Artist Haseeb Ahmed’s tunnel tricks

Following a research-based practice, Brussels and Zurich-based artist Haseeb Ahmed (1985) creates installations and site-specific objects while drawing inspiration from the field of hard science. With his solo exhibition ‘Wird’ at Harlan Levey the second instalment in an unfolding trilogy, we talk with Ahmed about his work’s role in the contemporary art world, early influences and the stimulating yet exhausting aspects of life as an artist in Belgium today.

At its core, what is your work about? What is its starting point and statement?

I believe that some art should be state of the art and made with the tools and techniques that actually shape our everyday realities; going beyond traditional artistic techniques that merely depict it. For this reason I have chosen to work with the wind and wind tunnels as an ongoing part of my practice.

Wind tunnels are infrastructural technologies and not merely novel. All things that move through the air must pass through the threshold of a wind tunnel before entering our industrially produced world. The wind carries many things and I try to articulate this by combining different facts, often from radically different positions, to create new narratives. For instance Lamassu, Babylonian sphinx figures, stand at the entrance of “A New Home” a pavilion in the exhibition “Wird” currently on show at Harlan Levey Projects. Within the pavilion we can meet the face of the wind. It is created with turbulence patterns formed by a delta wing model. The face constantly changes expressions.

The resulting new and unexpected narratives shake loose the overly deterministic narratives that are expected of, and characterise, the role of science in society while reconnecting art to a techno-social firmament.

My work mobilises many diverse historical, social, and technical meanings. It has been important to work with institutions to develop collaborations through which artworks are born and evolve. These artworks can be seen as a record of negotiation between different bodies of knowledge, disciplines, and personal relationships. My first attempt to work in wind tunnels came in 2009 while completing my Masters of Science in the Program for Art Culture, and Technology at MIT. I placed a replica of a Persian Shamshir sword in the Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel, the oldest functioning lab of its kind, to infinitely cut through the wind.

For the past three years, I have continued this work and research as a member of the Size Matters research group at the Zurich University of the Arts (led by Florian Dombois), and simultaneously at the von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics (VKI) where I work with Olivier Chazot, Director of the Aerospace Program.

My work is art though it draws heavily from other disciplines. Lately, the support of Harlan Levey Projects has been instrumental in developing this practice and it’s diverse narratives into artworks of different types and different dissemination vehicles.

“Wird,” exhibition installation image, photo: Marcin Dudek

“Wird,” exhibition installation image, photo: Marcin Dudek

“Wird,” exhibition installation image, photo: Marcin Dudek

“Wird,” exhibition installation image, photo: Marcin Dudek

Can you talk to us about your approach in general? What characterises your work?

I draw from many sources. Often I am constructing bridges between two seemingly remote points in space and time. Reoccurring strategies of replication, reverse engineering, and mold-making tend to be the way that I construct these bridges. As our shared reality becomes increasingly specialized and atomized this way of working grows increasingly urgent.

In more material terms, I work with the means I am most fluent in. For example, in my current exhibition you’ll see 3D printing, mold making and casting, woodworking, and also drawing. At the same time, I’m constantly trying to go beyond myself. Performance, video art, and sound sculptures also appear in the exhibition and are newer ways of working for me. I want to create immanent experiences for people so I avoid displaying documentation; tending instead towards installations built in part by borrowing tools and techniques from the hard sciences to produce art works. This has to do with the intent I mentioned above.

“The Wind Egg,” film still, photo Daniel van Hauten

“The Wind Egg,” film still, photo Daniel van Hauten

“The Wind Egg,” film still, photo Daniel van Hauten

“The Wind Egg,” film still, photo Daniel van Hauten

How do you actually work on a piece, from start to finish?

My practice is research-based. I have an inquiry and a set of constantly evolving questions that act as a kind of rabbit-hole that I love to fall down into. To mark the moments in these flows and sustain them Lately, I am creating objects, architectural models, photographs, drawings, films, and texts. Each of these forms and ways of working are strategically chosen. For instance the exhibition at Harlan Levey Projects features five scientific posters. These posters seamlessly blend prose, photographs, and research materials as artworks while following all the conventions of academic scientific posters.

