I met Asif Farooq in 2015, while I was creating an art installation called Flying Towards the Ground at Locust Projects in Miami, Florida. As part of the exhibition, I compiled a reader in which I asked others to share their thoughts about flying or falling.
I had come to learn that Asif was dedicating his life to building a life-sized paper airplane, and I invited him to contribute. I asked if he would write a short piece about his fascination with flight. He said he would rather discuss his fear of falling. You can read that here, in the reader Flying Towards the Ground: A Reader on Flying and Falling.
A year later, I interviewed him about drawing and his paper airplane. Here it is:
Michael Namkung: How did you learn to draw?
Asif Farooq: My mom. She was a painter who painted landscapes and pastoral scenes. It was so long ago, I was around 4 or 5 years old. I took an interest in High Renaissance Italian craftsmanship and studied their frescoes and things.
MN: When you were that young?
AF: Yea. We grew up in the suburbs man—there was nothing to look at. Mom got me a book in German or French about Michelangelo’s preparatory drawings for the Sistine ceiling. I worshipped them, the red charcoal drawings. I thought they were incredibly beautiful. For me it was intriguing because his idealized figures were clearly not human, certainly not representative of what I thought people look like. I wanted to draw portraits—I thought that was what art was. It’s still what I think art is, in a manner of speaking. So I worked really hard at drawing representationally, I thought that was really important and still think it is. I guess I equated technical mastery with the validity of the expression. To me they were the same thing.
But sometimes it’s not important to me, and we play fast and loose with the technical details of the fabrication process. Other times we populate every single circuit board with resistors and transistors all made out of paper. It has to do with arbitrary aesthetic decision making. Often I’ll come in on a whim and say, “We’ve been making this airplane for three years and no one will ever see the components inside it!” Some days I’ll decide I just don’t care and I’ll take shortcuts, but then I’ll come back and say we have to destroy that whole thing, that thing that took us 6 months to make. We make really difficult decisions about it but we always go back to the technical mastery.
When people ask if I’m an artist, most people, with the way social groups work, most people know something about you, like bland descriptors that really get around in social groups, like “He’s an artist.” So people come up to me and they ask me, “You’re a painter, right?” And I tell them “Yes, I paint in the 19th century Hudson River School of Landscape Painting.” But it’s like everything. The idea of the thing is often more pure and technically correct than the actual thing. Drawing is like that too.
MN: Who inspires you?
AF: There’s a guy named Young C. Park. He’s a dentist who retired in Hawaii. He made little scale model airplanes. He grew up next to Pearl Harbor and Honolulu field. He would see these airplanes in the 1940s and 50s—American warplanes. Dentists, it makes sense that they have wonderful fine motor skills. His friend and him used to fly airplanes together, and his friend died young. So it was a sort of sentimental gesture to his dead friend that he missed so much. He made three before he died. He waited until he was in his 60s to make his art. The Smithsonian offered to buy these unique one-of-a-kind planes—they’re functional by the way, every single part. No one knows who he is because he was old and weird and he liked airplanes. He’s like a friend, though I never met him. He passed away, but before he did, he refused the Smithsonian, he told them no you can’t have them and you can’t buy them. He dedicated them to the craftsmanship museum in San Diego. To me, that has to do with his unimpeachable integrity.
There are all these other people who don’t call themselves artists who make the most incredible things in the quietest possible way.
MN: Why are you building the MiG-21?
AF: It’s not a real airplane. It’s not even really a sculpture of an airplane. And though it’s engineered, it’s not really an engineered airplane. Erica and I talk about how it’s a drawing. It’s made out of paper too, which I equate with drawing.
This is the first thing I ever made for the airplane. It’s part of the Tumansky R-11 twin spool axial flow turbine, and I would show it to people and I’d be like, “I need money because I’m making this jet engine and all the inside parts.” Because people know what a jet engine is, sort of, right? And so you pick a module that actually makes sense to them. You don’t want to show them a hydraulic pump.
There’s no small measure of satisfaction in drawing pictures. I love doing it. I just went to an art store for the first time in my life to buy good quality drawing supplies. I bought nice, heavy paper and everything. I usually use the crappiest materials I can find. I pretty much exclusively use mechanical number 2 Papermates. You can get hard and soft, light and dark, all out of the same pencil, and you have a consistent-ish line to work with. Obviously real drawing supplies are far more flexible, but I like the challenge. I always told myself, well, you might not always have good drawing supplies, so you better learn how to use the garbagey ones. If you can do whatever you want to do with them, then you’ve really achieved a kind of mastery. It has more to do with you than it does with the art supplies that you’re buying.
