“Step inside and you are no longer a stranger” is a large-scale exhibition that celebrates 50 years of practice of one of the most influential artists of his generation in India.

Art Radar also talks to curator Roobina Karode, who has brought together Vivan Sundaram’s extensive showing of 180 artworks on display at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art until 30 June.

Vivan Sundaram, 'Salt of Highways', from “Machu Picchu Series”, 1972, ink on paper. Image courtesy the artist and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

Vivan Sundaram, ‘Salt of Highways’, from “Machu Picchu Series”, 1972, ink on paper. Image courtesy the artist and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

An avant-garde artist-activist

Vivan Sundaram is one of India’s most influential, innovative, radical and multi-dimensional contemporary artists. He belongs to that generation of post-independence artists who carved a path divergent from his predecessors, the most eminent of whom were the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, whose abstract modernism dominated the Indian art scene in the 1940s and 1950s.

Sundaram (b. 1943) studied painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts, M.S. University, Baroda and at the Slade School of Fine Art, London. He has always been an artist-activist, a part of many collectives, and a founding member of both the Kasauli Art Centre (1976-90) and the Journal of Arts and Ideas (1981-99). The artist is a trustee of the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT), an organisation founded in 1989 that works at defending the cultural space while upholding the values of secularism and cultural pluralism. Sundaram is a part of the renowned Sher-Gil family and nephew of another avant-garde Indian artist, Amrita Sher-Gil, and is the managing trustee, with his sister Navina Sundaram, of the Sher-Gil Sundaram Arts Foundation (SSAF), set up in 2016.

The multiplicities in a practice that spans a period of five decades can be seen in his work – in his drawings, paintings, sculptures, collages, photo-montages and installations – all media that Sundaram has used to express his political views. About this diversity in his oeuvre Sundaram says:

I began as a painter, and my earliest paintings were in the pop mode – youthful and rude. In London I developed a more sophisticated palette and a form of abstraction that remains distinct in my work. Encounters with anti-imperialist movements and with student politics of the 1960s widened my perspective and drew me into activism. Back in India in 1970, I trained my youthful anarchism towards a Marxist approach. I undertook collective artist projects and, by the 1980s, became part of the figurative-narrative movement, which addressed itself to persons and people in everyday contexts. I was then led to engage with historical material that defines the contemporary.

Vivan Sundaram, 'Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946', 2017, installation view. Image courtesy the artist and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

Vivan Sundaram, ‘Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946’, 2017, installation view. Image courtesy the artist and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

Since the 1990s he has made installations that include sculpture, photographs and video. Among his major works are Memorial (1993, 2014), History Project (1998), The Sher-Gil Archive (1995), Trash (2008) and Gagawaka (2011). More recently, he moved to co-authored projects with 409 Ramkinkers (2015), staged in collaboration with theatre directors including Anuradha Kapur, and Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946 (2017), in collaboration with cultural theorist Ashish Rajadhyaksha and sound artist David Chapman. While reviewing Sundaram’s 1992 series of works, Collaboration/Combines, art critic K.B. Goel writes in The Economic Times (9 March 1992):

What is interesting for me is to watch the way Vivan fights against the built-in theatricality when art exists for its audience. Vivan is a committed artist but more than that his is a mind in love with itself, a mind in a permanent state of gestation.

Sundaram has exhibited in the biennales of Sydney, Seville, Taipei, Sharjah, Shanghai, Havana, Johannesburg, Gwangju and Berlin, and the Asia-Pacific Triennial, Brisbane. He has participated in group shows at Tate Modern, London (2011); Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam (2001); Haus der Kunst, Munich (2006); International Centre for Photography, New York (2008) and the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo (2008), amongst others. He is also the editor of a two-volume book, Amrita Sher-Gil: A Self-portrait in Letters & Writings (2010).

Vivan Sundaram, 'Engine Oil', 1991, engine oil and charcoal on paper. Image courtesy the artist and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

Vivan Sundaram, ‘Engine Oil’, 1991, engine oil and charcoal on paper. Image courtesy the artist and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

“Step inside and you are no longer a stranger”

The Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) opened the year 2018 with an extensive showing of Sundaram’s multimedia practice, bringing together many of his rare works and experiments that reflect a myriad themes – from Modernism, to Pop and Kitsch – demonstrating how he moved away from the centrality of painting to more conceptual art. In the first ever retrospective of the artist, “Step inside and you are no longer a stranger” has 180 artworks on display, which thoroughly examine Sundaram’s trajectory over 50 years of his practice. The exhibition has been curated by Roobina Karode and designed by Siddharta Chatterjee, and its extensive scale has been a result of a sustained dialogue with the artist, the support of 42 private and public collections who lent many of the works, the team at the museum and Sundaram’s studio – all collaborating to organise one of the largest retrospectives to be held at the KNMA.