The moment of an exhibition creates is a good reason to bring these artworks into full-formed entities, so that they may exist independently of the free-stream of research from which they came. This research then, transforms into a narrative or back-story for the artworks created. By the time the moment of an exhibition nears I have internalised the ideas, educations, and experiences and go into direct and rapid production—trusting that this research is now a part of the way I think and part of who I am.

“Acoustic Vortex in Wind Egg Incubation Chamber,” photo: Haseeb Ahmed

“Acoustic Vortex in Wind Egg Incubation Chamber,” photo: Haseeb Ahmed

Who would you say was instrumental in shaping your artistic practice?

I have had many important influences and try to honor each in my work the best I can. From an early age in Toledo, Ohio where I grew up I have had the benefit of very good teachers especially at the Toledo Museum of Art, a world class and the free museum that is surprisingly located there. Studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and MIT I continued to have excellent teachers, like Maud Lavin, Chris Cutrone, Lisa Norton, and James Elkins in Chicago and Ute Meta Bauer, Joan Jonas, Krzysztof Wodiczko, and Gediminas Urbonas at MIT. I cannot name all of the people, places, and histories that have been important to me here.

I spent the first half of my life in the rust belt among massive skeletal steel industrial structures. Seeing them in some of the cities of Wallonia gives me comfort. Ohio is also extremely flat and I believe this is why it has produced the most amounts of astronauts and well-known aviators. Flight is very important to me. It is one of the reasons I am where I am.

“VKI Aviary,” photo: Daniel van Hauten

“VKI Aviary,” photo: Daniel van Hauten

I nearly chose to become an architect instead of an artist and completed the core curriculum for architecture in Chicago. During this time I studied the modernist built environment of the city and ancient archeological forms. They continue to inform my installations. I am particularly interested in the ambient operation of ornamental schemes, in particular Bavarian rococo and Islamic geometric ornament.

Arriving in Belgium to work with gallerist Harlan Levey, who also happens to be from Ohio, has been very important to me. Our relationship has developed intensely over the last three years, and my first solo exhibition at the gallery is now on at his gallery until October 29th.

The friendships I developed at Jan van Eyck Academie while a researcher there from 2010-12, also continue to shape me. So does the Size Matters research group at the Zurich University of the Arts. Staf van Tendeloo, Director of the EMAT nano-fabrication group at the University of Antwerp, has also been influential as a PhD adviser and great supporter.

“Pavilion of Turbulences” photo: Haseeb Ahmed

“Pavilion of Turbulences” photo: Haseeb Ahmed

What are the challenges you face as an artist working in Belgium today?

Though I have been in Belgium for three years already, many things are still new to me. This can be exciting and inspiring, like taking a wrong turn while biking through the city and discovering an intricate work of Art-Nouveau architecture, or it can be exhausting like visits to the Schaarbeek Commune where no regulation is ever very clear.

Language continues to challenge me in the way it does Belgium itself. Brussels, where I live, is largely French speaking, while I am a undertaking my practice-based arts PhD at the University of Antwerp/Sint Lucas-Antwerpen which is Dutch speaking, and working with a research group, which is German-speaking in a city that speaks a strong dialect of Swiss-German. I also just started teaching at the Scandinavian School of Brussels, which handles much of its communication in Swedish. I speak Urdu with my Family in the US though I’d call English my “mother tongue.” That’s seven languages on a daily basis. This has made it hard for me to learn any one properly so far. This complexity is part of the allure of Brussels and Europe in general, but it can be exhausting.

“A is for Albatross,” photo: Haseeb Ahmed

“A is for Albatross,” photo: Haseeb Ahmed

"Trudelturm Wind Egg,” photo: Haseeb Ahmed

“Trudelturm Wind Egg,” photo: Haseeb Ahmed

How do you see yourself fit into the country’s contemporary art scene?

While it is a slow process, I am resonating with different aspects of the art in Belgium. The strong history of conceptualism in Belgium makes me feel confident in conducting experimental work here. For my part, I am working to host certain conversations for the scene as part of my practice. In particular, I would like to contribute to the conversation on the relationship of art and science through my exhibitions, performances, and discussions I organize as part of my work.

Talk to us about the people around you, your local scene. To what extent does it inspire and influence you?

