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ESSAYS Mousse 63

In the Living Present: Vivan Sundaram

by Natasha Ginwala

 

About halfway through Vivan Sundaram’s retrospective exhibition Step inside and you are no longer a stranger at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi, one enters a dimly lit room where twelve beds made from iron frames and worn-down soles of discarded shoes form an eerie meshwork. The distinctive patterns on the soles appear as an abstract geometry of organic skins. Low-voltage bulbs cast flickering shadows that assume a negative cartography—an underbelly of scavenged remains that are like bodies without organs.

 

It is no longer clear where we are: Is this a hospital ward? A night shelter? A refugee camp? 12-Bed Ward (2004) is one of Sundaram’s iconic installation works that draws together this artist’s continuing engagement with recycled materials and the objet trouvé to investigate the grammar of structural violence, migration, and exile, as well as detritus that may be understood as the “leftovers” of a globalized neoliberal economy. This retrospective highlights more than five decades of Sundaram’s artistic practice with around 180 artworks, from early paintings made in the 1960s during his years at the Slade School, London, to recent works, such as the multipart installation and sound piece Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946 (2017), made in collaboration with the cultural theorist Ashish Rajadhyaksha and the sound artist David Chapman, which surveys the affective history of an overlooked and unresolved episode in India’s anticolonial struggle, led by sailors of the Royal Indian Navy in Bombay (now Mumbai) in February 1946.

The show reveals sustained trails of collective production and an active “politics of friendship” in the manner that Jacques Derrida and Maurice Blanchot suggest between “the community without community” that corresponds through asymmetrical interventions across a disjunctive network of texts.1 For instance Sundaram’s series Bad drawings for dost (2004-2005), an homage to fellow artist Bhupen Khakhar, is hand-drawn using tracing paper and graphite, evoking fragile memories from Khakhar’s artistic oeuvre, a corporeality brimming with desire and eventually treating the drawing as a place of mourning, since “the friend speaks to the friend already from beyond the grave.”2 Earlier works in this vein include the mixed-media triptych In Memory of Krishna Kumar (1990-1992), and a recurring investigation of family archives in The Sher-gil Archive (1995) and the photomontage series Re-take of Amrita (2001-2002). The portrait appears as a site of multivalent and hybrid recasting across these works—an intercrossing of gazes—as the edges between the artist’s selfhood and the projected framing of his subjects turn increasingly fluid. We are bought up close with the Sher-Gil family’s experiences of cosmopolitan living between worlds—British India and Europe—and a collaged narrative of modernism unfolds as witnessed through a private lens. Sundaram’s investigation of the archive is a nonlinear process and involves dismantling norms of fact and fiction—retroactively reading familial ties entangled with itinerant artistic pathways and the intimate lives of heirloom objects, possessed and left behind.

After studying painting at the faculty of Fine Arts in M.S. University of Baroda under seminal artist K. G. Subramanyan in the early 1960s, Sundaram joined Slade School as a commonwealth scholar in 1966 and had the opportunity to be mentored by the American artist R. B. Kitaj.3 Kitaj played a significant role in British Pop art, using techniques of Warburgian image migrations and drawing from the literature of Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin in response to his Jewish diasporic identity, realizing works that combined abstraction and figurative expression. Sundaram was influenced by these encounters, and moreover the charged atmosphere of 1968 student protests and the anti-Apartheid movement in Britain, as evident in his paintings May 68 and South Africa (both 1968). Art historian and curator Deepak Ananth writes of the painting May 68: “The parallel coloured bands that appear as an abstract compositional device could allude to the barricades in the streets of Paris, and that seemingly decorative flourish in red partially outlined against the white cut-out shape of a head and torso describes the form of a sickle.”4 These paintings are unique in their development of geometric abstraction, quoting from kitsch and popular culture while embracing figuration and symbolic forms from the young artist’s evolving political imagination.

During his years at Slade School, Sundaram took a course on the history of cinema that led to a lifelong fascination with the surrealist tableaus of Luis Buñuel, the eros, Marxist values, and transcendental realism in Piero Paolo Pasolini’s works, and the experimental cinema of Stan Brakhage. In the painting From Stan Brakhage to Persian Miniature (1968) an exploding frame confronts us, as the artist compartmentalizes the picture plane using a sensorial and dramatic mode as witnessed in the hypnotic films of Brakhage, who deployed camera movements and rapid cutting, and treated celluloid as a drawing surface to routinely disrupt as well as expand the act of perception. Famously asking, “How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of ‘green’?” Sundaram simultaneously engages with the aesthetic language of Persian miniature painting, specifically its elaborate spatial arrangements and lively action involving imperial subjects, motifs from nature, calligraphy, and Islamic architecture. Illuminated manuscripts and intricate border paintings encode the interior and exterior, while prompting a circular perspective when “reading”Persian miniatures. 

