When I listen to Miami-based artist and fabricator Asif Farooq, I sometimes forget that I’m hearing someone else. The way he speaks about Soviet aerospace hardware, US military air campaigns after WWII, or the exact sequence of the tooling and re-tooling of a decommissioned Hungarian fighter jet, reminds me of how I must sound when speaking about James Bond trivium: almost to the point of absolute folly. Almost.
A brief visit to Farooq’s workshop in Doral (west of Downtown Miami) provided me a glimpse of a project that only a fool could pursue: a plus-life-sized, down-to-the-centimetre reproduction of an MiG 21-BIS fighter jet, crafted entirely from heavy-duty paper. The project’s name is ‘BALALAIKA’. Commonly known as a triangular guitar thought to have originated in the Caucasus, this object’s title strictly refers to the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 which first took flight in 1956 and is still in active use today. So why does an artist feel compelled to inhabit the body of an aeronautical engineer-fighter pilot-commandeer? More importantly, can this project be considered “art”?
It’s a boy’s toy gone berserk. Every dial, every guage responds and twists to the touch. The cockpit is capable (in theory) of housing a human being. Farooq engaged in hands-on research at military institutions and active bases throughout the US in order to piece together the puzzle of this unique combat instrument. The plane, presently, is roughly 75 percent complete. But when it does reach full realisation in a few months’ time, the plane will not fly. The project’s ethos is Faustian: the zealous search for ultimate knowledge, ending with nothing more than desire. A little boy or girl’s paper aeroplane floating across a classroom or backyard is bound for extinction, but BALALAIKA highlights the seemingly eternal human industry of warfare. It is, to first-world governments, as disposable as that schoolyard plaything. “It’s ironic,” he says, “that an F-22 Raptor, the highest-tech airplane so prized by the US Air Force and made by Lockheed Martin costs almost $150 million for one unit. The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG 21 - (he actually enunciates every formal name of any aircraft or combat object he knows about) - is practically disposable, by comparison. It never had more than 30-35 minutes of flight time and if it was shot down, it was just replaced since it was so cheaply bought in the first place.” Needless to say, Farooq’s research into his work has reached academic proportions, which sufficiently qualifies him as both historian and fabricator.
Even though Farooq’s plane will result in either permanent enshrinement or eventual “decommissioning”, both the MiG-21 and the forces behind its continuous utility will seemingly endure. Thus, he hits upon the delicate balance between art versus engineering, signalling broad truths about the modern world in a way that only he can iterate. BALALAIKA is Farooq’s personal fetish, whose pleasure in painstakingly restoring its form (or closest to what is publicly known about it) is known only to him, just as the merit in the strokes of a painting or floating frames of a film are only best-known to their creators. His work points back to the “boy’s toy” on a macro-scale both as object and subject; the physical manifestation of a manually-operated weapon, and still one more addition to the mindless mass of deadly toys at the hands of global military organizations (effectively, whose aims and behaviours seem more senseless than those of children). Farooq, himself, is childlike in his fascination with this plane. His gaunt, dark frame, with tattoos scattered across his body, almost levitates when he speaks about the litany of contradictions in global military spending and the now-defunct ambitions of the USSR in dominating land, air, sea, and space without knowing what would happen when, and if, that were ever accomplished. He hopes, one day, to display the plane in a setting such as the United Nations: a communal space where the currents of global war and peace are broadly determined. If that were to occur, art could sublimate into action, and, perhaps, history would be reshaped.