Vivan Sundaram belongs to a generation of artists whose work has been strongly influenced by India's anti-colonial revolts. Born in 1943 in Simla, India, he is the nephew of the outstanding Indian painter Amrita Sher-Gil and the grandson of Umrao Singh Sher-Gil. He spent the last years of his art education (1966-1968) in London, where he studied under R.B. Kitaj and initially devoted himself to painting. His early works, aesthetically positioned between Minimalism and Pop Art, were considered lost, but have recently been rediscovered and are thus also presented in the exhibition, including a painting from 1968, which bears the emblematic year as a title ("May 1968").
As a student, Sundaram experienced London in the late 1960s, a period marked by the culmination of the socio-political rebellion of the younger generation. When he returned to India in 1970, he felt an affinity towards India's communist party. From this perspective, he followed how India found its way into the global flow of capital and developed into one of the world's largest economic powers. At the same time, he recognized the cracks in Indian politics and society, as communal hostilities escalated in the right-wing political spectrum and intolerance gained ground, leading to sectarian violence.
Haus der Kunst
hosts the most comprehensive survey exhibition of Sundaram's work ever presented in a European institution. The selection and arrangement of the works demonstrate both the shifts in and the continuity of his artistic forms and content. Two works stand alone like monoliths and are presented as such: "Memorial" (1993/2014) and "12 Bed Ward" (2005).
With "Memorial" Sundaram's work became explicitly political. Sundaram was inspired by a newspaper photo of a dead man lying in the street, was taken during the riots in Mumbai (then Bombay) in December 1992 and January 1993. The destruction of Babri Masjid - a 17th-century mosque in Ayodha in northern India - by right-wing Hindus resulted in the death of nearly 900 people. Totally unprecedented in their scale, these riots posed new challenges to India's political self-image. The threat of external forces - the former colonial power Great Britain - had given way to an internal crisis.
The sequence of stations lends the mourning in "Memorial" a ceremonial character. Amid a minimalist aesthetic consisting of metal barriers and red cobblestones, Sundaram presents the photograph of the dead man in ever-changing variations: mutilated by nails, burned, bandaged, covered with a veil and portrayed with an implied wing, as if the man were undergoing a sublime transformation following his physical end. Through the stylistic devices of variation and repetition, the artist insists upon a dignified monument dedicated to this prematurely ended human life, to which he lends meaning. Just as Antigone had stubbornly campaigned for the funeral of her brother Polynices, who lay buried on the battlefield, Vivan Sundaram pleads here for the commemoration of this stranger.
The expansive installation "12 Bed Ward" also occupies an independent space. In twelve rusty bedframes, the springs have been replaced by the soles of discarded rubber shoes, which are still in the state in which the rag-pickers acquired them. Usually barefooted, these workers cannot "afford the luxury of irony regarding the rubber soles of which the beds are made" (Deepak Ananth). The soles cast shadows on the floor and create a carpet-like pattern in chiaroscuro. The work is a declaration of solidarity to the rag-pickers, key figures situated on the margins of society.
Sundaram has often used garbage in his works. Deepak Ananth argues that this practice represents less an exploration of brute realism than of a worldwide phenomenon. In cities, a specific kind of garbage accumulates: brilliant inventions of human intelligence return in the form of trash, like a farce. The achievements of modernization become a kind of limbo.
Sundaram's oeuvre is characterized by his sensitive understanding of materiality. Even his charcoal drawings of 1988 center around ash, slag, embers, smoke and ruins, i.e. the semantic field typical of coal. In "House" Sundaram used the handmade paper Kalamkhush, the preferred paper of Mahatma Gandhi; though Sundaram illustrates it with symbols like the hammer and sickle, the paper also latently bears the ideological stamp of nonviolence.
When Sundaram examines historical events or images of his environment, it is with the conviction that there is no single valid version. History presents itself to him as textual material that he can shape like an author - sometimes with other authors in the collective. As in contemporary novels, a multitude of voices can be heard, each with its own perspective. The possibilities of arranging the narrative in new and different ways are almost unlimited. With this polyphony, Sundaram strengthens the role and power of each citizen and individual. For "One and the Many," for example, he commissioned a group of emerging artists to freely interpret a monumental cement sculpture by Ramkinkar in various styles, but with the stipulation that it be executed in terracotta and no higher than 30 centimeters. Far removed from the material and scale of the original, the 400 small clay sculptures are a symbol of community and cohesion.
The exhibition is curated by Deepak Ananth. The catalog will be released on July 4 by Prestel. It includes a preface by Okwui Enwezor, as well as contributions by Deepak Ananth, Andreas Huyssen, Katya García Antón and Ashish Rajadhyaksha; hardback (English), paperback, 208 pages, 21.5 x 28.0 cm, 115 color illustrations, ISBN: 978-3-7913-5775-1, 49 Euro.