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The beastly beatitude of trash and junk

The notes of a rather light and airy Nat King Cole number suddenly start buzzing in my head as I leave the portals of Harrington Street Arts Centre where Vivan Sundaram is exhibiting Landfill.

This show is dead serious about the inescapable and toxic problem of garbage and trash. It plagues Calcutta as much as it does Bengal, the rest of the country and the world.

But it is so painstakingly and touchingly detailed in its evocation of future cities — could be real, could be imaginary — mired in and overwhelmed by rubbish that quite paradoxically it is also a strikingly beautiful, and at times even a lyrical work of art of humongous proportion covering the four vast halls of this magnificent gallery.

It is all very real. Almost tangible. Yet phantasmal. So the lyrics of the song continued to churn inside my head: “Say it is only a paper moon/Sailing over a cardboard sea, …It’s a Barnum and Bailey world,/Just as phony as it can be,…”

Landfill is a series of videos and large format photographs and photomontages of a “city” composed of waste and garbage created inside a studio. Later, it was extensively photographed.

It was videoed as well and this was the raw material of the videos being shown in the gallery continuously. The photographs are so clear that viewers will be able to distinguish each and every item of discarded material or junk with which the make-believe “city” was created.

There are bottles. Coke cans, plastic bottles, canisters, the innards of computers, toy trains, bubble wrap, a one-eyed Barbie doll, old television sets, clay figures and myriad flotsam and jetsam that any contemporary megalopolis throws up every day.

The buildings, complex network of streets and all else are lovingly recreated with trash. Quite appositely, Vivan Sundaram quotes a line from Rumi that amounts to “God is in the detail” in one of the videos.

It is a fascinating depeopled world like the post-apocalyptic city in the 1959 doomsday film titled The World, the Flesh and the Devil starring Harry Belafonte. A seagull wings through a cloud of noxious fumes — shades of the killer smog in Beijing.

The remnants of greenery flutter in the lethal breeze. Vision gets blurred. Red lights flash perhaps sending out warnings of imminent disaster. The fumes clear and it turns out to be the make-believe “city” once again. The bird is a toy.

The viewer knows that it is staged but the threat of non-renewable trash is very real. Illusion and reality constantly play a cat-and-mouse game.

The great mountain of garbage is also home to some. It provides shelter and rest. It is a reality we face every day as the circular rail trundles past the Hooghly strand and in Dhapa.

This exhibition, as art historian Geeta Kapur points out, brings together selected works from a decade of Vivan Sundaram’s exhibition. This apocalyptic vision should have been unsightly, but in actuality it is hauntingly beautiful. Fair is foul, foul is fair.

Vivan Sundaram’s vision turns poetic as a three-channel video is projected on the floor. A stream of water engulfs the potsherds borrowed from an archaeological site, the potsherds, to quote Geeta Kapur once again, being “civilisational evidence that very nearly confirm the existence, in antiquity, of a ‘mythical’ port-city called Muziris (near Kochi in Kerala)”.

Innumerable pepper-corns (“‘black gold’, in cross-oceanic trade”) float on the water like hyacinth. The floor shakes and slides.

The videos segue into each other like shifting tectonic plates as past and present merge and drift apart. What rubbish! Is this the true nature of junk, the viewer is left wondering.