Vivan Sundaram's bazaar

Print edition : February 19, 2000
Of an artist with ambition. HANS V. MATHEWS

VIVAN SUNDARAM is one of the more prominent artists in India today, and he seems to be among the more ambitious ones (if what he tried to do with the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta recently is anything to go by, at least). As importantly, Sundaram's examp le may fairly be said to have set in motion - here in India, about ten years or so ago - that process through which the practice of visual art worked itself free of painting and sculpture, so to say, and found ways of using whatever lay to hand as it att empted to do things which painting and sculpture were either ill-equipped to do or incapable of doing.

Putting it so occludes, of course, how this 'working free' reflects a change which has taken place through the last 40 years or so in the practice of all the arts - and in the conduct of the human sciences as well - a change which, until quite recently, was talked of broadly as a change from a modern to a postmodern condition. But there seem to be - or to have been, perhaps one should now say - as many ways of being postmodern as there were ways of being modern; and the word "postmodern" does not enligh ten anymore in the ways it once seemed to.

A more serious objection to how things have just been put might be that the distinctions one used to draw between the arts are themselves now obsolete (whether or not practice continues to be postmodern in some way). The fact that something is taken in w ith the eye is now incidental to its being a work of art, it might be urged, so that to talk of visual art at all is to impose on a practice - of art simpliciter , so to say - a false and distorting distinction.

Whether or not that is so remains open, however; and one could continue to distinguish as 'visual' works of art which come out of painting and sculpture in some way or other, no matter how such works engage the other senses - or how minimally they addres s the eye at all. Saying just what coming out of painting and sculpture amounts to would not be easy, of course; but that is a problem better left to philosophy, and it is best left so here since there is no room to tackle it. (Let me note, though , that philosophers of art do not find it an insuperable one.)

The process of 'freeing' visual art from the dominance of painting and sculpture had got going in Europe and America some time ago (in the middle of the 1960s, actually) and the process had been consolidated there by the time it got under way here. But o ne could, I think, maintain that artists in India are not nowadays very much more constrained than artists elsewhere might be, when they set about doing what they want to do, and one could maintain this even though painting and sculpting is what most Ind ian artists seem to do: and some of the credit for that must go to Sundaram.

Artist Vivan Sundaram.-

LET us turn now to what is pictured here. These are parts of a work titled Great Indian Bazaar , which was made for the Johannesburg Biennale of 1997. It was shown subsequently in Delhi and Mumbai, and in Bangalore most recently. As the title sugg ests, the work has something or other to do with the bazaar: and, as it turns out, the work seems to be taking stock of bazaars for used goods as the particular social phenomena they are in India today - in an economy which is being 'structurally adjuste d'.

The photographs in the pile shown (in Figure 1) were taken by the artist himself at a Sunday market near the Red Fort. They have been set within red metal frames - which the artist found and bought in another market - and by then heaping them together as he does Sundaram endows the bulk of the pile they make with a definite sensed quality: which beholders of painting and sculpture can sense as a mutation , let me hazard saying, of some more clearly sculptural quality.

It would be much too hard to say just how this quality is experienced as a mutation, and I shall not try to. But pointing to what it has mutated out of should not be difficult: the obvious thing to look back to now is late Modernist sculpture, an d what one has to recall is how the application of colour there changed the ways in which the 'purely' sculptural quantities of mass, volume, surface and 'void' came to agree , one might say, in earlier Modernist sculpture. (Consider how Greenberg or Fried respond to the colour in Anthony Caro's work, for instance.)

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What complicates things here (besides, of course, what has happened in sculpture since) are the photographs. Because these are pictures of used goods - even of things that may have been used many times over: of what may be junk, literally, for the relati vely well-off people Indian beholders of painting and sculpture are likely to be - because of that, and because we can bend down and take any picture we want from the pile, we come to sense mass and volume here in a different way than we otherwise would. (As we would if the pictures had all been of any one object, say, and of an object that had no history of being used or handled.)

Actually, one of the peculiar things about this pile of photographs is that its bulk retains what I called a 'mutated' quality even when the pile has been substantially disarranged, and even diminished, by pictures being taken off. Just why this should b e so is difficult to say, again, but one reason may be that the shiny red of the frames and the shadowed spaces between the framed pictures - which in a piece of sculpture would have been 'voids' - come to be sensed as somewhat elastic quantities. The re sult of all this, at any rate, is that our pile seems to bear along or 'carry' the photographic image in some unusual way.

That the pile of pictures should behave so seems to depend on the column of stacked metal frames that is set next to it (Figure 2) and especially on how the metallic colours stand a little off the frames there (and so sharpen as it were the shadows in th e thin spaces between. But this may not have come through in the reproduction here.) The pile and the column go well together, then, and how the pile comes to 'carry' its images seemed to reward Sundaram's interest in "establishing a relationship between the photographic image ... and its support", in "dismantling the conventional frame" and in "renegotiating methods of mounting the image on the wall or the floor" - as he puts it in the brochure that accompanies the work.

So far so good. But the rest of the work does not, unfortunately, deal with the photographs it uses in ways that complement how our pile of pictures 'carries' the photographic image, and so the work as a whole fails to establish, within itself, any forma lly significant relation between the photographic image and its support: that is to say, the various ways in which the photographed image is 'carried' or 'supported' do not, taken together, cohere enough to make a difference to how this work takes stock of the bazaar for old and used goods in India.