This exhibition provides an unparalleled opportunity to understand the intensity of Sundaram’s practice and his engagement with diverse media across different phases in his practice. It showcases his early works, such as the pop-kitsch paintings (1965-66), the Macchu Picchu series of drawings (1972), Engine Oil Drawings and Installation (1991), to his most recent co-authored projects 409 Ramkinkars (2015) and Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946 (2017). It successfully explores the variations in Sundaram’s use of scale, from fragile tracings and paper-membranes to a monumental naval ship. His multi-faceted subject matter ranges from the political turbulence of the Gulf War and communal violence to family bereavements and personal tributes to artists like Bhupen Khakhar and Ramkinkar Baij.

Vivan Sundaram, 'Ten-foot Beam', 1983-85, oil on canvas, 229 x 175 cm. Image courtesy the artist and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

Vivan Sundaram, ‘Ten-foot Beam’, 1983-85, oil on canvas, 229 x 175 cm. Image courtesy the artist and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

In its curatorial design, the exhibition moves through the different shifts in Sundaram’s practice, and as a result the visitor comprehends the varied artistic approaches he took during his years of experimentation and exploration, particularly in the 1990s. A key highlight are a suite of 12 large paintings made in the 1980s, including The Sher-Gil Family, Two Friends, Ten Foot Beam and Big Shanti. Two of these paintings, Guddo and People Come and Go were first exhibited as a part of the seminal exhibition “Place for People” (1981) – a show Sundaram acknowledges as being one that gave him the courage to handle the difficult subject of mortality and melancholy that is a part of his personal history and is depicted in The Sher-Gil Family (1983-84).

The exhibition also houses a Family Room, which consists of The Sher-Gil Archive (1995), an arrangement of Sundaram’s personal and family history with photographs of family members juxtaposed with other memorabilia such as handwritten letters by Amrita Sher-Gil. It also contains a Hexagonal Closet, the video Indira’s Piano, Sundaram’s grandfather Umrao Singh Sher-Gil’s photographs of his daughter, Amrita Sher-Gil and a carpet designed by the latter which was housed at the Kasauli Art Centre.

“Step inside and you are no longer a stranger” brings together many of Sundaram’smajor installations including River Carries its Past (1993), House (1994), Boat (1994), Carrier (1996), 12 Bed Ward (2005), Insurrection 1946 (2017), Bunk Bed (1999), Great Indian Bazaar (1998) and 409 Ramkinkars (2015). Also showcased at the exhibition are his reactions to many tragic moments in world history, including a series of large charcoal drawings entitled Long Night (1989) made after Sundaram’s visit to Auschwitz. The Engine Oil Drawings and Installation (1991) series were an artistic protest to the horrors of the Gulf War that was witness not only to human death and sacrifice but also to the devastation caused by massive oil spills and oil fires.

Vivan Sundaram, 'LN Shifting the Elements II', 1988, charcoal and photographs on paper. Image courtesy the artist and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

Vivan Sundaram, ‘LN Shifting the Elements II’, 1988, charcoal and photographs on paper. Image courtesy the artist and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

Sundaram speaks about his work process while preparing for this retrospective, and also explains the rationale behind the title of the exhibition:

I used the photographic image as document, as evidence of political violence, such as in the elaborate installation, ‘Memorial’ (1992). I enlarged the scale in a site-specific installation, now referred to as History Project, staged in 1998 at the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta. The historical also leads me to archive memory and that in turn leads to more autobiographical works, such as ‘The Sher-Gil Archive’. Thematic disjunctures occur at precisely such points, and I again begin to exteriorize, as for example in ‘Trash’, which configured urban landscapes and human debris through several sets of works (from 2004 to 2013). And then to other large-scale, theatrically staged projects, excavating art-historical figures as well as people’s struggles. This exhibition presents the themes I have engaged with, but it also proposes structures that hold things together in retrospect: via the work, the exhibition layout, and spectator itineraries. ‘Step inside and you are no longer a stranger’: the exhibition’s title reflects the conflicting dimensions of my practice.

Art Radar also spoke to Roobina Karode about the conceptualisation of the exhibition and her own curatorial vision in its implementation.

Vivan Sundaram, 'Carrier', 1994, Kalamkhush handmade paper, steel, wood, video. Installation view. Image courtesy the artist and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

Vivan Sundaram, ‘Carrier’, 1994, Kalamkhush handmade paper, steel, wood, video. Installation view. Image courtesy the artist and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

For this to be the first-ever retrospective of an artist of such eminence would have been a mammoth task for any curator. What was the curatorial strategy that you employed to be able to choose the final 180 artworks that are on display, from a practice that has spanned half a century?

