Vivan sundaram has seen it all. “Back in 1989, at one of the first ever auctions of Indian art, a Husain sold for a sum of 10 lakh rupees.” he remembers. “Today, the same would sell for a few crores.” But capitalism and its “exceptional energies” have not stopped Sundaram from doing what he believes in.
This month, his new exhibition TRASH will be on show simultaneously in New Delhi and New York. TRASH is a groundbreaking show whose centerpiece is a miniature city that’s 20 ft long and 6 ft wide. Sundaram constructed it in his studio over a period of two months. The primary material used in this installation is, as the name suggests, waste that the artist bought from kabadiwallahs in Delhi.
The exhibition does not include the actual installation. Instead, there are photographs and videos that document this ‘fantastic model’. One senses a tinge of disappointment as he says, “Abroad, galleries are eager to set aside entire halls where an installation can first be constructed and then be displayed. But here, there is a lack of space. Imagine installing a city of waste in the middle of Rabindra Bhavan.”
Why waste? In the 90s Sundaram first discovered Chintan, an NGO working for the welfare of ragpickers. In them, he found an “organising principle” through which the “self created filth” that stands for “chaos and anarchy”, began to take on a whole spectrum of sociological meanings in his understanding of urban areas. Sundaram believes that our personal experiences of the city are partial in many ways and this is where the artist can “provide with the something else”.
But at the same time, he emphasises that the exhibit is not just a social message about poverty and consumption. “It starts there, I agree. But then it moves on to deeper cognitive levels of perception. It is a grand metaphor of urbanity.” Unlike his earlier exhibitions — New Delhi: Room With A Bed (2003) and living.it.out.in.delhi (2005) — the latest is not Delhi-centric in its treatment, but the city continues to remain close to his heart. Delhi, he believes, is distinct from other “urban complexes” like Kolkata and Mumbai. “It seems to have leapfrogged industrialisation to enter directly into a post-industrial stage.”
The recent upsurge in the Indian art market and the rising trend to invest in art does not trouble Sundaram. He sees it as having encouraged full-time young artists who are more than ready “to sit in their studios all day and paint”. But he adds a word of caution: “Today, the commodity is already packaged before it actually becomes one that is sold in the market. “This is our Derby Horse”, the galleries seem to be saying for their artists. “And we’re going to take it to the end.””
Sundaram seems to be content standing on the periphery of the Great Indian Art Rush. He is most comfortable doing what he feels an artist is meant to do: to enrich the experience and to provoke thought in those who come to see art.
Nothing less. Nothing more.