Artist Vivan Sundaram (1943-2023) was a man of his times. His expansive body of work is a pastiche of response to political upheavals, environmental issues and relationships.
In a series of paintings created to embody the aftermath of the Gulf War in the nineties, Sundaram used engine oil, an unlikely medium for colouring. The oil spill fuelled by the war has been dubbed as environmental terrorism, because it had irreparable damage on marine and human life. “He had figured out that the medium must become the metaphor and the metaphor is about the message,” explained Roobina Karode, the Director & Chief Curator at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), New Delhi. She was taking a group of visitors for a walkthrough of his exhibit titled, Re-Take.Re-Cycle.Re-Live.
It is on display at the KNMA booth at the art fair, Art Mumbai that runs from November 16 to 19. It is the only booth by a gallery dedicated to a single artist. The showcasing is a tribute to the contrarian, political and provocative work of the influential Sundaram who passed away this year.
The theme Re-Take.Re-Cycle.Re-Live captures various facets of his art practice through the years. Re-Take implies how he referenced and recreated the works of the artists he admired. One of them is his aunt Amrita Shergill and her father (as well as his grandfather) Umrao Singh Shergill. He worked on a series of photomontages by fusing Amrita’s iconic self-portraits and Umrao’s photographs of himself and his daughter. It can be viewed as the artist’s attempt to understand these giant personalities in his family. A small note next to this collection says: "Here is a seemingly real, entirely constructed drama of self-appointed egos.”
Another recreation is a metal installation of a robot couple with wheels for feet and long extended fingers lined with blinking lights. Titled, Mill Recall, it references the monumental sculpture Mill Call (1956) portraying a family setting off to work in a factory, by the pioneering Bengali sculptor Ramkinker Baij. Speaking of how he approaches artistic referencing, Karode notes, “You have to free yourself as an artist to draw references from wherever you want to.” Sundaram reimagined Baij's sculpture with metal scraps.
The Re-Cycle aspect of the theme is visible in this installation. Since 1997, Sundaram worked with waste pickers for creating a series with urban waste. One of them is a raft made with discarded plastic water bottles that was floated on the Yamuna. He worked with people who lived close to the river. The aim was to draw attention to the garbage pollution of the Yamuna. This was presented as a video installation which was cleverly placed under an upturned white boat, titled, Carrier (1996).
In a photographed work, Master Plan (2005-2006), he created a cityscape in his studio with tons of waste, like plastic cups, containers, garbage bags and broken toys. Then he photographed it from top for an aerial view and printed it digitally. There’s another structure, made with discarded garments, titled Boat (2013). It has a man lying like a corpse with a woman on top raising questions about love and intimacy.
The third aspect, Re-Live, ties his art practice with activism. It has a collection of seminal work from the Gulf War series. Apart from these it has a piece, Year of the Barricades 1968 (2017), which is presented like a large study board with a collage of notes, photos and flags pinned to it. It is an exploration of student protests when he was studying in London's Slade School of Fine Art in the sixties.
Visit the booth for the fine display, and come back witnessing how an Indian artist documented various phases of his lived experience with fresh eyes. There are pressing themes with deep resonance.