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Sundaram among his work at New Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery. Photo: Rituparna Banerjee/Mint
Sundaram among his work at New Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery. Photo: Rituparna Banerjee/Mint

Art | Savage beauty

Vivan Sundaram's latest show is a macabre revisiting of his earlier work straddling fashion and the fine arts

Vivan Sundaram meets me on the second floor of New Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery, where his latest show, Postmortem (After Gagawaka), is installed. The room is dimly lit and pierced by waves of what the artist calls “3D sound", interspersed with a wailing human voice. A mannequin stands in the middle, her body draped in black cloth that seems to be slipping out of the cast. One of her arms is held up, fist balled-up, while the other is missing. As I start moving, the noise invades my cranium, sliding with serpentine agility along the walls, filling me with intimations of dread and discomfort. Macabre doesn’t begin to describe the experience.

Strikingly, this work is called Liberty, the name and aspect of the figure alluding to French painter Eugène Delacroix’s iconic work, Liberty Leading the People, made as a memorial to the July Revolution of 1830. It is typical of Sundaram’s aesthetic to distil neo-classical elegance into a shockingly postmodern sensibility.

“I have never believed in skill or craft," he tells me, “For me, authenticity does not come from my ability to carve a stone or a stick." Not surprisingly, he lists Marcel Duchamp, the champion of the Readymade, as one of his heroes. The fiercely cerebral flavour of Sundaram’s work is the result of a long absorption in the styles of R.B. Kitaj (an early mentor in England), K.G. Subramanyan (who taught Sundaram at MS University of Baroda), and Joseph Beuys, a polymath artist who transformed the destiny of 20th century art decisively.

About two decades ago, Sundaram left painting, in which he was initially trained, to focus on “found objects". Growing up surrounded by paintings made by his aunt Amrita Sher-Gil, one of India’s most celebrated artists, Sundaram was drawn to the medium, but did not grasp the full significance of Sher-Gil’s legacy until he went to art college. “It was there that I became conscious of the artist that she was," says Sundaram. “After I returned to India in the 1970s, from the Slade School of Fine Art in London (UK), I felt there should be more contemporary analyses of her work."

While his wife Geeta Kapur went on to establish herself as one of the pre-eminent art historians in the country, Sundaram’s contribution to the field was more subtle and imaginative, but crucial nonetheless. Drawing on his grandfather Umrao Singh Sher-Gil’s rich archive of photographs, he created photomontages by juxtaposing people across different times and places to tell the story of Amrita’s colourful but tragically brief life in a language no one had dared before. Later he went on to edit his aunt’s correspondences, collected in two thick volumes, which provide a glimpse into her intense, witty though inherently melancholic mind.

Spine, a mixed-media installation
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Spine, a mixed-media installation

“I wanted to enter a more performative mode, which resulted in this crossover," says Sundaram. The title, a portmanteau of two shining examples of the “trashy" (Lady Gaga and Shakira’s Waka waka song of the 2012 Fifa World Cup), and the subtitle, a quote from Bertolt Brecht, capture the vertiginous mood of the enterprise—of frivolity slipping into gravitas.

Sundaram started out with the idea of making “sculptural garments"—out of plastic, sanitary napkins, bras, and objects meant to be discarded after use—and to this end, collaborated with fashion designer Pratima Pandey. The result was a spectacular collection of attire, not just displayed but also worn and exhibited by live models on the ramp.

“Till then, I was familiar with just a few key names in the world of fashion," says Sundaram, “But once I started exploring the library at National Institute of Fashion Technology, Delhi, I discovered the fashion writings of some of the most important theorists of the 20th century, such as Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin." He goes on to mention Alexander McQueen, who had a posthusmous show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, one of the few fashion designers to have received such acclaim.

Sundaram’s latest show is a revisiting, more properly a reversal, of Gagawaka. “My interest to question what I have made has always been central to my work," he says, as we walk down to the lower floors of the gallery.

You have to push open a wooden door, coarse but sturdy, to enter the gallery space on the first floor, where an assembly of fibreglass torsos greet you. “I found I could bring out a certain combination of pathos and tenderness by moving between the mannequin and the medical body," says Sundaram. Eyes, tongue, teeth and internal organs are laid out on shelves; bodies are cut open, filled with wires, and suspended from the ceiling in a grotesque travesty of the “mechanical man". Inside a chest of drawers by the wall, the various accoutrements that went into the making of Gagawaka—snake shell, flow wrap, silverfoil suit—are dismantled and stashed away.

The dazzling splendour of patterns and folds from the previous show fade away into a surrealist nightmare in Postmortem, where the body is literally unclothed and divested of its biological and psychological layers. The skin is peeled over, the flesh hacked, the mask torn open from the face. There are echoes of Dadaist masters—for instance, the graphic depiction of the eye being sliced by a razor in Un Chien Andalou, the short film by Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel—and of sculptural work that embrace the dialectic of fashion and art, such as the clothes and torsos Louise Bourgeois kept revisiting in her later years. Quotes from Theodor W. Adorno (“Cruelty is an element of art’s critical reflection on itself") or the line from the retelling of the Echo and Narcissus myth from Ovid’s Metamorphoses by Ted Hughes, scribbled on the walls , act as emotional anchors for the viewer.

But the savage beauty of Postmortem shines through in its ability to inspire thought, transport the eye from the immediate to the transcendental, and return the mind to memories of things read and seen long ago. Walking among the exhibits, I was reminded of the dark interiors of Stalker, the dystopic masterpiece by the Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky, who the artist mentions as among his cinematic gurus, some of the others being Jean-Luc Godard, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Federico Fellini and Alain Resnais. “I was a student in London when the masters of auteur cinema were making some of their greatest work," says Sundaram, who shares a close friendship with film-maker Kumar Shahani.

Although Sundaram has made video-based work, his art is generally influenced by cinema in its narrative aspirations. In Postmortem, the desire to insinuate stories is palpable—in the careful sequencing of the items and often deliberate placement of objects. In a box that is a cross between a vitrine and a coffin, two mannequins lie, the woman’s severed arm lying on the chest of the man. The bone-white texture of their bodies give them a morbid as well as precious quality, turning them, as Ariel sings in The Tempest, into “something rich and strange".

But the most haunting piece in the show lies inside an anteroom on the first floor—the entry to which is barred by a transparent sheet. Physically inaccessible, one is but allowed a voyeur’s gaze through this curtain at two bodies (seemingly male), one pinning the other down. It is impossible to tell whether their intent is amorous or otherwise, but difficult to resist the temptation to speculate.

Postmortem (After Gagawaka) is on from 11am-7pm (Sundays closed), till 4 December at Vadehra Art gallery, D-53 Defence Colony, New Delhi (46103550/51).

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