Artist on a Mission
Artist on a Mission

One of India’s greatest living artists, Vivan Sundaram on his life and work

Above: Postmortem (After Gagawaka)


Delhi-based Vivan Sundaram is in Mumbai these days for his latest show Postmortem (After Gagawaka), a continuation of his 2011 exhibition Gagawaka: Making Strange, in which he dressed up storefront mannequins in sculptural garments made from recycled rubbish. In the new exhibition, the mannequins have been stripped bare, dissected and even dismembered. The exhibition will run through January 2015.


Vivan Sundaram


Postmortem (After Gagawaka) is an interesting title for a show. Where did it come from?


When I googled the word postmortem, I was fascinated by the reference in which it was being used. In management, postmortem metaphorically means reassessing the parameters on which a business is being run. I too was cutting up mannequins and medical equipment tools to create art.


In the last show, I created sculptural garments using trash and found objects, and displayed them on mannequins and actual models. In this one, I have stripped these mannequins bare, but they are not whole mannequins. You see dismembered parts. The show raises several questions about sexuality, desire, death and mortality. The cutting up is an act of destruction.


Is Postmortem a natural extension to Gagawaka?


Some of the violence and melancholy that is embedded in many of the installations from the Gagawaka series finds reference here. Many artists and critics feel that these works are very violent. There is violence, but there is also humour and drama. Across the installations, you will see beautiful pop colours.


You have used some unusual materials, such as medical educational tools.


When I started taking the mannequins apart, I found it is all empty inside. But, on opening up medical educational tools, I found layer after abstract layer, which are peeled off to teach students about the human body. In my sculpture Coffin, I have used two legs, which are then joined to another torso via a locking system. These kinds of juxtapositions are important.


The last time we spoke, you were keen on taking the Gagawaka series ahead.


I wanted to go back to the experience of working with sculptures. For Gagawaka, a fashion designer’s studio was my base, and I had two assistants and a tailor. My involvement wasn’t that much. Also, for this one, I dismembered mannequins and medical educational tools. It is often impossible to create a sculptural garment out of so many disparate parts, and then put it on a model. There could be a problem if her bra shows underneath or something. It is different in the West, where they are okay with even a breast showing. Besides, I think people in fashion are really not interested in the blurring of boundaries between art and fashion.


You were doing installations at a time [the 1990s] when there was really no market for it. What prompted the move away from paintings?


Years ago, I had done this beautiful painting called The Fishermen of Bombay. I was in Mumbai at that time, and used to see these fishermen go out every morning in Juhu. It was a very sweet painting and it sold for Rs 2.1 lakh. That was the time when [MF] Husain’s work fetched Rs 10 lakh. Shireen [Gandhy] called to tell me that there is a huge queue for my paintings. I could have continued painting. But, that was a period when socially and politically, India was changing. Art, too, was changing. Besides me, artists such as Navjot [Altaf], NaliniMalani and Rummana [Hussain] felt the need to move beyond the limited frame of paintings.


You also once said that installations allowed you to comment on the socio-political realities of the 1990s.


I was very disturbed after the Babri Masjid demolition and the violence that followed. But, I could not figure how to portray such a huge catastrophe on canvas. I came across an iconic photograph by Hoshi Jal in The Times of India, of a man lying dead next to a garbage dump. Memorial, one of my earliest installations made in 1994, was based on this photograph. Right since Partition, Indian artists have reacted to trauma and tragedy through their works.


But, as an artist, you are working in a society that seems to have forgotten the lessons learnt from the Babri Masjid demolition.


Amnesia towards politically sensitive issues is not a new phenomenon. It took the next generation to deal with issues raised by violence during Partition. We will have to wait for the next generation to engage with the violence we experienced post-Babri Masjid demolition, and its fallout. Also, we are a society obsessed with oral narratives to preserve memory and history. The West has always felt a greater need to document, which is reflected in the quality of their museums. Germany has a museum dedicated to the Holocaust. We don’t have a single museum dedicated to Partition. Visually documenting a moment in our history forces us to confront it in the eye, but do we want to confront those issues?


Photography has played a significant role in your art. It was especially true for the photomontages you created for an art project on your aunt, Amrita Sher-Gil.


The project on Amrita Sher-Gil lent itself to photomontages. I began working on it in the 1970s. I organised a retrospective of her works and edited her letters in a limited sort of way. In the early 1990s, I thought I needed to relook at the letters and photographs.


A decade later, when I had already moved into installation art, I thought the best way to explore her legacy was to use her photographic archives to represent her life and times. I created a series of photomontages that were shown at Tate Modern in 2007. The digital format allowed me to take the family photographs, which merely documented a moment, and transform them into works that were a narrative on her relationships, the most dominant being the father-daughter relationship. The photomontages combined images that encompassed three generations and also incorporated paintings, mirrors and household interiors of the period.


What were the lesser known aspects of her life and art, which you encountered?


Sher-Gil loved literature. She was a voracious reader. Also, money was a huge issue for the family. She gave the impression of coming from a rich and aristocratic family, and she did. But, the reality was that they were badly off.


You have donated Rs 40 lakh for the upcoming Kochi-Muziris Biennale.


The public and private sectors are not very generous, but this needs to be done. I had attempted to start the Delhi Biennale years ago but failed at the attempt. For the organisers, financial difficulties are a part of the game.


At KMB 2012 you were showing in a public space. Did it change the way you approached that work?


The work I showed was site-specific. I called it Black Gold, since Kerala traded in black pepper. I was, of course, inspired by Muziris, the ancient port town. I used discarded pottery shards from the archaeological site of Pattanam, where the Kerala Council for Historical Research [KCHR] has been carrying out excavations to piece together the story of Muziris. Dr. Cherian [KCHR director] said I could take the pottery shards lying around, which had little intrinsic value except for the fact that they are 2000 years old. So, I took them and created this imaginary city at the Aspinwall House.


What role do you see biennales playing in a country like India?


It brings art closer to people and leaves a significant impact on a country’s culture. People were discussing Muziris, the ancient port town that had slipped into oblivion, forgotten by most, and which the first edition focussed on. Such projects help you link back to your history and your arts.



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