Asif Farooq: “I am a stealth human”
When Asif Farooq spoke at a Locust Projects roundtable discussion on August 25, 2015 he donned a crisp white suit and powerful red tie, the latter boldly declaring “REMOVE BEFORE FLIGHT” in white letters. The tie and text matched his watch, a white face emblazoned with the red hammer and sickle of the former USSR, a relic of that past era, or perhaps a recreation mimicking the kind of branding common to 20th century world superpowers. This ambiguity does not seem accidental considering Farooq’s work traffics in the complexities of verisimilitude, cultural memory, and technological innovation. His get-up, like the talk and accompanying discussion itself, connected a stylishly distinct set of personal interests, historiographic conundrums, and a humorously self-effacing self-awareness as an artist.
The project in question can easily be called a magnum opus: a full to-scale (actually, slightly larger than scale) replica of a Soviet MIG-21 fighter jet made entirely out of paper. True to form, Farooq compares the decision to make this massively complex, fragile, impermanent object to ordering pizza for dinner over, say, anything else. His casual demeanor regarding his intentions aside, his command of the technical and historical material surrounding the project is anything but flippant. The front-end of his talk flooded the crowd with information pertaining to the various characters and historical influences which led him to the project: from detailed biographies of aviation pioneers Geoffrey de Havilland, Jr. and Chuck Yeager to the specific mathematical design properties of the B-58 Hustler, one of the first aircraft capable of carrying out an intercontinental nuclear strike.
Farooq places himself within these histories of aeronautics and human achievement as a curious child of the Cold War looking up at his father’s (a civil engineer’s) drafting table, and in doing so illuminates a deep, intimate link between the practical sciences that shape the modern world and his own artistic practice. He finds incredible beauty (a word he is never afraid of using) in the ingenuity of humans taking flight, while also observing the bitter irony of its geopolitical applications. In a time where silent, night-vision airstrikes and drone attacks have become commonplace, these preoccupations with the form and function of flight have emerged anew (see, for instance, the similar polemics echoed in Hayao Miyazaki’s controversial final feature, The Wind Rises (2014)).
Farooq’s practice itself is clearly driven by this reverence for design and function, as he and his team have painstakingly fashioned every component of the MIG-21 to exact specifications. From the intricacies of the radar, engine, and landing gear to the minutia of switches, levers, and buttons in the cockpit, he explains this impulse was also a product of his childhood: a desire to create accurate representational art (specifically, portraits––what any kid thinks a good artist does) and his desire to make paper airplanes (which all kids love doing). The result is an up-scaled, adult-version of those imaginative childhood desires by that adult, now reflecting upon the much scarier realities of that childhood. Even scarier is the idea that the Cold War never really ended. Rather, it dropped its simplistic East vs. West veneer and bled out, becoming the current scattered mess of U.S. interventions across the globe, a post-Eastern Bloc instability, and a scenario where radical religious fanatics lash out against the hegemonies that have oppressed and exploited them for centuries. In constructing this portrait of a MIG-21 Farooq seems to coalesce his childhood wonder for flight and representation, his practical skills as a craftsman, and his political consciousness as an artist.
In the final section of his presentation, Farooq detailed the history of stealth technology and its roots in a little known theoretical paper by Russian physicist Petyr Ufimtsev, “Method of Edge Waves in the Physical Theory of Diffraction,” published in 1971. This paper, he explained, laid the blueprints for an enormous shift in aeronautical design that focused more intensely on the tenets electrical engineering. The idea that planes were and still are being built with stealth as the primary design principle latently subverts any notion of détente. Perhaps it will take his decidedly anti-stealth aircraft, which he hopes will sit in the lobby of the U.N. one day, to ease the tension and bring about some honest discourse[.]
This post was contributed by Dave Rodriguez.