Vivan Sundaram's work

Many shades of alienation

Print edition :

Vivan Sundaram at the Hindu Lit for Life in Chennai in January 2016. Photo: V. Ganesan

1a: Khajuraho

1b: Khajuraho

1c: Khajuraho

2c: May '68 - London Painting.

2a: Interior - London painting.

2b: Split - London painting.

3a: Collaboration Combines - Sailboat.

3b: Collaboration Combines - Boat.

4: House Boat.

5: Boat

6a: Container - RIN Mutiny.

6b: Archive Room - RIN mutiny.

7a: Trash - Prospect.

7b: Trash - Barricade with Red Beam.

8a: Long Night - Crash Site I.

8b: Long Night - False Perspective.

A retrospective on half a century of Vivan Sundaram’s work is held together by the metaphor of the interrupted journey, in which the artist is the traveller whose unscheduled halts explode the certitudes of history’s dominant narratives.

"A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order."

--Jean-Luc Godard

VIVAN SUNDARAM’S retrospective, “Step inside and you are no longer a stranger”, curated by Roobina Karode at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi, (from February 9 to July 15) is one of the finest retrospectives I have seen in a long time, both seen and heard. And here I refer not only to the immediately audible sounds, such as the testimonies of insurgent Royal Indian Navy (RIN) mutiny sailors, but also to the sounds that are inaudibly released from Sundaram’s drawings, paintings and sculpture installations. The deep and resonant foghorn announcing a lost ship that returns to visibility like a skipped heartbeat; the factory siren that seems so distant and yet so insistent; the fractured sounds of civilisations destroyed and excavated; the cryptic speech of a Holocaust survivor; the squishing sounds from a soldier’s rotting boot; the sound of a ship going to pieces; the nauseous smell of trashed soles, a smell so pungent it could be a high-pitched sound; and everywhere the sound of water sloshing in our ears—calm, plangent, mutinous, exilic, always and forever moving.

The spectator walks, in medias res as it were, into half a century of Sundaram’s work, which is staged transversely, the past hurtling athwart the present to look into a future that is already turning back to greet it. Since chronology is not an ordering principle here, the viewer realises that this retrospective is held together by the metaphor of the interrupted journey, which links works from diverse parts of the artist’s oeuvre. Far from being a smooth ride, this journey is unmade by the Godardian device of the jump cut. The artist is the musafir, a traveller, turning chance encounters into gifts of grace or conspiring with fellow travellers to rehearse the revolution or rewrite lost histories. The musafir is both history’s collaborator and a conspirator whose unscheduled halts explode the certitudes of history’s dominant narratives.

While we sense a profound melancholia in Sundaram’s work, there is no trace of postcolonial anxiety, no persistent feeling of having to battle the “spectre of comparisons” (Jose Rizal’s term, as translated by Benedict Anderson, about the double consciousness that plagues the vision of colonised subjectivity). Sundaram’s fluid engagement with transcultural encounters owes much to his family background. He is Sikh and Hungarian-Jewish on his maternal side (the legendary modernist Amrita Sher-Gil was his aunt), and his father, Kalyan Sundaram, an eminent bureaucrat of the Nehruvian era, was Tamil.

Sundaram’s capacious cosmopolitan vision springs also from his participation in the optimistic internationalism that inspired the young generations of the 1950s and 1960s, who were emerging from the shadows of colonialism, fascism and the Second World War that had defined their parents’ lives. This internationalism was powered by multiple factors: In western Europe, by a critique of parental silence or complicity in the fascist project. In the Third World, by the vibrancy of political and cultural decolonisation. In the United States, by a desire to complete the work of the Civil War in the matter of civil rights across race and gender lines, and by a strong opposition to the Vietnam War. In eastern Europe, by the desire to seek emancipation from the suffocations of Soviet control. These political currents peaked in the 1968 student revolt, which rippled across university campuses in the U.S., and in Paris, London, West Berlin, Mexico City, Warsaw and Belgrade. Sundaram, who was drawn to Marxist thought and praxis as a student at the Slade School of Art in late-1960s London, joined many of these demonstrations.


