Nasser Azam tries to explore creativity in unfamiliar situations - and the desire has taken him to some unlikely places.
One artist's extreme palette: Nasser Azam
Nasser Azam welcomes me into his gorgeous London studio, full to bursting with all the accoutrements of the successful working artist. It's comfortable. It's inspiring. And most of all, it's warm. The juxtaposition between the canvas I interrupt him working on and the pieces he's just completed could not be more marked. Azam has just flown back from perhaps the most extreme environment of all in which to create art: Antarctica.
This isn't the first time that the Pakistan-born Azam - who gave up a lucrative role at the investment bank Merrill Lynch to pursue his artistic career - has put himself at the mercy of the elements to further his painting. In 2008, he hit the headlines when he took a flight on a zero gravity plane for the Life In Space project, creating two new works while experiencing complete weightlessness. So far, he's come out of both experiments unscathed, except for the sore throat he's currently nursing. But why would he want to put himself in harm's way in the first place?
"The Antarctica trip was really the continuation of my fascination with what I call performance painting," he says in his huskily broken voice. "The idea is that these extreme environments dictate the content, as opposed to the preconceived ideas that the artist usually has about what he wants to work on. So I honestly had no idea what I was going to paint until I got there. But I also wanted to explore creativity in an unfamiliar situation, that idea of seeing what happens when you get outside your comfort zone. And, you know, Antarctica was pretty much the furthest point away from my comfort zone.
"It was a very different experience, to, say, painting in here," he says. "Here, if I don't like the direction something is going in, I can stop or start again. There, I had time and environmental constraints. That's why I think this performance painting concept is so interesting." The results are fascinating. Azam is a figurative painter, so these are not pretty landscapes. Instead, they genuinely feel like off-the-cuff responses to the extreme environment he found himself in. The use of colour is crucial; as Azam says: "To go somewhere with different shades of white for a prolonged period of time gives you a very different perspective."
That's most evident in the Ice Desert paintings - the nine brightly coloured canvases are almost Mondrian-eqsue in their blocky feel. In the photographs of Azam working, the stark white of the surroundings becomes part of the work, too. Azam also set up his makeshift studio on a glacier, in an ice cave and on an ice lake. The crucial final touches of the work weren't from him at all. Like an artist leaving his signature, Azam left the pieces overnight so the elements could have the last word. It didn't end up being the best idea Azam had on the trip.
"Conditions deteriorated so much that we actually lost four of the nine canvases in blizzards," he laughs. "They'd blown away. We went on a search mission two days later and actually found one. And it's fascinating to look at: the primer is rugged, raw and cracked." Of course, painting at all in such conditions is a real challenge. Azam practised at -30° at London's Billingsgate Fish Market, testing antifreeze paints and custom-made brushes. But the major obstacle was all the survival gear. Naturally, a painter needs his hands to handle his brushes. But Azam's gloves were so thick that it made painting almost impossible, and he risked frostbite by taking them off. He applied hot pads to his hands so he could continue working.
"It's turned out to be a very successful trip, and not just in terms of coming back in one piece," he smiles. "Normally, when humans are placed in these conditions, you think about survival and nothing else. And I was going one step beyond that and thinking about creativity, so that was very interesting to me. Just having the chance to go there and carry out the creative process was so satisfying. In terms of the results, well, that's not for me to judge. I can't worry about that."
Azam has a laid-back confidence that suggests he knows it will all turn out all right. The zero gravity project resulted in his Homage To Francis Bacon Triptych 1, which sold for $332,000 (Dh1.2 million). He's been artist in residence at London's County Hall, presenting five well-regarded exhibitions. Not bad for someone who gave up banking just two years ago. "Actually, to me it feels like I gave up painting for 23 years," he says. "I didn't stop being an artist and I always knew I'd return to it one day. What the experience of Merrill Lynch gave me was a global perspective of art and culture. It opened up my vision. So spending 11 years in Japan and the Pacific Rim, travelling extensively in Europe and the US, has all fed into my art."
And certainly, Azam knows his art. He admits that Homage To Francis Bacon was a "fan letter" to the artist famous for his graphic, tortured work. But rather than just copy his style, Azam took his ideas a step further. "His triptychs had connotations with religion, even though he wasn't a religious person per se. So it was interesting to try and take that idea into space, where there are of course all these ideas of the heavenly and celestial. But Bacon's vision of human existence is so interesting because he laid bare all his emotions. That's why he's still so relevant today, 50 years on, because he created art that people can relate to. He understood how trauma is an important aspect of everyday life."
Interestingly, Azam isn't sure whether, on the whole, his work has such a specific message. He deals more in allegory, in personal experiences and emotions. Still, this week Ian McEwan's new book, Solar - inspired by a trip the author took to the Arctic and with scenes set there - is published. It's very much a novel with an environmental subtext, so I wonder if any of the work Azam completed in Antarctica did, in the end, reflect his feelings about the awe-inspiring place.
"It definitely does capture my impulses at that particular time, in that ice cave," he says. "These places are completely uninhabited by humans. It was just me, the extreme environment and the work. And we're talking extreme physically, mentally, visually. The best way of summing it all up is that it felt like it looks." Despite the notoriety Azam is enjoying for such endeavours, there is a sense that he's done with painting in such extreme conditions for now. He talks excitedly of a project in which he will try to represent the brain of an Alzheimer's patient, and of future collaborative work. Is there nothing that would perhaps tempt him back into the world of performance painting?
"Well, maybe if there's an expedition to the moon in the next 20 years..." he laughs. That might be a giant leap for mankind, but it would be just another small step in Nasser Azam's career.