 

Strike the old flints
To kindle ancient lamps, light up the whips
glued to your wounds throughout the centuries
and light the axes gleaming with your blood.
— Pablo Neruda, The Heights of Machu Picchu, 1947

 

Heights of Machu Picchu (1972) assembles as terrestrial poetry, dwelling on the words of poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda—that voice of stratified civilizations, blood and soil, and those volatile memory fields where antiquity crosses over into the living present. Sundaram accompanies the lines of Neruda’s poem through the rhythm of ink drawing, and this notational form casts movement—whirls and ripples, slopes and peaks, breaks and linkages—that add dimension to the enduring arc of poetry. It is as though the artist has embarked on an expedition, in rendering drawings that are textured with the ground beneath, subterranean time, and phases of human life spent in “accumulated autumns.” They invoke the atmosphere of ancient ruins and the Third World, while still seeking something beyond—“throughout the earth let dead lips congregate”—a revolutionary language to address human-earth relations. 

These drawings respond to the second canto in Neruda’s epic work Canto General, first published in Mexico in 1950. Coincidentally, hung close to Heights of Machu Picchu in the exhibition is another suite of drawings that Sundaram made in Mexico during a country-wide visit there in the late 1970s, looking back to the post-Mexican Revolution era and avant-garde muralism. These works were made during a phase when Sundaram became engaged in a Marxist approach, organizing traveling exhibitions with meetings of the Student Federation of India and the All India Kisan Sabha (the peasant front of the Communist Party of India) and investigating how the evolution of human struggle interrelates with the ethical function of art in modern times. The criticcurator Geeta Kapur notes, “I believe he [Sundaram] would like his drawings to carry, ultimately, what Neruda demands of his own poetry, ‘the reek of the human.’”5

The painting People Come and Go (1981), exhibited as part of the seminal exhibition Place for People at Jehangir Art Gallery, Bombay (now Mumbai) and Rabindra Bhavan, New Delhi, in1981, brings into focus the narrative-figurative school of painters that emerged in Baroda, which included the artists Nalini Malani, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, Bhupen Khakhar, Sudhir Patwardhan and Jogen Chowdhury, while also gesturing toward the convivial spirit beyond, through endeavors such as the Kasauli workshop initiated by Sundaram in 1976. As a key member in this dialogic process, Geeta Kapur, in her manifesto-like essay, avowed the centrality of the human image in Indian art. A sense of corporeality and the politics of place remained foundational for inventing representational strategies that emanated from a postcolonial lived experience and cultural memory.6 Sundaram’s painting plots the intimate scene of Khakhar’s living room (where Khakhar used to paint) in Baroda, seated with his longtime friends Vallabh bhai and British painter Howard Hodgkin. Against a bright blue background, its door left slightly ajar for visitors, this home-studio is denoted as a motif for recounting elective affinities and intergenerational camaraderie that underscores vital characteristics of Indian modernism. The very act of painting, here, is marked by sociality, humor, and animated discussions extending outward—from the immediate neighborhood into the world. 

In the early 1990s, Sundaram extended his deeply physical encounters with painting while conducting experiments with materiality and surface in Collaboration/Combines (1992) and House/Boat (1994), which transformed into floating architectures and environments using wood, photography, stone columns, steel elements, and handmade paper produced in Gandhian small-scale manufacturing units. In departing from the unitary field of painting, Sundaram became one of the earliest practitioners of installation art in India. The genre was not merely a formalist device but soon performed as a vessel to convey political narratives around anticolonial history, the rise of communalism, and outbreaks of rioting. During these years, as a founding member of SAHMAT (Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust), Sundaram also organized exhibitions that were highly experiential and performed as a form of collective action with fellow artists, scholars, musicians, and filmmakers who came together in defense of secular tradition and artistic freedom in times of right-wing authoritarian power.