It is important to note that the extensive scale of this retrospective has been a result of great teamwork, a sustained dialogue with the artist, with the designer of the exhibition Siddharta Chatterjee, all the lenders who generously loaned the works, and the team at the museum and the artist’s studio, all collaborating on this first-ever major showing of Vivan’s art practice. Firstly, the constantly shifting terrain of Vivan Sundaram’s art practice allows for fascinating curatorial propositions that are exciting but equally challenging. Curatorially, I was always keen to map Vivan’s practice right from his student days as a painter, and sift the viewer through fifty years of his practice, bringing his various conceptual, material and thematic explorations under one roof. Of course it is not physically possible to compress fifty years in an exhibition space when the artist embraces spatiality in his installations to create experiential and immersive environments. Hence it was imperative to focus and sharpen the editing of the exhibition. For me, it was important to retain the spirit of his practice, smooth and fluid at times, but equally potent with odd encounters in regard to materiality, colour and scale.  

How would you describe the organisation of the exhibition itself? Could you take Art Radar readers through some of the show’s major highlights?

The layout of the exhibition went through several refinements to arrive at a scenography that unfolds itself with slow revelations and sudden surprises. The major highlights were many, but to jot down a few…

1. The large modernist paintings never shown before in India of his very early phase, when as a student at the Slade School in London, he painted using abstract compositional devices, saturated colour areas/bands, introducing figural fragments almost elusively within the frame.
2. The charcoal and engine oil drawings of the 1990s that make references to the horrors of the wars. Some of them respond to the highly televised Gulf War, responding to the drama of the massive oil spills, lava like intense fire and army squadrons burnt alive in the trenches. What is amazing about these drawings is that Vivan makes the unpredictable medium of crude oil, his new medium, staining and splaying it on the surface of the paper, making the dirty brown blotch often behave as a shadow or as the burnt-up body. The fluidity of these drawings and their unconventional texture is truly remarkable.
3. The minimalism of 12 Bed Ward and the evocation of absence, loss and death through the brutality of material.
4. The rear galleries that address Vivan’s installations pertaining to the boat, house and the river, that invoke journeys to unknown and imagined places, under construction sites, historical events, lands of devastation, concentration camps, and across rivers that carry their past.
Vivan Sundaram, 'Stains of Iron', 1972, iron, 28 x 35 in. copy. Image courtesy the artist and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

Vivan Sundaram, ‘Stains of Iron’, 1972, iron, 28 x 35 in. copy. Image courtesy the artist and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

What was the role played by the artist himself in such a landmark exhibition of his life’s works?

Well, it is fascinating to engage the oeuvre of an artist who has enjoyed articulating and speaking about his work/practice. Fresh ideas and conversations are sparked by differing points of view, by multiple perspectives on mapping a practice of fifty years that has been neither complacent nor straightforward. The idiosyncratic shifts in Vivan’s practice are intensified by his interests in archives, photography, found objects, discards, texts as well as by the moving image, by theatre and staging, opening up the sensorial and visual field to transact content through the chosen medium.

Given the diversity of his practice, the exhibition includes drawings, sculptures, photo-montages, paintings, collages and installations. What were the advantages of this multiplicity to you as a curator? Were there any challenges?

The diversity firstly brings the challenge of disparateness, but becomes a positive feature or turns into an advantage when a common thread is identified that runs through the works. For instance, in Vivan, the boat is a recurring motif and metaphor, and it keeps reappearing in different forms. In fact the most recent work Container takes on the form of a monumental boat, which is in fact a sound work that presents the narrative around the Royal Mutiny in Bombay. Similarly, his interest in traces, memories and the vulnerability of life resonates in Bad Drawings for Dost, 12 Bed Ward, Tracking, House and the Family Room.

Vivan Sundaram, '12 Bed Ward', 2005, steel, old shoes, string, wire and bulbs, dimensions variable. Installation view. Image courtesy the artist and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

Vivan Sundaram, ’12 Bed Ward’, 2005, steel, old shoes, string, wire and bulbs, dimensions variable. Installation view. Image courtesy the artist and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

This project would have enabled you to gain an even deeper understanding of Sundaram’s practice and you may have had the opportunity to see early works that have never before been viewed in public. Which of these did you enjoy the most or is it difficult to pick a favourite?

It is difficult to pick a favourite as Sundaram’s practice does not fit a single paradigm and is not a singular pursuit. What I mean by that is, it changes in temperament, feel, materiality, scale and in its physical manifestation. If I was still to make a choice, I am drawn to the work The River Carries its Past, its poetics and provocation, a response to the industrial landscape, the oil grids around the riverside, along the River Tees. I also consider the rare engine oil and charcoal drawings as significant and telling of his oeuvre. I equally admire the 409 Ramkinkars and Bad Drawings for Dost.

As a once-in-a-lifetime show of one of India’s foremost artists, are there plans for it to travel to any other cities in the country or internationally?

Well, a substantial part of what is shown here will be included in the solo exhibition of Sundaram at Haus der Kunst, Munich, in June this year. I wish Vivan and the show in Munich great success.

Amita Kini-Singh

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Step inside and you are no longer a stranger” by Vivan Sundaram is on view from 9 February to 30 June 2018 at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, 145 DLF South Court Mall, Saket, New Delhi 110017

Related Topics: Indian artists, identity art, museum shows, installation, painting, interviews, events in New Delhi

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Brittney

By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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