The title of the retrospective, “Step inside and you are no longer a stranger”, refers to Sundaram’s eponymous painting from his 1976 series “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (an allusion to the Luis Bunuel film). This invitational gesture signals to the viewer that she should shed her estrangement and inhibitions and enter the artist’s work and world. But the very fact that the viewer is asked to discard her presumed sense of distance and estrangement indicates that such an alienation exists in the first place. Let us examine three historically related yet distinctive accounts of alienation: the first, which sees it as a problem (the romantic-utopian strand within Left thinking); the second, which treats it as a shock methodology to transform passive recipients of the arts into participants in a revolutionary process of awareness (the playwright Bertolt Brecht, the French New Wave film-maker Jean-Luc Godard); and the third, which regards it as a pathway to liberation from normalised social and political conditioning (the anarchist David Graeber’s position).

In his 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (posthumously published in 1932), Karl Marx deploys the term Entfremdung, or “self-estrangement”, to describe a situation where the oppressiveness of social conditions isolates and estranges workers from their surroundings, from the products of their labour and from one another. In this account, alienation is cast as a problem—the cause of a rift between consciousness and materiality—that must be resolved and overcome.

As against this, in Brechtian theatre, the Verfremdungseffekt, or “alienation effect”, is an emancipatory strategy. It productively challenges the conventional norms of bourgeois theatre, turning a staging into an occasion for political conscientisation. By drawing attention to the dramaturgic machinery and the motives of the script, by punctuating the action with didactic reflection, Brechtian alienation destroys the “willing suspension of disbelief” that conventional theatre demands and disallows viewers from feeling empathy with the characters on stage. Brechtian alienation creates a disjuncture in the minds of viewers habituated to regard the status quo as unchangeable. Godard’s jump cuts, which similarly punctuate the smooth illusions of the narrative, are a tribute to Brecht’s “alienation effect”.

David Graeber, a key figure in the Occupy Wall Street movement, has offered the most recent account of alienation, one that engages the early Marx’s romantic-utopian position in dialogue. For Graeber, alienation can be a productive and enabling condition rather than a debilitating one, insofar as it connotes an individual’s critical self-separation from the naturalised assumptions and privileges of her class/caste/religion. This position opens up the way to refashioning of the self and the formation of emancipatory solidarities. This move has affinities with the project described in some branches of the Left tradition as “declassing” oneself—to become declasse.

I believe that Sundaram, by using the subjunctive “if x then y” formulation in his title, knowingly plays with these varied shades of alienation, all of which are part of his leftist inheritance: should you step inside, then you might cease to be a stranger; but if you remain outside, what would be the benefits of being a stranger?

Alienation, both in its debilitating and enabling aspects, can be a useful discursive tool. Let us see how it plays out in Sundaram’s early work, made when he was in his twenties: his Dadaist pop-cultural take on the Khajuraho sculptures (1966; images 1a, 1b, 1c), his painting referencing the barricades of the 1968 student revolt, and his compelling suite of drawings titled “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” (1972).

While the Khajuraho work may seem at first like overheated juvenilia, I think it could be read as a gesture of overcoming an alienation from the Indian past by tattooing it with contemporary pop-cultural traces. It is a wager on the question “What is Indian civilisation?”, parsed variously by Ananda Coomaraswamy, Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru and Gandhi. In Nehruvian India, which took dams and factories as its temples while simultaneously restoring India’s civilisational past, Sundaram’s missives from the University of Mars amount to a high-spirited shock pastiche.

With a similar suspicion of all authority, as an art student in London in 1968, Sundaram expressed solidarity with the baby boomers’ generation, whose members felt a profound alienation from their parents and from the reigning political establishment and its bourgeois values. He went from being a self-admittedly “apolitical” artist to becoming a member of an anarchist commune founded by his feminist landlady Hillary Rawlings at 154 Barnsbury Road, where he was sensitised to issues of race, class and gender. The commune hosted experimental theatre—the Bread and Puppet theatre, The Living Theatre—and feminist workshops. Amongst the communards was the West Indian Althea Jones, who would later join the Black Panthers and fight for the rights of black British people.

