Clothed by art

Print edition : January 27, 2012

FLOW-WRAP: CORRUGATED plastic sheet, foam and cotton fabric lining.-PICTURES: COURTESY BIBHUTI BHUSHAN BHATTACHARYA

Vivan Sundaram's multimedia assemblage Gagawaka: Making Strange is an attempt to bring art into the fashion world.

A MAN'S wedding ensemble made of women's sanitary napkins; dresses sculpted from Chinese bras, orthopaedic supports, surgical caps and even pouches normally used for transfusions; suits made of pills, capsules and metallic kitchen scrubbers; a queenly train of truck tyre rubber and a funky number in corrugated plastic; a deity designed from kitchen sponges and an alien-like effigy made from throwaway paper cups. Such was the stuff that well-known artist Vivan Sundaram presented at his recent multimedia assemblage Gagawaka: Making Strange at Delhi's Rabindra Bhavan Gallery on December 22 -27, 2011.

The exhibition showcased 45 tactile sculptural garments boasting a lineage of recycled trash, found objects and bazaar buys completed in association with designer Pratima Pandey and the assistance of Tanmay Gupta.

It was an interesting context: in making art out of things with a non-art' function called the readymade or found object the artist was situating himself in an iconic trajectory of modernity which challenged the commodification of art from the early 20th century onwards. Yet, Making Strange seemed to have crossed over to the notion of fashion from the artist's political and social concerns of the past two decades, be it the Babri Masjid demolition or an exploration of the national capital as a citadel of excess consumption and waste.

HAIR: BRAIDED SWITCHES with metal support.-

Vivan Sundaram spoke to this writer about his attempts at a fresh articulation of politics in Making Strange; he also stressed the need for artists to engage with a mass-media-driven popular culture to art's ends. Excerpts:

The show is replete with references to an entire trajectory of 20th century art popularised by the Dada movement, as epitomised by Marcel Duchamp's display of a ceramic urinal titled Fountain, and Surrealism. Closer to our times is the notion of wearable art, which is now celebrated through the reputed World of Wearable Art Awards (WOW) festival in New Zealand. WOW describes itself as more than an art show, more than a fashion show, as Mardi Gras meets haute couture at a Peter Gabriel concert directed by Salvador Dali. Is that the context of your show as well?

I know a little bit of WOW because I exhibited some of my garments there. Suzanne Moncrieff, the artist who started it, heard about my work and came over. It's obviously an initiative that tries to bring together art and fashion. There is a long history to this; at certain moments in 20th century art, fashion named itself as its friend and not enemy.

Equally, there is the position that fashion is an industry, part of a commodity culture. But like all things there is a moment to break out and create something new. By and large, fashion receives from art the possibility of potential for these new inputs. Sometimes artists, a smaller number, may start making garments but very few will make a collection'. What little I know of WOW is that it has increased the craft input and provided avenues for people with certain skills with which they craft creations in an exquisite sort of way.

DIVA R-E-D: CHINESE padded bras (blended fabric and lace).-

WOW gives the impression of being different from fashion but has a glamorous look about it, which excites people. Started as a fringe event, it is today one of New Zealand's largest tourist attractions and is held in a stadium. In a way, this aspect had made me less interested in sending my garments to the festival. But the young designers working with me were very keen, so we participated.

As an artist I am more interested in posing certain kinds of questions, making conceptual comments, dealing with all the subjectivities that art allows you to enter: how much of the personal aspects of sexuality often embedded in art is political.

What then is the context of your show and how does it fit into the trajectory of your work? Many remember the giant city of garbage you installed in this very gallery some years ago to highlight the national capital's metropolis experience of consumption and waste. The same people wonder if you have crossed over to the Gaga land of celebrity fashion.

My work with trash has a direct reference to this show. Three years ago, for a public art project in Delhi called 48 degrees', I made a raft out of 10,000 Himalaya water bottles which was supposed to float in a water body in Connaught Place. At the eleventh hour, the police stopped the exhibit from floating. I later took it to the Yamuna to see if it floated. Fortunately it did. The raft was rowed along the river for two hours and then it was destroyed.

This gave me the idea of a sculpture that moves not as a kinetic object but one that moves in social space. This made me think how, particularly in developing countries, people can be seen carrying things on their backs. The idea of the body being a mobile armature, providing the support or spine of a sculpture, emerged. Simultaneously, my thoughts veered to the idea of something that shelters the body, like the shell of a tortoise.

IMMUNITY COVER: SURGICAL masks (micro-dot fabric).-

Like a garment.

Yes, garments are supposed to be the first form of shelter. But entering the arena of garments required certain sculptural qualities as well. I felt much easier attempting this by following the trajectory that I have followed in my work of the past 20 years. I don't sculpt in the traditional way but use the Dada concept of found objects to construct sculptures and installations. And so this project entered that zone as well.

But a garment needs a body

Exactly. A sculptural object is a sculptural object unto itself. But once it relates to the human body which inhabits the sculpture, something else happens. As you clothe, cover and shelter the body, the dialectic between covering and revealing comes into play evident from the earliest times to now.

See how jewellery covers the body in Indian sculpture the body in its nakedness gets decorative attributes. These are aspects civilisations have engaged with at several levels, historically and socially.

What prompted the idea of Making Strange?

It started with thoughts of objects and clusters to do with the body in a very personal way. I suppose illness had something to do with it, and age. People always tell stories of being laid up in bed after an operation which makes them think of or experience their bodies in a new light.

On March 30, 2009, I wrote out the word tampon (I have tended to stop drawing). Then I listed things such as sanitary pads and diapers as well as medical items such as bandages and spinal supports. About 11 of the 45 garments I finally made touched on intimate items of use, or were body aids and prosthetics. I wanted to see how one could re-invest these objects with a different sort of meaning.

Then there were other objects, more sensual or erotic, which drew my attention, such as making dresses just out of bras.

DERVISH: MEN'S SILK ties with metal support.-

What was the creative process like?

So much of the art practice of modern artists involves handling objects and playing with them. From that play emerges the form, then the structure and then the meaning. You can also start the other way round, with research, and by accumulating, engaging with, even acting out, the archive. Here you construct an exhibit and a body of meaning in a more self-conscious way.

While playing with the object, you tell the tailor to stitch in a certain way. That becomes your vocabulary of material transformed in process. Put it on a dummy, it drapes and falls.

By and large, I took recourse to humour, irony, parody to open up space for a production of meanings, or to be provocative and playful such as making a woman's dress out of jockstraps, a humorous pointer to the world of cross gender.

Earlier, in the city of garbage I had created fantasies of scale, texture and material. It had a direct reference to ecology, urban displacement and the fragile lives of the majority of people and their social matrix.

Here, once the found object or trash object which was spatialised in terms of the city got located on to the body, its placement and layering opened up an altogether different range of complex references. These include aspects of desire, sexuality and eroticism, to my forgotten subjectivities; from private body fantasies to economic production processes all speaking through a matter-of-fact object.

TECHIE SUIT: METAL kitchen scrubbers and coated fabric.-

What kind of responses did you come across?

With children aged four to 13 or so accompanying adults it was a different dynamic the garment was a dress to be worn, or a large toy. At the other end, my Marxist friends got pleasure out of seeing a fresh politics emerging from the exhibition a strong and vivid materiality that can become the very critique of commodification, a playland culture which manages to upturn the order of things. The show's open-endedness made it receptive to an entire spectrum of viewers.

The show was preceded by a live performance on a ramp that you had fashioned at the gallery. If live performance was so integral to the show, how was a viewer supposed to respond to the static garments resting on their armatures?

It was part of a process. I realised that to make garments I would need a designer to help craft it and then tailors. When it was time to get the garment photographed, the designer said it would make a difference if it was worn by a model, so that the photograph would give us a sense of its presence. This led to the next step if you have a model, then you walk her or him down the ramp. So a basic performative unit was formed.

I was clear that just as I was in the art world bringing in fashion, I would bring art into the fashion world, exploring the spectrum between model, actor, dancer, and non-artist interpreting the garment and walking the ramp to see the kind of dynamics it created.

The idea of models seems odd for your garment show.

People asked me why I included fashion models with their overdefined looks when the spirit of garments was totally different. I wanted the garment to be inhabited for its performative aspect, and when it came to be imaged by the model I saw myself enter a form of popular culture. That is how modelling and fashion circulate, in terms of a public that is by and large very different from the art-going public.

I was not entering fashion as a commodity culture of supply and demand and seasonal collections. This one show would be my pertinent statement pointing towards the cross-presence of art and fashion as exemplified by the Metropolitan Museum of Art's retrospective of Alexander McQueen's garments made, among other things, of sea shells and feathers. In the museum this master craftsman's work moves into a different realm and makes us relook at art objects with a corresponding visuality. Remember, the 20th century saw art objects using the ephemeral a la the postage stamp enter the museum.