I learned in school that after photographs became commonplace, representational drawing wasn’t such an important social tool.
MN: Do you see the drawing of the jet engine as a social tool?
AF: Yea. It’s a tool. It’s a bludgeon. They don’t care about the jet engine! But they see the drawing and the technical skill. You can sit there and draw combustion chambers and people will be like “I suppose he did his research.” There’s a little bit more trust in the person. I don’t believe in making a project proposal—a PDF or a Word doc or a powerpoint. I show up with drawings, 3 or 4, like the Mad Hatter. Even the book, it’s a forgery. It’s all perfectly laid out to be a forgery. I think some of the most interesting works of art are forgeries. I think of all art as a forgery. A still life is not a real bowl of fruit. A portrait is not the person it represents.
In order to give it the verisimilitude of corroborating evidence, you stick a Stalin in there—so it must be about Soviet aviation and the Cold War. And it is.
The drawing of Stalin is fake.
MN: What do you mean?
AF: There’s no utility to it. It’s there to keep the interest of the people long enough to actually see the substance of what’s here. With the airplane, we’re intentionally poorly documenting it. Over 300,000 parts and no one will see most of them. We want to draw that picture in your mind's’ eye of all the internal components. If you know they’re there, you know they’re there. It doesn’t matter what they actually look like. We want you to think of it for yourself.
MN: Let’s go back to the drawings that you said have utility. How do you use them?
AF: They are communicating internally. They have a very specific utility. As soon as the parts are made, then the drawings are pretty useless. They’re actually polluting my book here a little bit. They’re all over the place and I have to draw them quickly and I’m speaking in a foreign language while I’m doing it—while I’m doing the drawing for Angel [the shop foreman]. I’m like, “Okay Angel, this is what we have to do,” and he’s looking at me and he’s like “Yes I understand” and I know he doesn’t! So the drawing is a visual aid, as is the airplane. It’s an artifact: everything but an actual airplane! But, to any audience it will effectively be more of an airplane than even a real one.
Here’s a drawing I made directly on the surface of the workbench. I had the idea a minute and a half before I called Erica [the shop superintendent] in. The problem here was figuring how to cantilever the rear fuselage. I was drawing the different variations while Erica and I were talking it out and discussing our options. None of us, Ann, Erica, Angel, or myself has built an airplane before, so it’s also a reflection of the fact that all of us are untrained. It’s like, “Well whaddya think about this? Is this how we should build the airplane?”
The best single way to do it is to have some sort of vertical and horizontal supports so that all the pressures balance each other out. But we don’t have the luxury of doing that because we need the rear fuselage empty in order to place the jet engine. The challenge is of course doing it this way as opposed to just making the façade of the airplane. So if it was any other sculpture, it wouldn’t be a priority.
MN: Right—you said before it’s not a sculpture of an airplane, but a drawing of an airplane. Your process seems to embrace a paradox—in mimicking visual reality through your dedication to technique and craftsmanship, you remain as faithful as you can to that reality. But at the same time, the drawings you make—the airplane, the Soviet dictators, the jet engine—are illusions, or forgeries, as you’ve called them. It’s like you’re creating illusions of reality in order to reveal a truth that can’t be perceived with our eyes.
AF: Drawing is magic. The drawing of the airplane has already come alive in other people’s brains. But magic is a lot of hard work: it’s all that behind the scenes work, the discipline of countless hours of practice and repetition that lead to the trick, that moment of one second when your eyes are looking at something they can’t even believe. That’s the magic trick. I deliberately talk about the airplane like it’s the real thing. People get a big eyeful when they see it standing there, but when I show them all the working internal parts, they begin to lose their bearings, their grip on reality. There’s a brief moment when people aren’t too old or too cool to believe in something unbelievable. And that’s when they ask: Will it fly? People want to believe. The representation of reality is always a problem. But that’s what drawing does, it reflects our eternal struggle with representation.
So, to provide a definitive, yes—I remain faithful because that is an expression of honesty. These days, of course, honesty and integrity are optional. However, because I am committed, it is not any kind of option I would ever exercise.
MN: Whether on paper or with paper—your drawings reveals not only the fragility of the object, but the fragility of our representations.
AF: All of our constructions are fragile. Take this flexible hose. It’s made of paper. It’s absolutely non-utilitarian. It’s not a hose, and it’s not a sculpture. A sculpture is meant to have a life; it’s meant to last. Paper doesn’t last, and this airplane won’t last. We are building it with longevity in mind, but the very nature of life is temporary. I want to show it in Moscow. I would love to see it disintegrate on the tarmac at Tushino where it first flew, right outside of Moscow. A time-based drawing.
