The everyday in `New New Delhi'

Print edition : May 07, 2004

In `Room With A View', each of the five interlocking `rooms' is taken over by different individuals. -

On `Room With A View', a participative installation project aimed at expressing the multiple meanings of urban space and art practice.

"No one, wise Kublai, knows better than you that the city must never be confused with the words that describe it. And yet between the one and the other there is a connection."

- Italo Calvino, in Invisible Cities.

DELHI lives in several cities at once, just as an artist inhabits several mindscapes. Right at this moment, however, both the city and contemporary art practice have been through seismic shifts. "Room With A View", artist Vivan Sundaram's latest installation project, takes the viewer right into the heart of the beast that is "New New Delhi".

While it is difficult to straitjacket the form, installation art includes multi-media, multi-dimensional and multi-form works that are created temporarily for a particular space or site either outdoors or indoors, in a museum or a gallery. "Room With A View" is a piece of art you can look at, hear, feel and even walk through. A participative project, each of the five interlocking "rooms" is taken over by different individuals to express the multiple realities of urban space and art practice. Each of these fragments is a clutch on the city.

The section dedicated to Chintan, an organisation that works with rag-pickers, is a reminder of the underside of the city that sustains the other urban visions. A naked light-bulb and a sputtering motor underscore the point.-

The first section, inspired by architect Romi Khosla, is a tribute to the dream life of the city. With a soft-padded floor, floating Buddhas and an insouciantly levitating French mattress, the space is both a meditation on utopian visions of the urban, and also a dig at "Delhi being perceived as a planned garden city", says Sundaram.

New New Delhi is a city on the bleeding edge of change, as global commerce and communications rewrite our social contracts. The next section featuring the Raqs media collective takes a look at this transformation, unpeeling the invisible cities that lie beneath the official metropolis. A small TV screen blaring English lessons, placed on top of a shaky, tinny ladder invites us to look at the new world spawned by the call centre explosion in the city, the newfound social mobility and the way we transact with a global culture. The prison-like wall mimics that call-centre ethos, with cubicles painted in a black and white grid-gone-crazy.

Right next to this is the space devoted to the artist-photographer Ram Rehman that points to a whole new kind of social fluidity. As a global artist, Rehman straddles two worlds, splitting his time between New York and India. His political affiliations also place him in an international creative community and this section, scattered with postcards and pamphlets, naturally blends the personal and the political sides to him.

The wall is dominated by a collage of photographs, much like the Page Three phenomenon of society pictures. Except, it is not. This collection busts the cosy "people like us" logic of social groups, as the groups of artists and intellectuals jostle with full frontal portraits of scruffy, decidedly working-class young men. Photography has always been fascinated by social heights and social depths, writes Susan Sontag. Here, instead of the photographing of other class realities, "that gentlest of predations", the collage offers the mixed-up worldview of a homosexual, eclectic and un-pinnable artist.

A close-up of architect Romi Khosla's installation, which is a tribute to the dream life of the city.-

We then move to the startling space reserved for the artist couple Manmeet and Shantanu Lodh. Much like the city sidewalk at night, this is when the lurid, the transgressive, takes over - an assortment of photographs that play with the body, literally deflating and inflating the human form, are casually displayed on the floor. On the facing wall, there is a photograph of Shantanu blowing breath into a pair of bloody lungs, and another one, only half-rolled down, showing us a glimpse of the same scene. Interestingly, this section is separated from the previous adjoining spaces, all of which link into each other in some form or the other - just as some borders bleed more easily into others in this emerging global city. For example, Ram Rehman's section featured a tiny dark room with a peephole that let in the outside world.

The last section is cut off from the rest by small stones. It is dedicated to Chintan, an organisation that works with rag-pickers, and is a reminder of the unlovely underside of the city that sustains the other urban visions. (Delhi? New Delhi? New New Delhi? It's the same difference, seen from here.) A naked light-bulb and a sputtering motor underscore the point. While Romi Khosla's room at the other end almost seeks to ascend into pure spirit, a collection of dusty shoe-soles tethers this space to grim reality. On the edge that is a stark square of light, a point from where you contemplate the squalor just like the bright lights of a big city, ironically enough, actually obscure its dark details.

From the floating French mattress to the ugly rubber tyre, nothing urban is alien to Sundaram's exhibition. "Everything's got a moral, if you can find it," said the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland. Merging other artists' work into the installation and curating the show himself, Vivan Sundaram has repeatedly punctured the idea of authorship and intention, since the meaning made in people's heads is as valid as the stated project. As such, "Room With A View" is a witty and layered show, and a unique invitation to decode the everyday in New New Delhi.

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