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Remembering artist, activist, archivist Vivan Sundaram (1943–2023)

With the demise of Vivan Sundaram, an important voice in the art world and civil society at large has lost a strong supporter of liberal and secular values.

by Meera MenezesPublished on : Apr 03, 2023

Well over a decade ago I received an email from the visual artist Vivan Sundaram. It read: “Dear Meera, I am collecting the following ‘trash/used/ to be thrown away’ items to make artwork with. If you have any to spare, I would appreciate receiving them.” He then went on to list items such as leather wallets, belts, bags, unusable watches and even outdated medicines or empty medicine foils. The email left me wondering what the artist planned to do with this motley and highly disparate set of materials.

Several months later, in December 2011, I received an invite to his show Gagawaka presents Making Strange at the Lalit Kala Akademi. It soon became apparent that Vivan had taken these “gifts” and combined them with readymade objects to create a series of elaborate assemblages or “sculptural garments” as he preferred to refer to them. At the opening event, professional models, actors from the National School of Drama, dancers and artist friends like Vishal Dar, Manmeet Devgun and Inder Salim, all walked the ramp, showing off his outfits. This was trash turning trendy.

Outfits from Vivan Sundaram’s GAGAWAKA: Making Strange, 2011 | Vivan Sundaram | STIRworld
Outfits from Vivan Sundaram’s GAGAWAKA: Making Strange, 2011 Image: Courtesy of Vivan Sundaram

The show was in many ways a natural extension of Vivan's practice given his ongoing preoccupation with refuse and detritus. As early as in 1997, for instance, his art installation Great Indian Bazaar featured red-framed photographs of items in various stages of disuse at the second-hand Sunday Bazaar near the Red Fort, New Delhi. For the Indian contemporary artist it was all about excavating the past and unearthing objects that could be repurposed and layered with a new meaning.

Vivan will always be remembered for the pioneering role he played in the history of contemporary art in India. He will also be remembered for his critical responses to the political and social crises of our times. In 2005 he staged living, also at the Lalit Kala Akademi. The exhibition served as a critique of urban planners, who in their zeal to transform the capital into a garden city for the Commonwealth Games in 2010, were willing to bulldoze anything that would tarnish this image. “I was thinking of the people whose houses in the Yamuna Pushta area was demolished. These people who live below the poverty line have got 12 sqm of space to rebuild their lives,” he told us in his walkthrough of the show. Vivan wanted to question this sterile city paradigm by celebrating the entropy, chaos and the organic fabric of the metropolises of the “south”.

Sculptural installations from Vivan Sundaram's “409 Ramkinkars” | Vivan Sundaram | STIRworld
Sculptural installations from Vivan Sundaram's 409 Ramkinkars Image: Meera Menezes

One of the works in the exhibition, Recycled City, was a mural-sized photograph that captured a cityscape fashioned out of urban waste. Vivan had created this megapolis of rubbish in his studio at Farm8 in Ayanagar, which he then photographed. As one of the members of the Farm8 group I remember visiting his studio and being astounded at how Bisleri bottles, soft drink cans and even colour-coded packets of Mother Dairy milk were all orchestrated together. Following principles of formalist abstraction, he had managed to extract an unimaginable beauty from what is commonly regarded as garbage. While the exhibition explored a number of social and political issues relating to waste, it was the dynamics of the waste-high art equation that I found most intriguing. Here waste could aspire to high art and high art could just as easily turn into rubbish.

Another seminal work from the show, 12 Bed Ward would later be included in his retrospective Step Inside and You are No Longer a Stranger, at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in 2018. A dozen empty beds, their mattresses composed of black shoe soles, presented a soulless space. Evoking memories of concentration camps, this stark yet powerful work was imbued with a feeling of degradation and death.

Outdoor installations from Vivan Sundaram's “409 Ramkinkars” | Vivan Sundaram | STIRworld
Outdoor installations from Vivan Sundaram's 409 Ramkinkars Image: Meera Menezes

As a counterpoint within the same space were Vivan's Cash and Carry works—a series of drawings done by the artist. While Cash and Carry recalled images of a supermarket where everything could be bought off the shelf, it simultaneously raised issues of commodification and consumption. I remember filling out a Value Added Tax form, which asked me for details about why I liked modern art and whose works the drawings reminded me of before I was allowed to even buy one of the nominally priced artworks.

History, memory, and the archive, especially his own family archive, would also form a major strand of the contemporary artist’s artistic preoccupations. Born in Shimla in 1943, Vivan grew up in a multi-cultural family. His grandfather Umrao Singh Sher-Gil had married the Hungarian Marie Antoinette Gottesmann. His mother, Indira Sher-Gil, was the sister of the celebrated modernist painter Amrita Sher-Gil. Vivan's investigations into his own Indo-Hungarian lineage would be revealed in the installation, The Sher-Gil Archive, 1995. It consisted of black and white photographs taken by his grandfather paired with letters by Amrita and other memorabilia. Later in Re-take of Amrita made between 2001 and 2005, he would re-assemble photographs across several generations of his family in a series of digital photomontages creating different narratives. As he mentioned to me in an interview, “Making work through other people’s works, representing them, has been part of the way that I approach art—that it comes through the other, through other people’s works, through histories, through the archive.”

“Black Gold,” Vivan Sundaram's installation at the Kochi Biennale 2012 | Vivan Sundaram | STIRworld
Black Gold, Vivan Sundaram's installation at the Kochi Biennale, 2012 Image: Meera Menezes

Besides Amrita, the Indian artist would also turn his attention to another important figure in Indian art—Ramkinkar Baij, in his collaborative project 409 Ramkinkars in 2015. When I asked him why he had singled out Baij in particular, he mentioned that the roots of the project actually lay in the Victoria Memorial site-specific art installation he had done in 1998, which involved mapping Bengal history from the mid-19th century till partition. “It was attempting to frame and understand the birth of Indian modernity which, as is well known, emerged in Bengal. Post that, it was because of my engagement to represent another artist as part of my art work and to connect to the archive. Also, Ramkinkar was the same generation as Amrita, just six years older than her, and he more or less started making work when she did.”

Flotage, 2008 | Vivan Sundaram | STIRworld
Flotage, 2008 Image: Courtesy of Vivan Sundaram

Vivan often described himself as a “child of May ‘68” as he was influenced by the students’ movement occurring in Europe at the time and helped set up a commune in London where he lived till 1970. He studied painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts, M.S. University of Baroda (1961–65) and at the Slade School of Art, London (1966–68) where he also studied History of Cinema.

Master Plan by Vivan Sundaram. KNMA Collection | Vivan Sundaram | STIRworld
Master plan by Vivan Sundaram, KNMA Collection Image: Courtesy of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

On his return to India in 1971, his activist streak continued and he worked with artists’ and students’ groups to organise events and protests. A founding trustee of the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT), Vivan remained deeply committed to advocating communal harmony. His key art installation Memorial (1993-2014), centred around a photographic image taken by the photojournalist Hoshi Lal. It depicted an unknown victim lying in the street in the aftermath of the communal violence that broke out after the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. With his passing we have lost not just an important voice in the artworld but civil society at large has lost a strong supporter of liberal and secular values.

Black Gold, Installation art | Vivan Sundaram | STIRworld
Black Gold, Installation art Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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