Asif Mian '21 Encounters the Alhambra

Mădălina Telea Borteș
January 31, 2023

Encounters is a series where we talk to Columbia Visual, Sound, and Performance artists about the art that compels them to see and create in new ways.

For Asif Mian ’21, art practice is equal parts ritual and performance, plan and chance. Through deep study of materials (thermal drone technology, plastic, water, light), mythology, and critical theory, Mian creates mixed media artworks that engage the body, expand the possibilities of perception, and reflect back to the viewer what could occur within the portal of an ‘encounter.’ There is very little hidden and very little shown in Mian’s works—a riddle as emblematic of his ethos as it is of the works themselves, which, in a rare and exceptional feat, stand firmly within their own agency as artworks. 

In this Encounters interview with Mian, we spoke about dualities of vision, belonging, and identities. 


Let’s begin with your encounter, because it is a place rather than a tangible artwork that one could see in a museum or a gallery. 

Asif Mian: Twice in my early twenties, I stayed right next to the Alhambra in the Sacromonte area of Grenada, Spain. We would visit the Alhambra often. It was our backyard, and I had a deep connection to it - the maze-like, garden courtyards with the sounds of water, the amazing patterned mosaics, the deeply carved sandstone walls, all the colors and textures. 


How did it feel being there?

AM: It was odd, I felt like I had been there before, or the insides felt familiar even though it is such an astounding, palatial place. I would recall my childhood home, the little stone trinkets and wood carved knick-knacks from Pakistan, even the cream colored walls my mom always insisted on painting; it felt like they all came from the Alhambra. It was like my past memories and present experience were merging as I walked. When I am making work, I don’t ever directly reference the Alhambra, but rather, I’m drawn to my bodily experience of memory, haunting, sight, sound, color, etc. I would like to have each of my works to try to have these qualities, this sensorial moment of encounter.


Your work spans several mediums—performance, sculpture, video—but at the core it seems you are engaging questions of being, as in the state of being, whether through or around the body, even in-between bodies. 

AM: The body is always an interest, including how it’s been treated in history, how it’s been represented in history. I became attracted to the shapeshifter and the Djinn—and that is the type of body I am closer to; in a weird way, I am closer to the shapeshifter or the invisible than a person who’s readily represented in American culture, you could say. My work isn’t about representation but if you’re going to use bodies in a video [or in performance], you have to contend with what they’re going to look like. 


And this use of bodies, it has a history for you? 

AM: I used to wrestle in high school and that sport translated into a lot of my performance work. It is the body under intimidation, duress, stress. How do you change that? By slowing it down. Then it becomes more like a dance, out of which comes mythology and history and stories.


These themes of mythology, dance, and history make up a large component of your video installation pieces that were on view at the Okayama Art Summit: Nothingness and Specter (2022) and Smokeless Fire (2022). For those who haven’t had the chance to experience these works in person, can you say a little more about them? 

AM: They both use thermal camera video, but in different ways. Nothingness and Specter is a live video sculpture. Smokeless Fire is a classic video piece in thermal and regular HD film shot on a drone, which is also used in industrial settings and policing. And at the Okayama Art Summit, this video is installed hovering above a pond whose water is dyed black, so the screen creates a reflection, and it’s in the shadow—so it’s very gothic. I have a gothic streak in me, aesthetically, and it’s really coming through in this piece, which I think of as a portal—this video in the woods with black water—it feels like you’re stepping into a portal. 


How did you come to make these pieces, and why?

AM:  I was at the School of the Arts for my MFA. I’d been interested in surveillance and cameras, I’d used them since I was a teenager. In 2018, I read an article about crime suspects and how the police found one of them under a tarp covering a boat. I wondered: how do you find someone under a tarp? And the article just said, plainly, the thermal camera could see through the tarp. Instantly, thermal cameras went from being something scientific or surveillance based to something kind of magical or mythological. 


And to you, the mythological is both ancient and modern.

AM: Yes, so there are animals that can see through things, and certain animals smell or see through heightened senses, through sonar, or there’s Superman, who can see through things, for example. All of these modern day myths of shapeshifters, of hyper-abilities, have continued on in popular culture. So when I was reading that article, I kept thinking that this aspect of mythology was captured through a camera that was mounted on a helicopter. In a way, the person in the helicopter with the camera has a sixth sense, you know? 

Two dancers captured using thermal imaging

So once you began experimenting with thermal cameras, how did you make the turn towards bodies?

AM: I was thinking of surveillance and surveying the body, drone warfare in the Middle East, and even domestically. This camera is meant to target bodies. It’s designed to make a high contrast, white, ethereal body on a black background. It’s always targeting bodies, hunting bodies. So, I wanted to make a body that was there and not there. 

This relates to the idea in mythology of the ghost and the specter, and the Djinn, which is what I grew up with. The Djinn is pre-Islamic and part of Islam. It’s also part of folklore, which has been turned, in the West, into the genie and Aladdin, but it comes from Djinns—these creatures that are invisible but can become visible and they’re good or bad and they can possess humans. 

I’m interested in the specter and the other and the alien and the luminal body; and this fascination with a body that’s there and not there connected to something in the past and something very present. 


