There are numerous ways to describe Vivan Sundaram—conceptual artist, installer, archivist and sculptor—but surely, “photographer" is not one of them. Among India’s more notable contemporary artists, Sundaram is known not just for his multifaceted art practice but for his continued questioning of art production and audience reception.
A new book, however, takes a closer look at Sundaram’s use of the photographic image. Vivan Sundaram Is Not A Photographer (published by Tulika Books) was launched this month in Delhi, and at the Chennai Photo Biennale (22 February-24 March). Authored by artist-writer Ruth Rosengarten, the title sets the tone for the book with the appeal of René Magritte’s painting, The Treachery Of Images. Rosengarten, a research associate at the University of Johannesburg, says she was both “challenged and invited" to write this book by the artist himself, following two critical essays she had written on his series Re-Take Of Amrita, which she examined in the light of digitization and changing paradigm shifts of photography.
Rosengarten says on email that she proposes photography in her book as “an umbrella term for varieties of activity…enjoying different methods of dissemination". Today, as critics look for the “painterly" qualities of a work rather than the “painting", Rosengarten looks for the “photographic" in Sundaram’s work rather than his treatment of “photography".
The writer introduces the terms assemblage and bricolage, tracing how Sundaram absorbed collages and found objects into his work. In his artistic universe, the photographic image held a similar fascination, being reworked, collaged and tinkered with. With several spreads dedicated to his images and installations, the book highlights his unorthodox approach to photography.
The four sections of the book flow directly from Sundaram’s works, says Rosengarten. She picks key series to focus on, starting with Re-Take Of Amrita, a well-known series produced by Sundaram between 2001-05. In this series, he re-assembled a collection of albums made by his grandfather, Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, which included photographs of his aunt, Amrita Sher-Gil, an acclaimed painter. Sundaram digitally manipulated these family archives to create photomontages that included period interiors, making a fact-meets-fantasy series, fabricating something new out of something old.
Rosengarten says, “When artists nowadays work with found images, they bring to bear something other than technical skill. It’s a kind of collage or montage with material already in existence. This has had really fascinating manifestations—from artists working with discarded snapshots found on streets to those working with photographs snatched from Google Street View or satellite imaging."
Other works that feature in the book are Great Indian Bazaar (1997) and Trash (2008). The former, Rosengarten writes, was made in the context of the socioeconomic and political implications of globalization. Sundaram visited the Sunday market outside Delhi’s Red Fort, taking snapshots of used items as they changed hands and became third-hand or even fourth-hand goods. These informal shots became the raw materials for Great Indian Bazaar, composed of 400 photographs in metal frames. The last chapter is dedicated to Black Gold (2012) and Terraoptics (2016), which will be on display at Sundaram’s forthcoming solo exhibition, opening at PhotoINK in Delhi today. These will be joined by his new body of work, The Work Of Termites.
Speaking to Lounge, Sundaram says, “Multiple ways of looking interest me." It makes one think of Magritte’s pipe—for Sundaram, the camera’s lens is more like a prism.