International artist Vivan Sundaram explores oil, war; voyages, media and memory
By Sourayan Mookerjea

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Vivan Sundaram was born in Shimla, India in 1943. He graduated with degrees in Fine Arts from the University of Baroda, a focal point of Indian Modernism. He subsequently studied at the Slade School in London. He is the founding member of SAHMAT (Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust) and a member of the Design Collective for Hum Sab Ayodhya a major national art exhibition celebrating India's secular and democratic traditions. He recently exhibited at the Oboro in Montreal and was Artist in Residence at the Western Front in October 1994. Vivan Sundaram lives and works in New Delhi.

1 Engine Oil / Oil Film / War Shot

Vivan: In this series of works I used charcoal and used engine oil but there is some colour in them as well. They were done in 1991. It was my response to the Gulf War.

Sourayan: The work we are looking at is called Approaching 100,000 Sorties.

Vivan: Yes. Much of the work in this series tries to produce a feeling of looking at a landscape from great heights. It was a war from the air, but the world watching it on TV got a very strange sense of the intensity of the American bomb runs. What we were given to see was a depthless image, a low definition image quite unlike anything else before.

Sourayan: We were given the numbers of sorties, fascinating images of airplanes, a grandiose rhetoric of logistical complexity mastered by a civilizational competence.

Vivan: It seemed extremely important to me to be able to register that there was something really there being totally reduced to dust and death, that the bombs were falling not only on the name of a dictator but on a land, a people, a history, a very beautiful civilization. So I used the engine oil as both a metaphor, because it was a war about securing access to oil, and then also the aspect of an oil stain which spoils the surface of the land completely. I mean here the oil spills from both sides, the burning of wells and the dropping of bombs that burned the landscape and destroyed the bodies in it. So the drawings have many kinds of references: to place, Mesopotamia, to ancient history, the Arcadian civilization. I use both proper names like 'Babylon' and common names like 'soldier' in the titles to fix this order of reference.

Sourayan: And the tray of oil placed literally on the foreground of this drawing? As if it holds what the drawing leaks or bleeds.

Vivan: And so it extends the frame of the drawing as well. They are little zinc trays of engine oil, in front of Approaching 100,000 Sorties and several of the other drawings in the series. The images have a particular quality seen at a distance. As one approaches closer, one's gaze is held by different shapes and volumes as various relations of foreground and background suggest themselves until one reaches a point where one sees one's reflection in it. You find you have somehow entered into what you were looking at, off in the distance. Somebody told me that Hitler used to have these little zinc trays which held models for playing war games with, so there's that association as well.

Sourayan: I'd like to ask you about that sense of being suspended high above, looking down a great distance.

Vivan: I think it's partly to do with having been born in Shimla, and I now have a place in a small hill station called Kesole.

Sourayan: In the Himalayas?

Vivan: Yes. It looks down over Chandigarh and so over the whole plain of the Punjab. It's a spectacular 6000 foot drop. So, that aspect of an aerial view was very powerfully there to be drawn upon.

Sourayan: You mentioned earlier on that you are interested in the particular visibility of the war, the war's use of specific visibilities and images. As you said, the war was waged at a distance and there has been a lot of discussion about the war being televised as entertainment. Now, of course painting itself is about visibility. How would you describe your investigation of that visibility of the war? What is the relationship of this one kind visibility to the other? You would surely want to distinguish the aesthetic pleasure that a mountain panorama gives us from the kind of visibility the war produced, even if you want to say those images were entertainment and they were very capable of producing a rush of exhilaration. Your drawings seem to me to take one's gaze to some place in between.

