The skyscraper is a specimen of precise engineering, with its intricate panels and grids, and the synthesis of glass and steel for function and design. But in artist Navjot Altaf’s latest vision, their perfection comes with a warning: skyscrapers might be destroying the earth.

In How Perfect Can Perfection Be, Altaf explores the aesthetic pleasures of scale, experience and function, through depictions of the concrete monoliths in New York City. Each of the 24 watercolour paintings is layered with simple line graphs of climate change – rising, as the number of buildings grows.

“These drawings are a critique of the celebration, of urbanisation’s limitless desire to lure the human psyche at the cost of abusing the planet,” she said.

World average temperature, 1997-2012. Credit: Navjot Altaf

Each graph and caption reveal the damage: one depicts how much hotter the planet has become in the period between 1997 and 2012, while another measures energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in the United States and China, over a period of 12 years.

"The graphs are simplified renderings of a language developed by the specialists,” Altaf said, “so the line graphs alone are not enough for viewers to understand the complexity of the environmental changes.”

Energy related Co2 emission, China and United states, 1990-2012. Credit: Navjot Altaf

Altaf has returned to using of watercolours after nearly 20 years. She rarely restricts herself to a single medium – since 1972, she has created mixed media sculptures, installations and videos. The imagery in her work reflects her long-term preoccupations: social justice, knowledge systems, ecology and indigenous cultures.

In a career spanning 30 years, Altaf has made several site-specific ecological art interventions, including work focused on innovating municipal practices for eco-consciousness, and managing trees in cities.

Economists view of 2012's hurricane Sandy Storm in New York City. Credit: Navjot Altaf

As the title of the latest exhibition suggests, this time, Altaf is playing with the fantastical idea of perfection. The 67-year-old believes there exists a symbiotic relation between a building, its surrounding environment and climate. Each affects the other in tangible and intangible ways.

“Humans have a sensitive internal mechanism that manipulates their internal temperature to keep it at 37 degree Celsius at all times,” she said. “They do so by creating a favourable micro-climate, through clothes, building houses, burning fuel…. but in manipulating the environment to produce a favourable microclimates, human beings have begun appropriating natural resources to such an extent, that they have paved the path for a human only environment.”

Global Carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning, 1950-2003. Credit: Navjot Altaf

"The greed to produce and consume by the privileged few of the society, has led the civilisation towards a culture that is unsustainable," she added. "To recover from this would mean to jolt ourselves into recognising the remarkable world we inherited from our elders and our obligations to preserve the planet for future generations."

United States tornado activity, 2004-2014. Credit: Navjot Altaf
Debt (trillions of 2010 dollars), 1940 to 2010. Credit: Navjot Altaf

The line graphs of Altaf's art appear to echo Nietzsche: the higher we soar, the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly.

Navjot Altaf's How Perfect Can Perfection Be will be on display from September 9 to September 30 at Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai.