Vivan Sundaram’s retrospective at the KNMA does justice to his contribution to Indian art, says Abhay Sardesai.
Vivan Sundaram. One and the Many. Terracotta. 315” x 188” x 60”. Size variable. Average height of each figurine: 11.8”. 2015. Image courtesy of the artist. All images courtesy of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi.
Meandering in and out of rooms at a museum, you are sometimes tempted to humanize artworks. Imagining them as creatures that breathe might elicit disdainful sniggers from some quarters but it does allow you an opportunity to appreciate the continuously tense relationship between art and time. Individuals gain in character, lose their bearings, grow old gracefully or diminish gracelessly; likewise, artworks mature with intensity, acquire the status of wise, watchful objects or get reduced under the burden of age. Sometimes, they lapse into spells of extended coma.
If one is to map the distance an artist has travelled over half a century, it is illuminating to observe how his art has responded to the uncertainties around him – how did a work mount, field and direct itself against the whirl of changing contexts when it was produced? And how does it organize itself now, when it is viewed and re-viewed? A retrospective affords an occasion to trace the arc of the artist’s commitments along the stations of his journey, to gauge how his work has looked history in the eye and spoken back to it. It is also an occasion for history itself to pass a judgement, however provisional, on the quality of his contribution
As one of India’s most important experimentalists, Vivan Sundaram has explored narrative painting from the 1960s to the 1980s, pioneered video and installation art in the 1990s, produced significant photomontages and reimagined trash as a subversive fashion statement in the 2000s. Using memory as an archive and the expressive drives of art to critique social and political transgressions, he has been at the forefront of the political turn Indian art took in the early 1990s, when the new economic policies unleashed forces of liberalization and the fall of the Babri Masjid reignited communal tensions.
Sundaram’s major retrospective at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), New Delhi, from the 8th of February to the 30th of June, is curated by Roobina Karode. Over the last eight years, she has emerged as one of the most dynamic curators in the country with successful retrospectives of Nasreen Mohamedi, Himmat Shah, Jeram Patel and Nalini Malani. Her vision has moulded KNMA into one of India’s finest art spaces.
How does an artist’s retrospective allow you to inhabit a three-dimensional map of his oeuvre? How do you allow his journey of five decades to communicate to you its ruptures and enthusiasms? How do rooms in the museum angle their hoard vis-à-vis one another? And how do sections of a show quicken or slacken their pace to draw you in at different speeds?One of the anxieties (but also the joys) of weaving your way through a grand show is the pressure to be sensitive to these acts of spatial signification.
As one is about to step into the KNMA, two robot-like figures composed of automobile parts, straddling what looks like an improvised Segway, extend their arms with rods sticking out. They are responding to an inaudible mill siren from another time. Their frozen gesture suggests both, a welcome and a caveat. Step inside and you are no longer a stranger, these figures seem to say in the spirit of the title of the show. These futuristic dwarpals are part of a work titled Mill Re-Call and you meet their kin as you cross the threshold – small terracotta figurines (One and the Many) that look like as if they have multiplied across the space. Both these works have been inspired by Ramkinkar Baij’s works Mill Call (1956) and Santhal Family (1938). The toy-like effigies in One and the Many are scaled-down interpretations by Sundaram of iconic public sculptures made by Baij of labouring members of underprivileged communities.
Mill Re-Call and One and the Many are culled from Sundaram’s total art project of 2015, 409 Ramkinkars, that drew from theatre, sculpture, dance and music, to create an overwhelming expressive network of performances. Roughly composed but neatly arrayed, the mass of advancing figures not only pays homage to Baij as one of the founding fathers of modern art in India but also visibilises the potential of a collectivity that holds a promise that is both, minatory and democratic.
Vivan Sundaram. Mill Re-Call. Steel, rubber and LED lights. 99” x 99” x 40”. 2015. Image courtesy of the artist.
The huge multi-coloured metallic container opposite this display audio-visually archives the story of another community in the throes of passion – the naval sailors who steered a rebellious upswell in Bombay against British officers in 1946. By installing these two works confrontationally, the curator reveals the ambiguity that often lies at the heart of popular mandates and revolutions. On the one hand, they vocalise legitimate sentiments against injustice and on the other, they are juggernautish and often err on the side of lawlessness. Does Meanings of Failed Action in the company of 409 Ramkinkars lay bare the difficulty of taking sides? Even as it raises questions about the form and content of power and violence, you become aware of a pat spatial and textural contrast between the two works and the ways in which they lend themselves to be experienced – this makes the distance between them fraught with unresolved tension, rendering this opening curatorial gambit a little hasty and unconvincing.
Lying in wait to surprise you, however, are the paintings from the 1960s when Sundaram was a student at The Slade in London. Even as they signal a move towards employing the figure with greater emotional and intellectual investment in the 1980s, these works often incorporate bright coloristic elements to create abstracts of a kind – bright composite shapes, bold blocks, indeterminate linearities, shadows, silhouettes and even formidable deities, create an environment that is unsteady and portentous, caught as if in an interregnum between order and entropy.
Vivan Sundaram. Carrier. Acrylic, paint on wood, video, cloth. 157” x 89” x 50”. 1996. Image courtesy of the artist.
It is here that the sudden curatorial steering plays out quite effectively – just when you thought that you were going to progressively move from one chronological show to another, you are strategically interrupted and transported to 2004-05 with a selection from Bad Drawings for Dost, Sundaram’s complex homage to Bhupen Khakhar, the artist most celebrated by his confreres (a painting elsewhere in the show even has him relaxing with two friends). This jump across time is facilitated thanks to Sundaram’s forays into Pop and Kitsch, the modes of expression most favoured by Khakhar. Friendship is seen as a translucent condition that allows an exchange of ideas and images but also a facilitation of contestations; among other maneouvres, Sundaram revisits and reanimates Khakhar’s mock-heroic figures and forms, established in ironic episodes of middle-class life, tracing them in poses of desire and drama. What makes this series special is the rare presence of mischief in Sundaram’s work as he chooses to return to the hand-drawn image after a decade.
As an artist who has continuously redefined the roles artists ought to play, Sundaram has been an inspired activist – he has battled right-wing politics, taken up environmental causes by promoting art that recycles trash, and spoken on behalf of the enlightened art community of the country whenever the occasion has arisen. In more ways than one, Sundaram, with his wife, the great critic and curator Geeta Kapur, has been a staunch supporter of that embattled proposition in public life – secularism.
Vivan Sundaram. 12 Bed Ward. Steel, old shoes, string, wire, bulbs, darkened room. 60” x 30” x 21”. Overall installation: 360” x 240” (approx.). 2005. Collection of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi.
The show is sectioned into a series of rooms with thematic titles. Some rooms share greater affinities while some appear distant. The video installation Tracking (2003-04), set in an alcove with two projections, comes across as a revelation. A searchlight moves with stealth and relentlessness across what looks like a post-riot studio setting – shoe-heaps, winding wires, blasted buildings, models of men, women and their tired, blurred shadows, are briefly illuminated as the spot moves on and darkness envelops the landscape before an inferno takes over – the afterlife of a dead city is redeemed by a kiss between spectral lovers, an elemental act of passion that assumes the status of anti-establishmentarian protest.
The strains from the work leak over the gallery walls into the area where the stark Birkenau landscapes from the 1980s bring alive the sinister depravity of the Nazi concentration camps while the other works on paper with engine oil and charcoal convey the suffocating anguish of witnessing the Gulf War fought in the early 1990s over the international control of oil as a resource. The scenes featuring an emptied out world are documents of numbing desolation where the loss of human life has got senselessly casualised. The absence of any life-affirming human presence makes the experience claustrophobic. A cloud of melancholy hangs over you as you shuffle before the works, gazing at the walls. The curatorial maneouvre succeeds in engendering an immersivity that inspires you to travel backwards and forwards in time – you make feverish connections between large installations and details from smaller pieces. The 12 Bed Ward (2005) with lit bulbs hanging dolefully over cots like angels of death in a darkened room and the small flat box sitting with a kind of tragic piety in the Hexagonal Closet (1995) in the Family Room seem to inflect each other with different varieties of despair – a room full of absent patients shares its suffering with an object indexing bereavement.
Sundaram believes in critical collaborations and his projects feel at home in a space that behaves like a cross between a laboratory, an archive and a theatre. If you were to look at the images he has mined or examine his vocabulary of gestures, you would realize that objects that moult but retain a core, score very high. Medical waste, surgical masks, split tyres, industrial waste, padded bras and plastic bottles, among a host of discarded things, are repurposed to create fashion garments in shows like Gagawaka (2011). One of Sundaram’s favourites, the boat, as seen in installations like Carrier (1996) and Boat (1994), is a non-hermetic object that frames an invitation to float, travel, migrate and escape. In Sundaram’s cast system, it is an open-ended metaphor that has witnessed the devastations of the Gulf War but has also carried the oil economy on its back; that has offered safe passage from one troubled zone to another and privileged a life which is at home only in the middle of an adventure. Such is its anchorage in Sundaram’s consciousness that one feels it to be one of the two pervasive originary image-systems he holds fast to, the other being trash/dirt.
Violence has been obsessively investigated by Sundaram in work after work. Many of Sundaram’s iconic paintings that have become part of our collective consciousness encapsulate moments of savage rupture – the murder of theatre activist Safdar Hashmi in 1989, the Mathura rape in 1972 and the suicide of sculptor K. P. Krishnakumar in 1989, among others. And who can forget the iconic show Memorial (1993) which was a powerful homage to the brutalized riot victim? Its presence in the retrospective is sorely missed.
Sundaram’s Family Room sits at the junction of two arms – one that opens into the trash photomontages and the recyclewear works and the other that leads into the 12 Bed Ward. Suspicious of a celebratory nostalgia, Sundaram revises and revisits his family history: boxes of real/faux memorabilia summon up the intense relationship between his talented mother Indira Sundaram and his illustrious aunt Amrita Sher-Gil; their father Umrao Singh Sher-Gil’s obsessive acts of photographic documentation are mounted close to a carpet designed by Amrita as musical notes from a video installation titled Indira’s Piano (2002-03) fill up the room. Sundaram’s discomfort with the idea of a mononuclear truth presented by the classic historical document finds expression in the act of manipulating photographs to create fresh possibilities for new stories. He allows places to grow into each other’s spaces and people to move into each other’s orbits across time scales (a south Indian beach from 1937 fuses with a spot in Hungary from 1931 bringing together Amrita, Indira and friends, for instance). The painting The Sher-Gil Family (1983-85) still remains the axis around which the room seems to be constituted – it shows the family as a fraught unit with intimate enemies pulled apart by love and other demons. Elsewhere, you also come across a print of a painting Sundaram made of his father in 1980. The question you want to ask the artist is: why is there no image of Geeta Kapur anywhere in the show?
No work on display looks like it has been mildewed by time. On the contrary, many, in fact, seem to have gained in relevance, thanks in part to the manic times we find ourselves in the middle of. The artist fulfils his promise of being a resilient interrogator and the artworks often carry provocations that allow for the possibility of hope. The crowd of artworks enhances you in unexpected ways – for Sundaram’s is not the search for easy answers, it’s the quest for difficult questions.
Vivan Sundaram. The Hungarian Great Plain. (Amrita, Hungary, 1938, photo: Victor Egan; Victor, Indira, Umrao Singh and Marie Antoinetter, Budapest, 1932). Digital print. 15” x 19”. 2001. Image courtesy of the artist.