Vivan: That sort of panoramic overview from the mountain top, that's the nature of space, the nature of landscape that informs the framing. It includes a wide angle view. But in these works my attempt was to layer multiple views entering within the same frame. This has kind of been a preoccupation in my paintings and then it's been more strongly figurative before, with a narrative element in it as well. I did a series of charcoal drawings after visiting Poland and Auschwitz in 1987. Now, the drawings in this series were all far removed in every sense from my experiences, but what I was after there was the way the landscape has been just simply given body. There is much more a sense of a physical experience of things and materials underlying the landscapes, so they were fairly abstract. There were no actual figures in them. But you got a strong sense of a quality of suffering which itself has a long history of representation which comes right up to the Vietnam war. The Vietnam war produced those very powerful images of soldiers out in an absolutely horrifying situation which, as you know, played such a significant role in mobilizing the anti-war movements around the world. That televisual visibility involved a kind of detailed look, close up, at sheer, absolute destruction and human anguish and, in doing so, continued some of the visual ideology of the photograph, but I think also of the celluloid of film. So, as a method of documenting, television, was much more filmic then the journalists, for one thing, did not have video cameras, they took a film maker with them. So the quality of the image, the kind of depth relationship that it produced, was very different from what we were given to see this time in the Gulf War. We were given information and an endless surface of 'pool' videotape to look at and it was organized to be a subliminal message. But the actual description of a reality we could understand, the reality of the destruction of realities was never presented. Journalists couldn't even show you soldiers of the other side being killed. Unlike the photograph of that young girl running down a road in Vietnam, a good photograph that emotionally affected a lot of people and that could be remembered vividly, these images were like how anaesthetics can produce a euphoric feeling. CNN had come into India by satellite and was being broadcast. And, after watching for a while, I realized that there was a whole kind of slippage to the low definition video image that was being exploited. I thought, well let me accept that this is the nature of the information I'm getting. So let me start with that and then see how can I intervene.

Sourayan: So the memory of other kinds visibilities was layered onto that surface?

Vivan: Other visibilities and also what would again be an imaginary construction. That, after all, is what this really diffused thing you're getting is. I could only work at it at in a playful sort of manner, but hoping that in play somewhere, something would appear to not concretize the dead, but just simply place them. So, it's in this playing that certain figures turn up in Mesopotamian Drawing II. There is obviously a dead man, a soldier, he has come home, a tree, his wife, his child, a camel. But, almost as if the child will not mourn but sort of rise onto the back of the camel and be the imaginary new warrior that will resist. But again, one cannot experience directly the suffering invoked, because there are no direct images for it. And so I want, in a very simple narrative way, just to say yes to this, to what you're not seeing and maybe through this mirage there will emerge some referent to some people who died. And there were tens of thousands of them. As you go through the sixty works, these sorts of images would come up and they would reach further back in terms of memory and history and invoke the living civilization of a place and people against a war and its technology of sight which attempts to destroy not only the present, but even the past.

Sourayan: The knowledge of Iraqi society and culture will be very different in India, where you are drawing these, than here. For us, Iraq is in many ways just another character on a TV show, we know nothing of its history. So it's just a something that came along, just like how TV brings you something new every season.

Vivan: And suddenly we have an evil character: Saddam Hussein who was, as you know, sort of produced as a comic book demon. It was a place where people lived that was being bombed, it wasn't just some desert anywhere. But there's also another factor to this, I had been to Baghdad two years before, in 1987.

2 Material Voyage

Sourayan: So, you had personal memories to draw images from?

Vivan: Personal memories and images of a big international art exhibition. They invited artists from all over the world, directly, not by invitations brokered bureaucratically through consulates and government agencies. But the main difference between India and the West, which was very interesting, was that in India the public did not take the pro-American stance on this. Also, for the first time you saw Muslim youth coming out into the streets all over India, and the rest of the people watching all this did not go into a panic about religious riots or communal threats. Here Saddam was a hero to them but their demonstrations also helped to mobilize the Indian people against the war. This was sort of watched and generally the masses of people understood that, whatever else Saddam Hussein is, this was a man from the third world and this was a country in the third world that was being destroyed. Demonstrations in support of Saddam Hussein were understood to be anti-imperialist and anti-American before being Islamic chauvinism. So there was this other sympathetic popular context for my work.