I am strongly inspired by architecture and the decadence of Rococo, Art Deco, and Art Nouveau. Seeing these daily in various stages of preservation constantly brings new forms to contemplate. The community of engineers at the von Karman Institute for fluid Dynamics in Rhode St. Genese is very supportive and the place is filled with a wholly other order of forms. I feel I am the linkage between the forms of things, forms of community, and forms of knowledge; some of which the public rarely sees (like those at the VKI), and that it is important to integrate them in other narratives. .

I work in an active studio called Le Sceptre in Ixelles. This place provides strong moral and intellectual support as well as a sense of community.

Many of my most important influences are my friends and I have ongoing conversations with Piero Bisello, Adrien Lucca, Petra Van der Jeught, Andros Zins-Browne, Mihnea Mircan, Barbara Renaux, Harlan Levey, and Nav Haq and Daniel Baird, to name a few important ones.

“Wird,” exhibition installation image, photo: Marcin Dudek

“Wird,” exhibition installation image, photo: Marcin Dudek

What does success look like to you?

Success is pushing myself to give form to those things that do not yet have one. It is also creating a practice that can sustainably produce these forms, socially, financially, materially, and intellectually.

To you, what role should contemporary art occupy in the community?

Contemporary art ought to create moments that cannot be easily anticipated. Our environments condition our expectations. For instance, if I walk into any supermarket in the world, I will most likely know that they carry a toothbrush, and by the arrangements of goods, know where to find it.

Art is the only thing in society that can afford to produce new experiences of reality to create a vantage point by which we can start to judge our lived realities.

Often people are disappointed in contemporary art, but this can be a mistaken disappointment, it may be the case that they should be disappointed with the state of their own lives and the state of our global society. However, the insidious threat of cynicism does loom in contemporary artworks and infects many artists and artworks alike. If a work is initially cleared of this cynicism then other questioning can begin in earnest.

“Wird,” exhibition installation image, photo: Marcin Dudek

“Wird,” exhibition installation image, photo: Marcin Dudek

“Wird,” exhibition installation image, photo: Marcin Dudek

“Wird,” exhibition installation image, photo: Marcin Dudek

Which Belgian artists do you follow, look at for inspiration? Either from the past or the present.

Marcel Broodthaers is important to me and I am honoured to be showing simultaneously with him at M HKA in Antwerp (October 2018). I also like the work of Guillaume Bijl who has developed a practice of replication that he often turns on its head. This strategy is important to me. While often overly flashy, Hans Op de Beeck tends to create ecosystems of representations like I aim to do. I follow the work of my studio mates at Le Sceptre. And have had intensive conversations with Brussels-based artist Adrien Lucca about his work for years that have been a constant inspiration.

On a more personal note, how does your everyday inform your work?

I Travel a lot. The experience of sitting in a chair and travelling a great distance without moving one’s own body is so simple, yet remains a profound paradox to me. How can one enter completely new realities via truncated passages of time?

I am often trying to bridge very remote places in my work. I feel that my efforts may also have to do with my biography. My parents are both from Pakistan, and as I mentioned; I grew up in the US, live in Belgium and work in Zurich. Sometimes I buy multiple copies of the same book and place them in the different bedrooms in the different cities where I sleep. I’m not sure if this constitutes an artistic practice or if it is a survival mechanism.

And what do your parents, your family, think of what you do?

When I was 16 I decided I wanted to be an artist. I started making paintings and selling them to neighbours and family friends, which I regret now as they were very good paintings. None of my other friends were making money at this age and this showed my parents I could make a living of it, which was the intended effect, despite the fact that only 13 years later have finally joined a commercial gallery with Harlan Levey Projects. They trusted me to realise the potential results of working hard, and I am deeply grateful for their unconditional support in my professional choices.

My sister Beenish Ahmed is a journalist, poet, and novelist, so we both have a creative bent. This is possibly the influence of my Grandfather, Mohammad Shafi Sabir, who was also a poet, scholar, and started the first private schools in Pakistan at its advent in 1947. My Brothers Najeeb and Areeb both appreciate the arts deeply and have visited museums and exhibitions with me since they were small children. So, I am lucky to have a family who understands and supports my ambition, however new culture clashes may lie ahead.

www.haseebahmed.com