With his characteristic candour, Sundaram observes that the first time he joined a demonstration against American imperialism and the Vietnam War, he was “completely naive and quite terrified, but there was something in the air that said you could enter” and become a part of something larger than yourself. He was in the anti-Vietnam War demonstration where the British-Pakistani Trotskyite Tariq Ali and the actress Vanessa Redgrave marched to the U.S. embassy in Grosvenor Square. He landed in Berlin the day after the influential German student leader Rudi Dutschke was shot. He also joined his fellow students at the Slade in a protest against the Conservative MP Enoch Powell’s anti-immigration “rivers of blood” speech, making a poster that proclaimed: “We are all foreigners—Scum.”

In the painting “May ’68” (1968; image 2c), shown here for the first time in India, Sundaram follows his artist-mentor R.B. Kitaj, setting up a dynamic abstract-figurative montage with contending planes that produce optical disorientation or “agitation”. The signs of authority are turned on their head: a policeman’s helmet is hoisted on the barricade without its owner and a dismembered uniformed arm spits fire like a blowtorch. A lone figure—more a line drawing than a full-blown figure—maimed, but with a heart full of bloody squiggles, bears witness to this utopian moment when students marched in the name of a new and more equitable world.

As Sundaram admits, his London paintings from the 1960s (images 2a, 2b) “toed the line” of a Greenbergian formalism known for its stripes and colour-field painting. It was one of the dominant registers at the Slade School of Art. But his paintings of this period are not an empty reiteration of formalism. He was working through the contradiction of Greenbergian abstractionism on one side and Kitaj’s sophisticated Pop and Peter de Francia’s socialist-expressionist art on the other.

In “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” (1972), Sundaram, then 29 and fresh from his experience of agitational politics, moved away from his more hermetic abstractionist preferences to embrace the blood-quickening literature and shared political predicament of the Communist International. These extraordinary drawings, named after the celebrated Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s poem on the spectacular Inca ruins, teem with civilisational debris: orphan bricks and skeletons. But in them also the hand of the oppressed peasant rises triumphantly from layers of slavery to assert its agency. They carry a foreboding of what would become a turning point in Chilean history.

Neruda had campaigned for Salvador Allende, the leftist president who had inspired people all over the world with his Chilean Path to Socialism and his courageous stand against American imperialism. A year after Sundaram made the drawings, Allende’s government fell to a right-wing military coup engineered by General Augusto Pinochet. The haunting quality of the drawings acts like a premonition, gesturing towards the suspension of civil rights, the kidnappings and the murders that would characterise Pinochet’s dictatorship.

Sundaram first showed the Macchu Picchu drawings in colleges in Delhi and Bombay (now Mumbai). Like the Bombay-based artists Navjot and Altaf, he believed in exhibiting his work outside the hallowed confines of the white cube to a wider audience that felt alienated from the elitist art world. In 1973, in the pages of the magazine Vrishchik, the poet Adil Jussawalla expressed his disquiet that the Macchu Picchu works were preaching to the converted. He argued that experience exceeded ideology and that a conscious removal of bourgeois values from art would not automatically guarantee its wider reception. Reading Jussawalla with Sundaram’s retrospective in mind, we realise that the artist had long ago instinctively grasped the poet’s critique.

While he has resisted the bourgeois commodification of art, Sundaram has not tried to declass himself (not even in the 1970s, when artists like Altaf and Navjot attempted this by working in the slums and exhibiting their work in labour camps and mobile creches). Nor has he instrumentalised his art to fit a political agenda even as he traverses the minefield that is history. His work is veined with twinned yet contradictory impulses: romantic and conceptualist. His romantic impulse has enabled him to portray epic journeys in a grand yet grounded manner. His conceptualist impulse has allowed him to expand the language of art by using varied media and engaging with different audiences. Working in tandem, these impulses drive Sundaram’s formal innovations and generate deep reserves of affect in his art.


