Deploying urban detritus, Vivan Sundaram constructs a counter narrative that is a striking indictment of global consumption. Trash, his exhibition of installations, photos and videos, is on at the Walsh Gallery, Chicago, till January 2009.
Trash – A multimedia exhibition of installations, photographs and videos by Vivan Sundaram at Sepia, 148 West 24th street, 11th floor, New York, NY 10011; Tel: 212 – 6459444. www.sepia.org
I suggest that the urban middle and upper class, rather than turn away from the garbage they generate, must face the reality of the urbanscape and the people, outside of their gated colonies. In these very large photographs there are dense urban conglomerations, with uneasy prospects and unsettling perspectives. The scale of the spatial is not easily defined and these fragile structures are exposed to the constant possibility of being demolished.
In his current exhibition “Trash”, Vivan Sundaram has developed a theme that has engaged him since 1997. “Trash” explores the social implications and aesthetics of urban waste, second-hand goods and global consumption. The art ists’ deployment of urban detritus, constructs a counter narrative to create a striking indictment of consumption. The exhibition spanned two floors and included 15 large-scale photographs (some as large as 60” x 40”) made over the last two years; a large-scale installation, “12 Bed Ward”; and videos. This is the artist’s second solo exhibition at SEPIA since 2006.
In “Trash”, an abiding locale is no longer possible in the world of Vivan Sundaram’s art which, the narratives he introduces us into, articulates so fundamental a dislocation as to assault not only one’s memory of what once was, but how logical and possible, how close and yet so distant from the original abode, this new elaboration of familiar “things” and “objects” really is.
Strange and familiar
Familiarity and strangeness are locked together in the oddest way, adjacent and irreconcilable at the same time. For, not only does one feel that one cannot return to the way things were, but there also is a sense of just how acceptable and “normal” these oddly distorted objects have become, just because they remain very close to what they have left behind. The arrangement of objects is done at an obsessive level of detail where the beds still look like beds, for instance, and the digital prints with recycled plastic bottles, plastic bags, tin cans, wrinkled bottle covers, hardware accessories, mattresses, barbed wire, coils, in the work “Barricade” “Prospect” and “Master Plan”, most definitely resemble what they actually were: it is just that the bed’s springs are unusably bare, or that the assemblage of recycled material in certain prints leans forward as if it is about to tip over (or, in certain instances, creates a depth within the field, even teasing the viewer to a vanishing point perspective), while its other parts (cardboard cartons, plywood and rotting boards, the rusting and glassless shells of cars) have been transformed into a series of menacing and radically inhospitable objects whose new and presumably non-domestic use is waiting to be defined. They are unredeemed things whose distortions cannot be sent back for correction or reworking, since the old address is unreachably there and yet has been annulled.
In “12 Bed Ward”, there are beds without a mattress and have old soles of shoes/ slippers that are strung together by wire and string; it is designed to recall and disturb at the same time. Whatever else this room may be, it is certainly not meant to be lived in, although it seems deliberately, and perhaps even perversely to insist that it once was intended for that purpose: a home, or a place where one might have felt in place, at ease and at rest… but today we find a huge grid of bare metal beds with rubber soles, multiplied and illuminated by naked bulbs — so as to even banish the idea of rest, much less actual sleep.
In Vivan Sundaram’s relentless catalogue of disaffected, dislocated, oddly deformed objects, there is a similar sense of focusing on what is there without expressing much interest in the ambition to rescue the object from its strangeness or, more importantly, trying to forget or shake off the memory of how nice it once was. On the contrary, its essential niceness — say, the beds with soles, or the heaps of recycled material pushed together to form a continuous surface onto which a map is drawn with a red beam or duct tape girders, PVC tubing and rough concrete brick — sticks out as a refractory part of the dislocation. A putative value is eerily retained in the new dispensation, but no instructions, no “how-to” directions are provided: memory keeps insisting that these objects were once known to us, but somehow are not any more, even though memory clings to them relentlessly. Sundaram has created a secular world, unpardoned, and curiously unforgiving, stable, down-to-earth. Where “objecthood” is dug in without a key to help us understand or open what seems to be locked in there.
“Turning”, a single projection video included in Sundaram’s “Trash”, was shot in the artist’s studio, in Delhi’s Aya Nagar, using as its set an assemblage constructed entirely from urban garbage. This work was done in collaboration with Chintan, an NGO that works to organise and advocate for Delhi’s trash collectors. Sundaram first cleaned and sorted thousands of pieces of refuse. He then used them to build a visual narrative — which he then photographed using digital means, from multiple angles, to create a densely compressed, collaged images with immaculate precision, varying in scale and skewed perspectives, which resonate the aerial surveillance images of urban landscapes.
The small spaces and corridors of the Sepia Gallery allow a phenomenological encounter where each work you come or chance upon, as though one was looking at a fantastical cityscape or a map where the cities cover unexpected terrains that are at one level dialogic and at another, reiterates the process of recycling. Sundaram successfully achieves this through manipulations of scale and context which are ordered within a rigorous aesthetic — placing his work prominently on the broader stage of international contemporary practice.
Two other video installations, “The Brief Ascension of Marian Hussain” (single projection) and “Tracking” (two-channel), focuses on another studio set created to reveal the artist’s dismantled sculptures, artifacts and a countering poetic in the figure of Marian Hussain — a teenage rag picker associated with the Chintan Environmental Action and Research Group based in New Delhi.
This exhibition will continue at the Walsh Gallery in Chicago from December 2008 until January 2009.
Sasha Altaf is an art critic based
in Florida, U.S.
7 months ago