Outfits from Vivan Sundaram’s “GAGAWAKA: Making Strange,” 2011.


For veteran installation artist Vivan Sundaram, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. His latest show, “GAGAWAKA: Making Strange” at Lalit Kala Akademi in Delhi, argues Sundaram’s case with forty-five elaborate “wearable sculptures” made in collaboration with designer Pratima Pandey. “GAGAWAKA” is on view December 21–27.

THE PHRASE “MAKING STRANGE” is a quote from Bertolt Brecht, which alludes to distanciation and alienation in contemporary times. But I think my title works even if you don’t know that reference: I use ordinary, everyday materials––plastic cups, sanitary napkins, bras––to make unusual garments. I am literally making the familiar strange. Obviously, the title is also a play on pop culture: “Gagawaka” nods to Lady Gaga and the FIFA World Cup song “Waka Waka.” Sure, it’s Dada-esque but it is also connected to fashion, since the title sounds like a brand name. The invitation to this exhibition clearly indicates this: I say “GAGAWAKA presents . . . ” as if it were a company doing the presenting rather than me. Fashion is a commodity, but these are sculptural garments, so they cannot be commodified in the same way. They were produced to be looked at––and maybe to be worn once in a while. They maintain a tension between art and design, evoking multidisciplinary elements that are central to my practice.

Notions of recycling, skill, craft, and the Duchampian readymade have always interested me. In the 2008 mixed-media installation Trash, for example, I dealt with the underbelly of the urban, which is continuously being destroyed and marginalized in “New India.” Yet despite this assault by so-called city development, the city re-creates itself. Delhi is the metropolis of the twenty-first century––Calcutta and Bombay were the cities of the nineteenth and twentieth century. But what happens to those who live outside the developmental agency of capitalism and power? In “GAGAWAKA,” I reuse trash by making garments out of objects that people usually throw away.

On December 18, a fashion show in the gallery displayed thirty garments during an hour-long program for 225 invited guests. Santanu Bose, who teaches at the National School of Drama in Delhi, directed it. The show involved dancers, models, and performers walking on a ramp eighty feet in length and seven feet in width. Since this was a narrow area for the performance to occupy, the audience felt like they were part of the experience. A private performance also took place in the gallery with my works from the past twenty years placed on a hundred-foot-long “wall.” From 1998’s House/Boat, for instance, I reused the boat, which is now very fragile, while parts of the prow from 1996’s Carrier appeared too. The rubber flooring from 2004’s New New Delhi, an installation of a bed and a room, was also included. Yet only very observant viewers recognized them. Of course, in that context, my previous installations weren’t the same anymore––they were transformed into props.

When the show opens on December 21, the “wall” will have been dismantled and the works will be interspersed with the garments. Visitors will hopefully wonder where “fashion” ends and “art” begins. In India, there is little discussion about this overlap. But elsewhere fashion is entering a new phase. Alexander McQueen’s retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum in New York this year attracted large crowds. Why? I find the idea that garments can be bought to be collected, rather than to be worn, intriguing. It means they can be seen in the same context as art objects––the museum. Perhaps collectors used to think that clothes were too fragile to buy. But these days, art is fragile too. McQueen’s seashell constructions remind me of Arte Povera works made from perishable materials and fabric. McQueen was a master craftsman; I don’t have his skills, but I think that my “moving sculptures” are both monumental and fragile at the same time––like a dress made out of paper cups or a flowing assemblage of two hundred red bras, beautifully stitched with lace. It is mad, but so spectacular!

— As told to Zehra Jumabhoy