I come now to a fourth aspect of alienation. As I have already indicated, the title of Sundaram’s retrospective acknowledges a situation that has prevailed in art at least since the 1870s, when the canonical contract of taste linking the artist with the audience broke down. Today, artists and their audiences share a mutual alienation. As artists experiment with innovative forms and concepts, audiences struggle to keep up. This is the classic predicament of the avant-garde artist, whose relationship with her or his audience is adversarial, challenging, provocative. S/he breaks with viewers’ assumptions concerning the role of art and the artist, confounding the expectations of patrons, seeking new interlocutors beyond the cordon of taste, exploring new parameters of art making yet revisiting plural inheritances. Thus, paradoxical as it may seem, while the primary gesture of the avant-garde is rupture, there is also in it a desire to retrieve the past and course over earlier ground.

The ruptures in Sundaram’s practice, especially in his pioneering experiments in installation and video art in the 1990s, are evident. Take “Collaboration Combines” (1992; image 3a), where he broke away from the limitations of the two-dimensional painted surface to experiment with sculpture in the round and assemblage, stitching and shaping handmade paper into sailboats and oars. Or “House Boat” (1994), an installation where he used video for the first time, viscerally invoking the strain of dislocation and displacement. And yet we cannot ignore the charcoal markings on the paper sculptures of “Collaboration Combines” (image 3b), which asserted the classical medium of drawing. And the walls of “House Boat” (image 4) were covered with relief forms spelling implements of survival, bridging sculpture, drawing and video.

Sundaram’s art performs a series of disjunctures and conjoinings, ruptures and retrievals. The boat is his recurrent motif. The boat in his paintings falls apart, adopts a Carl Andre pathway—not a sculpture that you bump into but one that you can walk on and into (“Boat”, 1994; image 5). And, eventually, the boat becomes a shipping container holding the archive of the RIN mutiny (images 6a (container), 6b (archive)). The civilisational ruins of “Macchu Picchu” (1972) and the epic accretions of industrial and cyber waste in the “Trash” series (2008-09; images 7a, 7b) may differ widely in concept, media, format and mode of address; yet they wield a similar totemic power, for both are debris awaiting enchantment.


In a long-ago catalogue text, the film-maker Kumar Shahani wrote that Sundaram “shares confidences with history”. If history is the action of large, oppressive world-machines of colonialism, empire and neoliberalism, how does the artist constantly seek grounds of resistance against these? How does he articulate his resistance? In “Long Night” (1987-90; images 8a, 8b), an intensely spectral and melancholic charcoal series on the Holocaust—redolent of Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog (1956) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979)—we experience the transformation of the machine of Enlightenment into the monster of fascism. This relationship with history was seen to dramatic effect in Sundaram’s first mixed-media works; his series on the 1991 Gulf War was stained with burnt engine oil and charcoal. Famously described as the first war to be televised, this conflict was beamed into homes around the world more or less precisely in the American propaganda version, thanks to incipient satellite technology. As viewers of the televisual image, we were treated to a simulacrum of the Gulf War’s reality. And this simulacrum absolved us of any real responsibility or consequences. We might just as well have been watching a video game. As the philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote acerbically: “The Gulf War did not take place.”

Significantly, Sundaram did not use video, then a new medium in the Indian context, to make a work on the Gulf War. Nor did he scramble sound footage that could have been recorded off the television (as Wolf Vostell did in his pioneering 1963 video-art piece “Sun in Your Head”). Instead, he chose the traditional medium of drawing, but coupled it with a heterodox material like burnt engine oil, which, symbolically, reminded viewers of the real reason for the war. I would read Sundaram’s conscious choice of old media here as reinstating a Third World politics and articulating a solidarity with Iraq against the Allied invasion. The materiality of the work asserts the war’s hard, substantial reality. We are no longer staring at a CNN-mandated “virtual war” but are forcefully reminded of the damage done to people’s lives, relationships, resources and infrastructure.

Dazzlingly unpredictable, Sundaram moves between water and land, war and work, archive and performance. At the threshold of the retrospective, he rejigs Ramkinkar Baij’s 1956 sculpture “Mill Call”, transforming its Santhal women workers into cyborgs made from recycled materials. There they go, riding into the retrospective, or out of it, lighting up the sky with their LED-lit scissor-hands.

Nancy Adajania is a cultural theorist and curator based in Mumbai.

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