We live in times when creations of famous fashion designers are being exhibited as art objects and viewed by people who visit art shows. That makes my task easier when it comes to the reception of my work.

Did the show take on a different hue for those who could not watch the live performance?

People in India do not spend too much time looking at art works, unlike in the West. Viewers would quickly see the show and then watch a constantly running recording of the performance on a video screen, which was part of the show. The fact that they had seen the physical object and seen it performed provided a new and accessible experience.

If I show something in the category of modern art, people would ask what it means. But a garment is a garment and by being worn so it says, I am open to you; you can receive me and think of the meanings I evoke in you.

WEDDING OUTFIT: SANITARY pads (compressed cottonwool) with coated fabric lining.-

What was the response to this work from the artist community?

One artist remarked that she would have liked to see more grubbiness in the work. My earlier work on trash had started from that point; here, my idea of re-presenting it was to take it into the realm of beauty, and to bring another level of attention. And I am not being very original here. The element of surprise, the act of looking, is just the initial part of the idea of displacing an object from its original function.

Then again, a master' like A. Ramachandran loved the show. The aspects of eroticism that he himself deals with, he found (embodied) in these garments! They were objects outside the codes of art but which gave the same delight on viewing.

Had I called the works sculpture, I might have been asked why I was making such a flimsy sculpture. Calling them garments gave me a greater flexibility. The work became more porous and democratic for people, including those who look out for the fashion week and others who simply like to dress up.

I am interested in public art, and fashion too can be called a form of public art if you fashion the art part of it in a considered way, in a way that engages material and concept differently.

Equally, many artists the world over are now talking about a need to reflect on the blurring of boundaries and about going back to the basics of art. How does art practice define itself in a world dominated by a mass-media-driven popular culture?

In the past two decades, the more conventional paradigms of the art-making practice in India have widened and become more varied; the art market too has made its presence felt. The public has opened up to receiving all kinds of art in different ways, from the cerebral and conceptual to installation, which is ephemeral. No one says that this is not art.

This gives artists the freedom but how far they take it creatively is important. One of the larger problems is the lack of public institutions that support this kind of work. In the West, museums such as the Tate, pressured not to seem dated, go one step forward to absorb work that was not part of their agendas. This will happen in India as well.

As I see it art has a much larger definition. The kind of artist I am, I will soon start questioning the pleasure principle of this show I have already attempted to build criticality into it, more deconstruction will follow.

Something tells me I will go back to making art that foregrounds forms, concepts and questions as I have done through the notion of the archive which is a significant trajectory of my work.

By this, you mean the practice of using parts of earlier works in a different way in new projects?

Yes. The set I made for Making Strange' comprised parts of earlier works which were re-presented. Using the archive of one's own work is not a case of not having anything new' to say. The work is dismantled and re-presented. My own work becomes the found object. An archive is not something static; it is constantly being reinvented as it is being pulled out and engaged with, coming to you as memory, as fragment.

Ultimately, as an artist who wears the garment of a political being, how do you look at the politics of your latest art stakeout?

Commodification of culture rules our lives today. Most of us live inside television screens or in the virtual world. These are much larger universes and they affect our lives much more than, say, 30 years ago.

There are complex economic production processes at work. Then there are private body fantasies and social desires to want to be part of group identity but seem different at the same time. When I went to the NIFT [National Institute of Fashion Technology] library while researching for this show I came across an extraordinary body of work on fashion done by anthropologists, sociologists and culture theorists. As artists, do we enter this arena or do we stay away fearing that we will get eaten up by the monster?

I would argue that one must take the risk, but constantly put questions, breakers and interruptions in the interpretation of a definitive image the model and the ramp walk. The model carrying the garment is a moving and animated armature. It is precisely this movement that makes performance and allows you to cross over to some other space such as theatre or dance.

Think of a contemporary dance choreographer wanting to choreograph several compositions with three or four garments, or aspiring to a scale and having 30 garments to a composition. Some garments may be difficult to dance in but Pina Bausch has said you can just be standing and you are a dancer. All these conventions allow the garments to be interpreted in different ways. Or imagine 10 to 12 garments seated before a theatre director asking to be cast as characters.

I am excited at the thought of life beyond the show.

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