New Delhi

  Asim Waqif, Puzzle for a Future Archaeologist, 2015–16, personal and found objects, polyeurethane foam. Installation view. Photo: Chandan Ahuja.

Asim Waqif, Puzzle for a Future Archaeologist, 2015–16, personal and found objects, polyeurethane foam. Installation view. Photo: Chandan Ahuja.

Asim Waqif

  Asim Waqif, Puzzle for a Future Archaeologist, 2015–16, personal and found objects, polyeurethane foam. Installation view. Photo: Chandan Ahuja.

For those of us who call New Delhi home, dystopia can be a lived rather than imagined condition; societal ills range from constant attacks on civil liberties under the current right-wing Hindu nationalist government to disease-inducing levels of air and water pollution. Many artists respond to this toxic state of affairs through politics—organizing and attending protests, writing petitions and opinion pieces like their fellow citizens. Though their work often engages with political content, these artists rarely employ overt activist methodologies. Particularly among the younger generation, experimentation mainly takes the form of the incorporation of the processes and vocabularies of disciplines such as architecture, science, and philosophy. Asim Waqif typifies this trend. Trained as an architect, and with a devoted interest in ecology and technology, Waqif explores the interstices of the city—its neglected spaces and marginalized peoples—through a range of underground interventions.

Waqif’s penchant for orchestrating urban encounters emerged once again in his recent exhibition “Autolysis,” held by Nature Morte in one of Delhi’s semiderelict historical sites. As Waqif often works with degradable and found materials, I anticipated the artist’s usual probing of commerce, artifice, and value—especially since the show was scheduled against the heady background of the India Art Fair. And though neither the building’s history nor its context was referred to in any obvious way, “Autolysis” developed notions of worth and worthlessness through a range of impermanent and site-responsive pieces installed under dimly lit crevices filled with cobwebs and hidden under the rocky, dusty ground beneath our feet. The works—most of which, though for sale, were designed to partly decay—ranged from abstract photographic prints on aluminum panels, smashed in by hammers, dragged through dirt, and coated with semi-stable preservatives (Collapsed Roof, 2016); to eerie-looking plastic jars full of neon-lit specimens of crumpled artworks and organic objects, covered with interactive electrical components that beeped if you came close to them (Archival Prints Ka Achaar, 2015–16). A mock-archaeological installation at the center of the show (Puzzle for a Future Archaeologist, 2015–16) contained Waqif’s father’s motorbike and a 1960s auto rickshaw bound together by polyurethane foam, muddling artifact, fiction, and history.

The real surprise, however, was the untitled performance in collaboration with sound artist Hemant Sreekumar, staged at the exhibition’s opening. For this piece, the artist, sporting an orange jumpsuit and a lengthy beard, was brought to the site by ambulance. Accompanied by a recording of a devotional song by the Pakistani “King of Ghazal” Mehdi Hassan, Waqif recited a passionate speech about the senselessness of violence in the name of Islam, after which his beard was ceremoniously trimmed. As a finale, an actor planted in the crowd punched the artist, who was then abducted into the darkness.

The performance, in tandem with an untitled video, 2016, of spliced-together testimonials from family and friends, contrives to suggest that Waqif—or perhaps anyone—could be a terrorist, or accused as such. True enough, but this disparate set of gestures failed to transpire as a fully resolved whole, not quite coming off as either artistic or political—they did not seem to speak beyond themselves. The exhibition began with an engaging inquiry into the economies of objects and facts, but the performance and video felt tangential, individualistic, and demonstrative of well-circumscribed positions and perceptions. If Waqif continues reacting to and reflecting on the current moment—with its persecution of Muslims and distortions of truth—one hopes that these concerns will be highlighted in more coherent and thought-through ways, challenging hierarchies within the art world and the wider world alike.

Jyoti Dhar