MN: That’s a beautiful image, to think of this thing you’ve spent years and years painstakingly building—just to have it disintegrate on the tarmac.
AF: But that’s what happens with anything I make. I’d just have the privilege of being able to watch it in this instance. Rather than hold on to things that you don’t own anyways, isn’t that what you’re supposed to do, isn’t that what all the therapy’s for? I think the idea of a drawing for me always had an impermanence to it. Seems like everything in the world and life and the universe does, so why fight against it? When I was young I looked at sculptures in the park, these cast in bronze forever things. I didn’t understand why they didn’t interest me. Humans are such great creatures. Our capacity for self-deception is infinite.
MN: What artists have influenced your thinking about drawing?
AF: When I moved out, I went to the Art Institute in Chicago. I was interested in drawing. I’ve spent a lot of time up to this day obsessing over George Seurat’s charcoal drawings. I love those. They’re just so good. Too good…
Anyhow, I learned that I was never gonna have a chance to be six inches away from a room full of twenty of them, ever again. So I would spend hour after hour, day after day, looking at the same piece of art. I realized something about my practice: I know most people don’t have more than 5 seconds to look at anything, if that. And that’s not acceptable to me. And so I bludgeon them with a more heavy-handed approach. I think the trick is to finesse it, so it doesn’t look so heavy-handed. I’m telling you the trade secrets here.
It’s my study of human nature. You have to decide when you’re working as an artist, who your audience is. There are many kinds of art. You can choose not to show it publicly, you can make it for yourself… There’s a pitfall in being too idiosyncratic in that no one will care about it and it won’t communicate anything.
MN: You seem to use drawing as a very directed form of communication—whether it communicates internally to your team by exposing your thought process, or to a wider public through magic.
AF: It’s important to communicate the ideas most important to you… But everyone feels that way. So how do you push your agenda? My agenda is the Cold War. I had to think about this a lot, because I never took art and drawing very seriously… It was something I happened to be good at, but I did other things. I came to understand that it is the thing that I personally do best, whether I took it seriously or not, which is kind of the conundrum there. You come to culture with the talent that you have—not the talent that you wish you had. I do believe that everyone pushes an agenda. Even if their agenda is to just live and let live… They have one. People have very strong opinions about things.
I don’t care if people with degrees in art history like what I do. My goal in art is to communicate. I want my mom to be able to look at what I do, and I want it to make her happy.
This airplane is the last thing I’ll ever make like this. But I needed to make it. I needed to make this one last drawing. This is the point of it. You make this one thing, and you establish exactly what you want people to know about you. But it’s an ideal. So you’ve successfully pushed your forgery across the table and they’re buying it. And that’s important. Because when you wanna put a satellite into space or you wanna put a particle accelerator together, it’s going to require that people have some sort of trust and belief.
There’s absolutely no utility to this airplane in the end. It’s foolish; you shouldn’t do it. But I wanted my nephews to know that any dream is achievable. Also, just cuz I think it’s beautiful.
MN: What is your fascination with this particular plane?
AF: 28 countries of the world are still flying MiG-21s. Turkmenistan, Cuba, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and India. Many of the dictatorships, but a variety of NATO member states as well.
It’s still being utilized by all these countries because it’s really inexpensive. It’s something that nobody else would ever look at twice and really think about, other than aviation people. You’ll never look at a MiG-21 the same way again. You may not remember the specific nomenclature, but you’ll see it and know that it’s the one. Remember those 5 seconds we spend looking at art? Maybe 2 of those seconds will illuminate just a little bit more about the world we all share together, and our responsibility to each other.
MN: What inspired you to make this airplane in the first place?
AF: I was in a very difficult situation and I needed to feel some kind of hope, so I made a deal with the universe. It was a foxhole prayer that I set up as an if/then statement: if I could get out of this predicament, then I would create this image I had in my head. I saw the airplane, made entirely out of paper, sitting in ¾ view, just a foot and a half below eye level in a dramatic pose like a classic aviation photo. It seemed like a reasonable trade at the time. But once I made it out of my foxhole, the most terrifying part was to convince myself to fully commit to this thing. It became about honoring the deal I unilaterally struck with the universe, about the integrity of doing what I said I was going to do.
MN: I love that you’re following your desire to do something so innocently and universally human: to bring the images in your head to life. And while it’s such a simple gesture on one level, you’re showing the process to be incredibly drawn out, complex and laborious—at least to do it well, to do it faithfully.
AF: It’s going down the rabbit hole. But again, it’s about communication. It’s not what you do; it’s how you do it. It’s communicating a feeling, and communicating an idea.