Archive Fever: Vivan Sundaram@SepiaEye

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday October 14, 2015

Delhi-based contemporary artist Vivan Sundaram, founding member of the Sahmat Collective is one of the leading artists working in India today. His work has recently been brought to wider audiences through an exhibition that originated last year at University of Chicago’s Smart Museum, and which recently closed its run at UCLA’s Fowler Museum.

Widely known for his social activism and engagement with trash as an aesthetic medium, the work he is most recently known for incorporates highly structured environments and inventive garments fabricated out of foam cups, surgical masks, x-ray-film, hospital bandages, and foil pill wrappings. Sundaram challenge the excesses of contemporary culture and questions the increasingly extravagant forms of consumerism that have emerged in the new globalized economy of India. 


Vivan Sundaram, Quartet (detail), from the series Re-Take of Amrita, 2001 

During the previous decade, Sundaram mined the family archive of photographs made by his grandfather, Umrao Sher Gil (1870-1954), who belonged to a wealthy family of landowners in the Punjab. From 1904 to the 1940s, he photographed his friends and family: his wife, a Hungarian opera singer, his two daughters and their cousin, and the young Vivan himself.

In a series titled Re-take of Amrita, Sundaram created a series of vivid photomontages, with Amrita, Gil’s daughter, the artist’s aunt, and a key figure in modern Indian painting, as the central subject. Trained in Florence and Paris, she was heavily inspired by Cézanne and Gauguin. Back in India in 1935, the traveled throughout the south of the country, painting, until her sudden death in 1941 at the age of 28.

In the catalogue for an exhibition of this work in Munich, in 2006, the curator writes, “Vivan Sundaram chooses particular moments and guides attention, via specific arrangements, to the hidden expressions in the found images of the family. Under his direction the protagonists give a second performance and go a step farther than was initially intended. 

“The effect that springs from the confrontation of female and male narcissism, the father's intense visual interest in his daughter, as well as the duplication of a figure, is increased here to a perturbing degree. Without expanding on the idea, Amrita herself once spoke of the ‘hothouse atmosphere’ that dominated her family life. In Re-take of Amrita it becomes obvious what she may have meant by this... The artificiality of his arrangements remains constantly present for the viewer. In this way, his position enters the works as a contemporary artist, who views this pathos at a distance since the ideas of home and abroad and of residing and traveling have been qualified as opposites for him.”


Three images from Sundaram’s Ajant Caves and Khajuraho Temples series, currently on view at SepiaEye Gallery

Sundaram is represented in New York by SepiaEye Gallery, where a body of work from his youthful days is currently on view in the group exhibition, I need my memories. They are my documents. In a series of images based on photographs from the Ajant Caves and Khajuraho Temples, the artist made black, inky drawings over the classical figures, with inscriptions that re-direct the male gaze in a way that imparts a high-low take on the oldest examples of India’s art traditions. In a sense, Sundaram has “re-taken” Indian classical art from its colonial captors, creating a contemporary statement about ownership and agency.

Work by Vivan Sundaram is on view through October 31 at SepiaEye Gallery, 547 West 27th Street, NY, NY. The exhibition catalogue for Re-take of Amrita (Sepia International and the Alkazi Collection 2006) is available.



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