At the height of the Gulf War in 1991, Sundaram began to work on his engine oil and charcoal drawings, relating televised accounts of the war to the slick and mirrored surface of oil, therein marking historical experience as continual seepage and machinic violence as uncontainable geopolitical spillover. In the viscosity and splattering of engine oil, a slow dramaturgy of militarism and an archaeology of terror unfolds; these mutating images still persist in signaling an unhinged common future. In the exhibition, they are correlated with earlier drawings from the Long Night series (1988), made in horizontal format as landscapes of penal settlements, broken bodies, the charred topography of mines, and embattled terrains. They bear haunting imprints from the artist’s journey to Auschwitz in the previous year and refrains of Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog (1956). 

In the opening pages of his 1988 exhibition catalogue Sundaram wrote, “Remembering also the manifesto of Group 1890 proclaiming romance and rebellion in forms black. To these I return today as images in history.”7 I would argue that these works relate to Alexandre Kojève’s analytical address toward a blind spot of the master-slave dialectic in historical time.8 Since, the assertion of a naturalized and cosmic temporality as conflated with historical time in Hegelian thought delegitimized the radical potential of blackness and the knotted violence of modernization and colonization.9

When entering Step inside and you are no longer a stranger, one is received by a dramatic grouping of terra-cotta figures from the sculptural ensemble and theater production 409 Ramkinkars (2015). In paying tribute to the legendary artist and pedagogue Ramkinkar Baij, Sundaram once again draws from the field of Indian art history through repurposed materials, replicating Baij’s iconic sculptures, such as Santhal Family (1938) and Mill Call (1956), that evoke a lineage of rural pedagogy in Tagore’s Santiniketan campus and the accelerated schemes of modern industrialization. At this juncture, art making is mapped not only as an individual journey but also as a communitarian process and site of radical reinvention. Sundaram’s retrospective confronts us as a fearless transmission of ideas over decades. It is full of subversion and sensorial contact zones set against the backdrop of affective trajectories of decolonization, non-alignment, and buried histories of the Global South. 

 

[1] Patrik Ffrench, “Friendship, Asymmetry, Sacrifice: Bataille and Blanchot,” Parrhesia, no. 3 (2007): 32–42, also available at https://www.parrhesiajournal.org/parrhesia03/parrhesia03_ffrench.pdf.
[2] Jacques Derrida, The Work of Mourning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 12–13.
[3] Kitaj formulated the term “School of London” in the 1970s. It included, among others, himself and the figurative painters Howard Hodgkin, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, and David Hockney.
[4] Deepak Ananth.
[5] Geeta Kapur, “The Heights of Machu Picchu,” in Vivan Sundaram—Drawings 1972, exh. cat. (Delhi, Bombay, and Calcutta: Chemould Galleries).
[6] See Natasha Ginwala, “Geeta Kapur: On the Curatorial in India, Part 2,” Afterall, October 3, 2011, https://www.afterall.org/online/geeta-kapur-on-the-curatorial-in-india-part2.
[7] Vivan Sundaram, Long Night: Drawings in Charcoal, exh. cat. (New Delhi: Lalit Kala Galleries; Bombay and Calcutta: Chemould Gallery, 1988).
[8] James H. Nicholas, Alexandre Kojeve: Wisdom at the End of History (TKcity: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007), 22–24.
[9] In considering operative violence of colonization and Hegelian narration of historical time, I am compelled to dissect these through Fred Moten’s work  in “The Case of Blackness” and further examining the material temporality in Vivan Sundaram’s series and its rendition of ‘blackness’, through figures of the black radical tradition.

 

Natasha Ginwala is a curator and writer. She curated Contour Biennale 8, Polyphonic Worlds: Justice as Medium and was curatorial advisor for documenta 14, 2017. Other recent projects include Arrival, Incision. Indian Modernism as Peripatetic Itinerary in the framework of Hello World. Revising a Collection at Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin, 2018; Riots: Slow Cancellation of the Future at ifa Gallery Berlin and Stuttgart, 2018; My East is Your West at the 56th Venice Biennale, 2015; and Corruption: Everybody Knows… with e-flux, New York, 2015. Ginwala was a member of the artistic team for the 8th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, 2014, and has co-curated The Museum of Rhythm, at Taipei Biennial 2012 and at Muzeum Sztuki, Łódź, 2016-2017. From 2013-2015, in collaboration with Vivian Ziherl, she led the multi-part curatorial project Landings presented at various partner organisations. Ginwala writes on contemporary art and visual culture in various periodicals and has contributed to numerous publications. This spring she joins as curator at Gropius Bau, Berlin.

 

Originally published on Mousse 63

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