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Junk Food For Thought

Tehelka Magazine

Asim Waqif’s sculptural installations, rife with jagged edges and junk components, infuse the white space of the Nature Morte gallery with a raw tension. Many are objects divorced from previous lives. A pair of aluminium car condensers he bought from a junk shop behind Jama Masjid have been reworked into letters and displayed on a plinth. They tell a story of use, abandonment and reinvention.

Some have stories that are autobiographical. Before even entering the gallery, the visitor is greeted by a few arched bamboo canes, which, on the inside, give way to a small forest of them, with an old motorcycle lurking in their midst. It is a 1979 Rajdoot Excel-T that once belonged to the artist’s father. Found objects such as these are curious for their texture and complexity in contrast to the gallery’s milk-white walls. They also seem to play on the idea of recycling as a valuable component of the informal economy, especially in a large city rife with slums like New Delhi.

The splintered bamboo is a sure sign that though Waqif’s work is avant garde, it has a vernacular slant. The exhibition has a domestic rather than monumental bent that is comprehensible and comfortable as opposed to awe-inspiring. This approach is encouraging in a nation otherwise struggling to find a contemporary aesthetic that is modern but local.

However, there is a fine line between vernacular art and everyday things and in certain instances that line is unwittingly blurred. As you walk down the stairs into the lower ground floor, the visitor enters an area of the gallery that seems at first glance to be under refurbishment. The floors are uncovered, the walls are of exposed red brick and it is dimly lit. Here, sensors connected to wires running underfoot provoke reactions among the inanimate things that surround you. The visitor is implicated into the installation and interacts with it through its appeal to our senses: sight, touch, sound. But due to the ragged environment — there is a framed digital print covered in bubble wrap mounted on one wall — it would not be unforgivable to mistake it for a storage den.

My personal highlight was a captivating three-channel film installation in which a contaminated river in Delhi provides a lifeline to a group of foragers. The protagonist in the film, who has been working there for decades, has witnessed the river transform into a rubbish dump over the years. He sits by the riverbank with his only companions: his daughter, a vivacious young girl in a school uniform, and a pet monkey, whom they feed affectionately from a bottle of orange soda despite the creature’s impudence. This portrait of their lives attributes the river with a deeper meaning. While it is a highly polluted source of grime and disease, these people have forged a life based on ad hoc items that are thrown up from its murky depths. Far from being pitiful or grim, their interactions are funny and moving, their lives full of hope. The sorts of found objects depicted here, from grimy plastic bottles to a wet but working computer, throw the rest of the exhibition into stark relief.

The found objects in the show are a reminder that the gallery is a space of privilege and that objects normally brought here are disconnected from the rest of society. Bringing everyday things here is a creative act, but it is also a political one. It forces us to contemplate those things with fresh eyes, legitimising them as more than mere junk. In doing so, Disruptions is an attempt to democratise the notion of the gallery. It goes some way towards making a space accessible to and reflective of more than the lives of the privileged few.

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