It’s one of those damning paradoxes of the modern age. While the arts strive for perfection on their own, autonomous terms, they largely thrive on the imperfections of society and life. Such as reckless consumption, oil slicks, toxic chemicals, non-biodegradable waste that plot a suicidal apocalypse for human civilization. And urban waste — so mesmeric in its variety in terms of colour, shape, design, label, substance — has been, in recent years, the recipe for Vivan Sundaram’s art, on view for Calcuttans till March 4 at Harrington Street Arts Centre.
If you overcame your recoil, you too could discover garbage, particularly where there’s a whole terrain of it, as stunningly picturesque, simply crying out to be recycled as photographs, installations or assembled for figurative shadow sculpture the way Diet Wiegman, Tim Noble and Sue Webster have done, somewhat with a sense of play. But Sundaram’s agenda is entirely different. Play isn’t entirely absent but it is rather macabre. For example, in the 3-channel video, Black Gold ,water surges and swirls carrying potsherds from ancient ruins with reckless, disconcerting abandon. Because no, nothing can escape Time.
Focusing on mountains of trash, Sundaram has created an eerie city as an aftermath of some futuristic holocaust. The huge colour blow-ups where objects, articulated with startling clarity, are arranged as a most disconcerting sci-fi film sequence that predicts a horrifying future land punches on the viewer’s conscience.
Everything in these photographs is man-made, barring the water running through two drains. There’s no place for Nature here. Whatever you see is the detritus of human civilization. Correction, industrial civilization. But the script seems to have gone horribly wrong. Where, for example, are humans? Other animals? The land is completely depopulated; a lone hand sticks out from the debris. You can, indeed, spot a playground and figures made from discards. But the copy mocks the model. What should ideally be a haven for city children has been wrecked by malevolent forces.
Excerpted from their predictable context, innocuous objects like bottles, jerrycans, toothbrushes, broken dolls, soft drink cans, packing foam and so forth are stripped of their reassuring familiarity so that they appear suddenly menacing in their strange, exaggerated, aggressive, ‘thingness’, no longer simply items of convenience and luxury for man.
The junk — used, mutilated, rusting, crushed, torn — takes on the epic grandeur of a Biblical metaphor, indicting man and the society he has shaped. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that Warhol’s soupcans, a chillingly cynical image of standardized mass consumption and opulence, predict Sundaram’s necropolis. And it seems to be on the edge of collapse in a video, Turning, made in 2008. Strips of polythene flap violently as the ground shakes in the turbulent winds and fumes billow out, enveloping everything. Barbed wire comes apart, poles topple, things tumble as the camera zooms in so close that images blur and become elusive, abstract designs. It’s as though an earthquake is about to gobble up the land. But no. Things quieten down, the city of discards still stands and continues to inscribe its parable of doom.
Unlike the high-profile Sundaram, Kiran Dixit Thapar—equally senior but unequally obscure — isn’t a doomsday Cassandra. Having relocated to Santiniketan from London, she presents a contrast to Sundaram in her concern with form and simple narrative. But her sculpture, seen at Birla Academy recently, has a striking presence.
Not only because of its scale, ranging from tiny pieces to life-size figures. Nor because of her dramatic tableaux, five of which were on view, telling you that advancing years cannot tame a sculptor’s fierce spirit. But because her poetic insight inspires her to turn common little moments into uncommon vignettes in bronze and other metal, and plaster of Paris. And with an amused curiosity, too.
It’s not surprising to learn that she counts masters such as Benode Behari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij among her teachers. Her sketches seemed to bear that out. Fluent lines, shaded modelling and an effortless articulation of movement and gestures indicated her command over form. That, transferred to sculpture, yielded riveting works.
Carrom Players with 5 life-size figures was one of them. Made with recycled metal sheets, they also brought Somnath Hore to mind. Protest March and Jal Khela were laid out with both an eye for detail and an infectious sense of fun. This was also seen in her contemporary Santhal Family, so many years after Baij. Hers is a family on a mobike. Times have changed , after all. But there are subtle little signs to be read, and they seem to ask, have they?