Vivan Sundaram

Photography Sharad Shrivastava

Vivan Sundaram Giving Meaning

Vivan Sundaram’s gentle strength of voice drowns the noises that surround us—the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art is buzzing for the artist’s show; people, wine and art spread all around, forming an inconsistent yet harmonious landscape. It is much like the veteran’s own process—picking up archives, memories, found objects, industrial tools, used oil—and constructing a story in difference and concurrence, his s work always in progress. At first, we sit down and go through the journey of his ongoing retrospective, Step inside and you are no longer a stranger, tracing his 50-year trajectory through his many worlds and works, and then, we take a walk, stick-aided and tea in hand, through the larger-than life spectacle that is the ship of Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946—an experiential, collaborative work sitting somewhere between theatre, performance, realism and installation. Drifting through his seas, I discover much. 

You are, of course, no longer a stranger to art. I wonder if artists with half a century of practice still feel alien sometimes, given the constantly changing landscape of art. 
By and large, because of the nature of my practice, from the very start as a student of aesthetics both in India as well as in London, I was constantly questioning the premise of being there. It was the end of the 60s that kind of dramatically changed the nature of my paintings. And I am a great believer in responding to the environment, to changed aesthetic, even a new political situation. This exhibition is about this constant questioning and changing. I have always constructed my work in a non-linear manner, moving from aesthetic, the visual, to a very different medium…as well as in how the content and context reflects. So, in a sense, the title of the show also reflects something of the disjunctions or displacements that the viewer might feel. Whereas most artists have a style, a stand, there is no consistency to my work at that level. Then the way that this argument keeps representing itself is in the collage nature of my work that keeps on making different propositions, and hopefully some sort of a pattern emerges from this. 

Can you tell me a little about some works that are part of the retrospective? 
There are about 200 works—paintings, installations, cultural objects. Often, the juxtapositions are somewhat provocative. Like there is a body of work called 409 Ramkinkars, for which I got a group of young artists fresh from art school and showed them these two works by Ram Kinkar Baij—Mill-Call and Santhal Family. I said, you look at the sculptures and do your own thing, you can make it relaxed or formal and you can make it expressionist, cubist, futurist. The only thing you can see of dramatically changed colour and shape is the container for this history-based work called Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946. It started with a proposal to do something for the Bhauji Lad Museum but it did not quite work out. I approached an old friend of mine for it, a film theorist named Ashish Rajadhyaksha. I have used the work collaboration quite a few times but there I have remained the author and collaborated with architects and other people—they have given me ideas and I have configured the work, structured it. Whereas in this case, both Ashish Rajadhyaksha and I are doing it together. Both of us have visuals as our background so I said let’s do a sound work. So people enter this object which is a quasi-boat and they have this immersive sound experience and it is about warships because the mutiny of 1946 was initiated by the sailors of the Royal Indian Navy. It was post the world war and they were still masters of the sea because the great colonial empire had conquered different lands. The warships were made of steel and I thought I can’t make a work on this with wood or paper; let me think of this as a minimalist object. In the history of minimalism, particularly the Americans said that now when you work with steel on that scale, it is not making the work in studio— it is making the work in a factory and with more and more sophisticated ways as the computer turns the steel around. So it had to be an industrial production. And then I found this terrific structural engineer and I thought this has to be of this scale but it has to be dismantled and move from Bombay to Delhi or to London where the show goes on. Because it is about theatre and performance. There were certain technical difficulties in installing the piece but I’m an ever believer that when things go wrong and you can’t do them there’s an unexpected solution and he found one. 

Your thoughts on learning and unlearning as an artist. 
I’m constantly learning and unlearning. Almost simultaneously. I start with not much of a history of the aesthetic or content that I employ, I kind of take a leap into it. So there is an element of spontaneity. I want to refer to the topical/political—something that is around me or I may have experienced. There is a notion that once you’ve got the style and you are a Souza or a Raza you know where to put the line in the pattern, but I’m consciously stepping aside or constantly repositioning. 

Lastly, what does the year ahead look like? 
I’ll be 75 this year and it will be 50 years of my first political initiation in the May 1968 student movement. This is the best time there is!

The exhibition goes on till June 30 at KNMA, Saket, New Delhi, after which it travels to Haus de Kunst in Munich. 

Text Soumya Mukerji