It seems that the past and history alongside the body and its haunting is the fulcrum, or the zone, where everything in your work coalesces. Do you have a sense of why that is the punctum, to borrow Barthes’ language? 

AM: So, I was born in Jersey City and grew up in Astoria, Queens. I grew up here but my parents are from Pakistan. I think there’s this yearning. I grew up with prayer rugs and different trinkets and things from Pakistan and travel rugs and things like that, and there’s an appreciation I have [for that]. But I think there’s also the void of it. When my feet touch a prayer run or a tribal rug, it’s a very distinct feeling, but it’s a feeling that’s a bit foreign because that happens sparingly, that engagement with culture as a first generation [American], whereas if I was in Pakistan, or you know, where any of our parents are from, you’re more immersed in the culture. So, there’s a bit of a yearning and also the void of not knowing your full history and the wanting of that. I think it can sometimes be very simple: it’s working with things that you don’t fully know in order to get closer to it, to [your history]. But on the contrary I don’t think that wholly defines me. 


Is that why you veiled the bodies in the video? 

AM: The veil is very interesting, because when it’s a regular camera it’s a veil, it’s closer to a burka or a shroud—yes, it obscures the body, it obscures the face. But in the thermal world, you can see the face but the face is hard to recognize, as far as who the person is. 


Yes, it’s a purely anatomical face, not an easily socially identifiable face. 

AM: Yes, which I like—because the performance work isn’t portrait work; even when you can see the person, it’s really about the whole body, it’s about having this anonymity of who the person is—race and gender, that’s coded in there, you can see it, but it’s not really about what the person looks like; it’s about how their body is moving, what they represent moving through the world. That’s more important. And on video, once you show the face, the eyes, how someone looks, then that defines them. So thermal gets away from that, shooting performance with the whole body gets away from that. 

Shrouded dancers in a stairwell

When we were speaking earlier about our shared experiences as members of the immigrant community, you mentioned this term that you use in your performance work: “brown is gray.” Can you speak a little more about that?

AM: That term came about in the performance work because most of the performers in the videos are brown people, but I don’t say what type of brown people. The U.S. is a very binary society. But, for me, Arab, South American, Middle Eastern, Pakistani, Indian, Afghani—those are all shades of brown; they’re not necessarily the black-white binary. I’m a New Yorker, I’m more interested in the gradients of brown—and I say brown is gray for the in-between, between black and white. And gray is the color of specter. 


This reminds me of what you said when we spoke about your use of dual-footage for Smokeless Fire (2022); you said the cameras provide “two different states of perception, each contending with the other.” That contention feels very generative, and it seems that it gets played out on the tapestry of the body and of metaphor itself. There’s a lot of poesis there.  

AM: I think about how we constantly live in variable states of experience, how one person can respond to an object or a place or an image much differently from another person.  Memory, history, color, texture, sound can all influence our perceptions uniquely. Like with the Alhambra, it was a place that felt at once familiar and “not my own.” It was not definitive, it was in this gray zone. And rather than searching for a finality, a concrete resolution, I want to do the same, to provide two states (the thermal and the actual) that contend with each other, not to cancel each other out, but to provide a fuller spectrum. The manipulation of the thermal image shows what is hidden, it provides a sixth sense as a bridge to the mythological.


It does, and it’s such a bodily sixth sense.

AM: I am a figurative artist at my core. I’ve always been drawing and sculpting and have been around the figure, around the body, and I do performance work as well, but I also studied science [at university].


That combination comes through in your work, which is simultaneously highly technical and highly visceral. 

AM: I am very attracted to artworks that have this unique visceral and sensorial quality. And many times, these works have their own inherent technology and hidden structure that allows for these qualities to be encountered first. With the Alhambra, the architectural layout is its hidden technology; it is very purposeful how one’s body is led through shadowed mosaic corridors and sandstone walls into bright, open courtyards full of color and life. The sound of water is constant, it guides you through to its source in the fountains. The visceral is immediately felt and the technology is (maybe) understood later, but it allows this effect to be felt through time and space. 


How do you replicate this effect in your work? 

AM: I try to manipulate different technologies—from thermal cameras to rug fibers—to create certain visceral effects. And within the effect of a work, there are these traces of history, mythology, the present, etc. that are layered in for the viewer to read and experience.

I’m not afraid to show how we got there. By using these two cameras—the thermal and the HD—I am being very clear about the fact that you have to digest both ways of seeing the body. I am interested in the in-between and the variability, and seeing both. 


Asif Mian (b. Jersey City, NJ), earned an MFA from Columbia University (2018) and attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (2018). Mian also holds a B.A. in Studio Art & B.S. in Biology (Genetics) from Drew University. Mian’s interdisciplinary works engage memory, ritual, and modes of violence. Recent exhibitions include Queens International: Volumes at The Queens Museum; “Always, Already, Haunting, "disss-co," Haunt ” curated by Whitney ISP fellows at The Kitchen; the inaugural Open Call exhibition at The Shed; and Beyond Geographies: Contemporary Art and Muslim Experience at BRIC, Brooklyn. Awarded the 2021 Queens Museum-Jerome Foundation Fellowship for Emerging Artist, Mian’s multichapter project, RAF, was the focus of a solo exhibit at the Queens Museum.