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It will take a little doing to bring out just why the work fails formally: but before going on to that let me indicate why one might want to read the work this way. In the brochure Sundaram talks of how his pictures should focus the beholder's eye "on re ality at the poverty level of 'consumption'." The point of his having put the word "consumption" in quotes is, presumably, to suggest that the 'buyers' and 'sellers' in this bazaar are not consumers of goods in just the way most beholders of this work wo uld be. "There is a thin dividing line" in the bazaar, Sundaram says, "between the item being up for sale and being discarded, being rubbish": which wouldn't be the case with a consumer, properly speaking, of any sort of goods.

That should provide some warrant for how the work has been interpreted here: for supposing that what it tries to do is take stock - somehow, in some special way that visual art may - of the sort of social phenomena that bazaars for used goods are in Indi a today.

"The whole world is now a marketplace," Sundaram goes on to say; and by presenting us with "a superabundance of images" - in the way the pile on the floor of the gallery does, where we are invited to sift through the pictures much as the buyer in the baz aar might sift through used goods - he means to make us ask ourselves how we are to "look at objects that are recycled for use (when they are) retrieved as images" (in just the ways this work as a whole does) from the bazaar which lies at "the margins of a consumer society". And this suggests that 'establishing a relation between the photographic image and its support' is one of the means by which the work tries to 'take stock' (as I have put it) of the bazaar.

I have quoted Sundaram at length not only to support my reading of this work, but also to point to the kind of ambition that seems to lie behind it. And before going on let me note that the work might be read otherwise: for instance, it might be that the work does not try to take stock of the bazaar in any special way, and it might be that it takes stock of the bazaar in order to establish some special relation between the photographic image and its support. But what has been said so far can be a ccommodated to that reading; and what is going to be said should tell against the work's success on that account of it as well.

Only two elements of the work have been looked at so far: the pile of framed pictures, and the column of stacked frames. Besides these, one has, first, larger copies of the pictures in the pile, mounted roughly and set on their sides in stacks which one may flip through; a blown-up print of one these pictures then, mounted on the wall (Figure 3); and, further, transparencies made from some of them, which have been set into the cut-out sides of aluminium boxes lit from the inside, so that each box with i ts transparency becomes a 'translite'. Then one finds, printed in black and red onto used templates (over the etching for the labels, and so on, that were printed off these plates) certain observations on the Indian economy (by well known economists); an d finally, 'printed out' on a wall with empty picture frames one has the words "GREAT INDIAN BAZAAR".

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It will prove useful to quote from one of these observations on the economy (made by C.P. Chandrasekhar): which notes, besides "the coexistence of wealth and poverty" in India, the coexistence of "factory production along with technologically and organis ationally backward forms of production" also, and the "segmented" character of "markets in which 'premium' and 'inferior' products enjoy their individual spaces", with "the flow of 'second-hand' goods providing the link between these market-specific comm odities".

The coexistence of factory production with 'technologically and organisationally backward forms of production' is particularly important here: that is a principal formal factor in this work and, in fact, it is precisely because the work fails to respond finely or subtly enough to this fact about labour in India that it falls short formally. To elaborate, the coexistence of 'advanced' and 'backward' forms of production is particularly evident in the aluminium boxes which Sundaram has used for his transli tes. These are the roughly made boxes one can find in any Indian market: and their kuccha character brings into sharp relief the difference between, on the one hand, the simple sorts of labour that goes into fashioning these boxes and, on the othe r, the complex organisation of labour that is required to produce the sheets of aluminium from which they are made.

Now, the way Sundaram has used these boxes to make his translites does not at all take into account how they make manifest the difference between these 'advanced' and 'backward' - or 'simple' and 'complex' - modes of labour: and because of that th e way in which the photographic image is 'supported' by the transparencies here neither reflects nor clarifies how the image is supported or carried elsewhere in the work. Recall the part that the shiny red of the metal frames had played in the pile comi ng to 'carry' the photographic image as it did: the serious problem with the translites is that the look of the aluminium does not in any cognate way modulate how the image is seen to be 'supported' by the material of transparencies - or 'carried' by the translites themselves - and the look of the metal is kept from doing so precisely because the boxes manifest the difference between 'advanced' and 'backward' modes of labour while the frames do not (and, to say it again, the translites do not vis ibly take this into account.)

Mention has been made of enlarged prints of the pictures in the pile, which were 'roughly' mounted (and set so that one 'flipped' through them). The pictures themselves are more 'snapshots' than carefully wrought photographs: and in the brochure Sundaram is clear that he did not want "modernist compositions". Compared to what a professional photographer might produce, then - or set next to modernist 'art photography' - Sundaram's pictures would look kuccha , and they are meant to be so, it would seem; and it should now be evident why that matters (to, among other things, just how this work retrieves used goods as images from the margins of a consumer society.)

Now consider the lettering in Figure 4. The individual letters cannot be taken to belong to any one 'typeface' or 'font': the 'unit' used to form them produces, at this scale, irregularities which preclude that. (Look at the "Z" and the "N".) The letteri ng, then, is kuccha in its own way. But this is entirely the result of the scale of the letters: had they been substantially larger the lettering would not have been so kuccha - and that keeps it from relating in any formally pertine nt way to the pictures and to the translite boxes.

A certain reason was given above for why this work of Sundaram's falls short in a formal sense: which was that it does not respond subtly enough to a particular fact about labour in India. I hope that charge has been made good. But one should, again, ack nowledge the ambition that seems to lie behind the work: which should command the beholder's attention, and perhaps excuse its flaws.

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