Vivan Sundaram, 65, is deceptively mild-mannered and tentative. Camouflage for a formidable intelligence. In 1990, Sundaram moved away from painting to increasingly complex installations and mixed media forms of art — art that could not be easily digested or bought. It was his way of seceding from the market. Now, Sundaram, whose work has always had political overtones — responding to events as varied as the Gulf War, the Babri Masjid demolition and the Bombay riots — sits in an anteroom in his house in Delhi, discussing his latest project: Trash — a garbage city 60 feet long and 20 feet wide, an extension of his earlier work, living.it.out.in.delhi. Excerpts:
Why did you move away from painting to installations and other mediums of art? Was there a trigger for this complete shift in imagination?
Yes, I never used to like to foreground it, but now I think I should. March 1989, when Times of India celebrated 150 years — I mark that moment as when Sotheby’s came and had this auction of contemporary Indian art on a boat in Bombay and MF Husain sold for Rs 10 lakhs. I had done a pretty crappy painting called Bombay Painting, and yet some famous woman called Nina Pillai (laughs) came in and paid several times the asking price of Rs. 50,000 and so my painting sold for Rs. 2.1 lakhs. I am foregrounding this because towards the end of the 1980s, I was already feeling a sense of unease. I felt I had worked through a perspective, of trying to translate what I wanted to say through the act of painting.
In the 1990s, so many things were shifting globally: there was the collapse of the Soviet Union; the arrival of globalised capitalism; the arrival of the electronic media. And I thought the moment has come. Yet, why are we artists restricting ourselves just to painting and straight conventional structures? Why aren’t people changing? So when Shireen Gandhy came to me and said, your next five paintings are booked, I said — what does that mean? I don’t sell paintings that I haven’t even made yet. So, to some extent, it was both a wish to explore new mediums and a sort of ideological thing to pull out of the market because it was starting to name itself like that. Now, 18 years down the line, you don’t need me to tell you how all of that has played out. You have investment funds today that spend one billion dollars a year on art.
Did the shift away from painting give you what you were looking for?
Yes. You know, back in 1986, I went to the Asia Pacific Triennale and there were artists from China and Thailand who were all doing what people like to call experimental work, and there were we — still on the stodgy path of painting and structure. I kept feeling, why wasn’t there a more radical intervention in art-making practice in India? My own work began to move out of the picture frame. Next came quasi assemblages that involved working with assistants and critiqued the notion of the artist as an author, then moved on to the use of the found object — the Duchampian position that things in the world are out there and it’s how you pick them up and reposition them that gives them new meaning. Marcel Duchamp has, in many ways, been more important than Picasso for a whole generation of artists. From there I kept examining other strategies in art — using photography, video, installation. Since 1992, I realise I have been making work through which I can more powerfully say something about a historical moment or crisis. I can more powerfully speak of something in the present. Husain had flirted with it earlier — putting up newspapers in JehangirArtGallery for one of his shows but this was taking it further, and in a more deliberate way. I came just at the moment when the market was naming itself with a capital M and you had young people positioning themselves critically against that in Bangalore and Baroda, trying things other than paintings that would fetch good prices.