Vivan: What I do is either pour the oil or apply it with a brush. This is used engine oil. It's been burnt in your motor, when you clean your engine out this is the dirty oil you throw out. So, here I drip the oil and then take this print. When the oil is thick it just sits on the surface of this hand-made paper so it takes half an hour to an hour to start soaking in. I would drip it and then I would take a print. As you can see, one would be darker and one would be lighter. And then from there I'd start drawing something. As I said, working with this used engine oil allowed me a new kind of freedom because I would, you know, sometimes just clean my hands on a piece of paper and then be able to use that later or I would drip the oil on the paper and allow it to take shapes more self-consciously. So the technique involves working on flat paper in just the way in which many artists have done for a long time now, like Jackson Pollock. I found that if I put two or three layers on with a brush, by letting it soak through before brushing more on and by just leaving the oil soaking for a longer time, I could get a whole range of tones. And then once it had soaked through, I found I could easily draw on it because it becomes absolutely matt. The charcoal can receive it as well, so when you do the drawing you can put the oil on it. So you've got this whole aspect of playing with these materials. The used engine oil is burnt and charcoal is also made by burning wood. So both the materials used involve burning. But the oil, unlike the charcoal, has no associations in terms of art. So it's not like using Chinese ink or watercolour which have long traditions of practice in the history of art. So there is a neutrality of the stains and marks with regard to the institution of art which gave me another freedom to inscribe an image on.

Sourayan: I understand what you are saying about the oil being a non-traditional art material. Since one kind of reference you're trying to recover has to do with a historical event, what significance does the use of a non-traditional art material have for your attempt to bring a historical event into the frame, into the expanded frame?

Vivan: Yeah, yeah. The idea is, first of all, there is a strong aspect of topicality that I like to begin with. How I came to decide to use this burnt oil is difficult to say, but I did then connect it thematically. At a very physical level, I was using the very material that the war was about. So it's a material and then it becomes a metaphor.

Sourayan: Because it is a new material to art some of the freedom is just from investigating what it can do, what it can't do.

Vivan: Yes. Because it's thick and oily and you just drip it, and it's on the floor and on the paper and then a stain forms, you know, spontaneously, like a free thing. These are not images but, precisely, forms and then, from those forms you sort of discover that this one could be a face, just like in a Rorschach test; you place it and you find out what's there.

3 Memorial:
'one of those figures then died'

"In all my work I just start with something very concrete, something specific or something topical and then it moves into almost something that you would not be able to place back at that point from where it began to develop into an abstraction."
—Vivan Sundaram

Some of Vivan Sundaram's specific, topical points of departure for paths of transformation and abstraction have been the State of Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi in 1975 and the Gulf War in 1990-91. Perhaps this attention to contemporary events testifies most readily to the radical political engagement characteristic of Sundaram's work. Perhaps these 'referents' are held onto even more because of the force with which the most significant moments of the metropolitan modernist avant-garde (including the moment of its supercession and repudiation by the postmodern) animates Sundaram's reworking of Indian iconographic and painting traditions. This appropriation and re-structuring of metropolitan representational problems may well be evidence of the very cosmopolitanism which Antonio Gramsci took to be the sign of an intellectual alienated from the cultural traditions of his or her people. And indeed, Sundaram's art is as alien from the cultural vocabulary of India's proletariat and peasant masses (whom we in the West know only as "the poor") as it is from our stereotypes of third world art (either native craft or oriental classicism). Before one uses this fact to judge either Sundaram's art or politics, however, one has to come to terms with the context in which it is elaborated. In as much as alienation is a structural reality of all spheres of Indian society, the fact that Sundaram's work does not speak directly to the masses does not mean very much. His public, rather, would seem to be the political and intellectual institutions and cultural traditions of the Indian Left itself. In Canada, where the Left, as is characteristic of the First World, is much weaker and more dispossessed the only similar situation which can be compared to Sundaram's location would be that of a feminist intellectual who, out of practical political need, has to specialize in law or biotechnology or public policy. Sundaram's art practice proceeds along this edge between the eclipse of one historical figure of the artist and the emergence of cultural workers who are obliged to track and investigate material processes newly at work in the world and take voyages into their historical depths.

