluminum, 48 x 84 x 6".

Asim Waqif

Asim Waqif, Urban Ruin at Ashram Chowk #1, 2013, digital C-prints, ink-jet print, wood, MDF, aluminum, 48 x 84 x 6".

In full gear after a well-received show at the Palais de Tokyo in 2012, Asim Waqif returned to New Delhi with “ख़लल [Disruptions],” a show focusing on works addressing widespread dysfunction in the city’s urban planning and waste management. Waqif has sometimes used the buzzword “upcycling” to describe his working method: He appropriates and manipulates trash as well as humble functional objects in order to turn them into something of greater value, both monetary and symbolic. His upcycled works include cavernous installations, such as the one at the Palais de Tokyo, “Bordel Monstre” (Monster Mess), which was made out of packing material, palettes, paper, electronic components, and other waste recycled from previous shows. In “Disruptions,” there was USE, 2013, a cute reflexive work in which Waqif welded and cut old car condensers to form the letters U-S-E, a kind of remake of Robert Indiana’s LOVE for an eco-conscious present.

There’s no doubt that Waqif does aesthetically pleasing things with brutish materials. Pile, 2013, presented a faux construction site of poorly mortared brick walls, sawhorse tables littered with hand and power tools, and battered stereo equipment. Part of the floor was covered with plywood, and visitors’ footsteps on the uneven panels triggered a sensor that powered on the tools, which began to clang and buzz. Another room held Besuri Bansuri, 2013, a polyurethane-coated motorcycle surrounded by sticks of dried bamboo, which were jammed upright between floor and ceiling, curving from the tension. Pickups were attached to some of the sticks, and effects pedals lay on the floor and on a nearby shelf next to an amp. Tapping the bamboo produced a gruff reverberation, that sounded like an engine’s purr crossed with the clack of a “deer scarer” in a Japanese garden.

Underlying Waqif’s interest in materials is a concern with New Delhi’s urban problems. HELP, 2010–12, is a three-channel video shot on the Yamuna River, the historical basis for the city’s existence, and now a flowing sewer. The video shows Waqif assembling a steel framework spelling out H-E-L-P, to which dozens of empty plastic bottles are attached. The contraption floats out to midstream. When brought back a few hours later, the bottles are coated in black sludge, a demonstration of the river’s pervasive pollution and, presumably, since the bottles were then cut free and washed, of the dirty job of recycling done by those who live along the river. One surly waste collector disparages hypocritical politicians and their abuse of the city’s resources, and is equally critical of the token gestures of school groups that come for an hour or two to bag trash on the Yamuna’s shores.

Some might call a jab such as this an “intervention,” but in a country where the well-heeled bemoan pollution and bad governance as if talking about traffic or the weather, Waqif’s soft commentary is status quo. Take the wall-hung photo-relief works that dominated “Disruptions.” Each incorporates a large digital image of a building slated for demolition by local authorities for violating planning codes, but then left half-standing or in a rubble heap owing to bureaucratic red tape and lack of plans for redevelopment. The photographs are affixed to sheets of aluminum or plastic, then selectively cut and folded, creating giant, jagged pop-outs. Some of the photographs were surrounded by printed sections of the recently proposed Delhi Master Plan for 2021, which has driven many demolitions. Waqif describes these gestaltless works as comments on the “lethargy in vision” of Delhi’s Ministry of Urban Development versus “fast-evolving ground realities.” Not only does Waqif, thanks to his tendency toward formal abstraction, fail to clearly articulate the issues behind his subject matter, but, by converting hazardous eyesores into luxurious wall-hangings—or as in another work, Tarq, 2012, into a setting for modern dance—he also helps, it could be argued, to integrate the landscape of corrupt planning into a new urban chic, just as, say, abandoned factories and mills are in postindustrial redevelopment. Whatever he does with trash, Waqif should beware of upcycling political problems.

Ryan Holmberg