Vivan Sundaram

Project 88/Chemould Prescott Road

For some, India’s cities are tomorrow’s miracles. “India Shining,” boast government slogans; “Mumbai will be another Shanghai,” promise others. The veteran Delhi-based artist Vivan Sundaram, however, rubbished the idea that India’s rapid urbanization is an unmitigated blessing with his recent solo show “Trash.” The exhibition of installations, videos, and photographs featured so-called urban refuse—empty bottles, discolored plastic bags, broken toys, crumpled newspapers, and so on—and overran two chic galleries, Project 88 and Chemould Prescott Road. As anthropologist Mary Douglas famously put it, “Dirt is matter out of place,” and Sundaram has analyzed the nature of such displacements. He upended our usual definitions of waste by using it to produce magical, if melancholy, moments.

Sundaram’s art is concerned with the hidden underbelly of India’s globalizing economy. “Trash” was put together in collaboration with the NGO Chintan: Environmental Action and Research Group. Marian Hussain, a fifteen-year-old boy who is one of the ragpickers that Chintan seeks to help and represent, stars in The Brief Ascension of Marian Hussain, 2005, a single-channel video projected at Chemould. The teenager lies down on a mat perched on a garbage heap. In a sudden balletic move, he leaps out of his filthy resting place, only to drop back onto it. The looped video endlessly repeats this pattern of flight and plummeting; its mock-religious title serves as a metaphor for the aspirations of rural migrants who come to cities like Delhi, hoping to better themselves.

The catalogue for “Trash” proudly points out that Sundaram, born in 1943, was one of the first Indian artists of his generation to switch from painting to installation art in the 1990s. It is certainly true that his work shares much with that of younger artist-activists like Sharmila Samant. Samant’s A Handmade Saree, 1999, for example, consists of discarded Coca-Cola bottle tops woven together with wire in order to resemble swaths of embroidered cloth. Like Trash, it deals with consumption and the transformation of local environments. But while in Samant’s work politics is invariably privileged over artistic considerations, Sundaram’s best installations offer multilayered seductions. Among these is 12 Bed Ward, 2005, which occupied a room at Chemould. Here, two rows of six steel beds line up with clinical precision. Devoid of mattresses, the rusty bedsprings are weighed down by the rubber soles of worn-out shoes. A naked bulb hangs over each bed. Objects cast a scattered array of silhouettes that populate the room with shape-shifting, ghostly presences. Thoughts of death and loss are never far away as one walks into this shadowland. The soles are reminders of the rag-and-bone men who salvage such objects from trash cans: One man’s junk is another’s treasure.

Sundaram’s “Trash,” however, did not always manage to transcend its humble origins. This was especially true of Turning, 2008, a video installation at Project 88. Here, the detritus of city life (broken bits of plastic, barbed wire, empty soft-drink cans) takes center stage again. But this time, the poetry of ordinary things is littered with textual quotations from Rumi. The Sufi philosopher-poet’s verse is a touching meditation on the precariousness of existence, but in Turning, its use is heavy-handed. 12 Bed Ward, on the other hand, says more about the fragility of life without words—its shadows gesture mutely toward those who are deemed irrelevant in the New India.

Zehra Jumabhoy