The installation Memorial opened at the AIFACS Galleries in New Delhi almost exactly a year after a 16th century mosque in the northern provincial town of Ayodhya, the Babri Masjid, was destroyed by cadres from political and cultural organizations of fundamentalist Hindu nationalism. In recent years, the Indian middle classes have been looking for people to blame for their relatively restricted access to the pleasures of consumerism in comparison with other middle classes around the world. Consequently, they had begun to affirm in evergrowing numbers, the myth of a purified and potent Hindu India uncontaminated by foreigners. Led by the Bharatiya Janata Party and other organizations which bear chilling resemblances to European Fascism with regard to their nationalist ideology, vicious rhetoric, state-capitalist economic policy and their contempt for democratic institutions and processes, and spectacular processions appealing to Hindu pride demonised and scapegoated India's mostly poor Muslim minority during regularly staged pilgrimages to holy sites across the country. By the time the Babri Masjid was destroyed on December 6th, 1992 (because, the fundamentalists claimed, it was built over the Hindu god Ram's birthplace) several thousands had already been killed in violent clashes. After December 6th, brutal pogroms were carried out against the Muslim minority community. Several thousands were murdered, women were raped, and whole neighbourhoods burnt to the ground. This is the violent background to Vivan's Sundaram's installation Memorial which is a meditation on the events of that dark year in which India's progressive, secular political and cultural traditions seemed to have been completely swept off the public stage and Hindu Fundamentalism seemed poised to become a mass political movement beyond its specifically middle class appeal.

Indeed, the spaces in which the public gathers is itself one of the primary objects of Sundaram's meditation here. One enters the installation through a set of large, cold, crowd control gates. Sundaram's installations have always been interested in exploring the distances and intimacies between the concreteness of bodily experience and the gaze's powers of abstraction. As one moves through these gates one's eyes are immediately drawn to the surface of a strange, tent-like structure bearing an image quoting the Utopian promise of Russian Constructivism. Beyond it, another structure captures attention, another gate, this time something that looks like a well known national monument, the India Gate in Delhi (made with coffins? trunks? piled on each other). A path made of paving stones takes you from where you are to both structures. As one approaches the painted tent thing, one realizes its sides are glass windows and inside a plaster human figure lies curled on its side. It is a mausoleum. But not for the body of a national leader lying perpetually in State, cosmetically dignified. Rather for the anonymous human figure in whose name Constructivism claimed to be able to see the future. We are then occupied by the several glass display cases mounted on floor stands and on the walls surrounding us. Now we encounter the work of transformation which Sundaram undertakes, the work of transformation that is meditation and memorial. The gutter of blood that crosses the paved path between the mausoleum and the India Gate is only one aspect of reality missing from the Times of India photograph of a riot victim. Sundaram tries to inscribe and construct it into an image that would have the density and weight of memory. In each of the glass cases the ephemeral photograph is subjected to a work of mourning, enshrouding and burial which would hold onto it (Sundaram drives nails through it, piles nails on it) against the flow of media images. Repeating this one particular image, just as the newspaper repeats this type of image, Sundaram's work proceeds on its voyage between the singularity of this man's life closed by his needless death and the abstract forces which shape our experiences and histories.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Vivan Sundaram
Vivan Sundaram is the founding member of SAHMAT (Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust) and a member of the Design Collective for Hum Sob Ayodhya a major national art exhibition celebrating India's secular and democratic traditions.
Sourayan Mookerjea
Sourayan Mookerjea was a member of the team which organised The Spectacular State: Fascism And The Modern Imagination, a multi-media, multi-site exhibition/forum held in Vancouver in the Spring of 1995.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Britannia Art Gallery
Britannia Art Gallery
Bookhug Press
Bookhug Press
Plantation Memories
Plantation Memories
Alternator Centre