Artists at work

Seeking Vivan Sundaram: A new documentary explores the artist’s preoccupation with found objects

Pankaj Butalia’s film is a pastiche of the ideas, spaces and processes integral to making art.

In April 2015, the Fowler Museum displayed works by contemporary artist Vivan Sundaram at the University of California, Los Angeles. Called Making Strange: Gagawaka + Postmortem, the show was a mash-up of two previous exhibitions. The first of these, Gagawaka: Making Strange, opened at the Lalit Kala Akademi in Delhi in December 2011. It had 27 sculptural garments, or mannequins dressed in clothes made with found objects – from red bras to film reel and medical supplies. The second show, Postmortem (after Gagawaka), opened in 2013 at the Vadehra Art Gallery in Delhi, and was positioned in dialogue with Gagawaka. It was an exploration of the human form, with layers like clothing and skin stripped away.

Inspired by the energy of Gagawaka and Postmortem, filmmaker Pankaj Butalia began work on a documentary about Sundaram called In Search of Found Objects. The documentary contains sections of a five minute film that Butalia made about Making Strange, which was published online.

The video holds cues about the tone and method of Butalia’s film on Sundaram. In both, Butalia focuses on Sundaram’s creative process, often taking viewers into the artist’s open collective studio and behind the scenes, to the installation of his shows.

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On June 12, Butalia screened In Search of Found Objects for the first time at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi. Introducing the film, which was three years in the making, Butalia said the project threatened to go in a different direction than the one the filmmaker had planned at several points, because its subject, Sundaram, jumped from one project to another without break.

“The energy that I saw in Vivan’s work in Gagawaka and then immediately after, in Postmortem, I felt was something I could connect with,” Butalia said. “I tried to see whether I could find a way to give an idea of his process. Vivan was at the time reworking Memorial – this was in 2014, and I thought I would spend a lot of time on that one project because that is what he would do. But that was not it. He finished Memorial and immediately started work on the Ramkinkar Baij project.”

Memorial was a sculpture of a dead man lying in the streets of Mumbai. Sundaram first made it in 1993, in response to the Mumbai riots that claimed around 900 lives. The Baij project was called 409 Ramkinkars – a promenade theatre piece by Vivadi, the art and theatre company that Sundaram started with former National School of Drama director Anuradha Kapur.

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Butalia is a seasoned documentary film-maker. His trilogy on the conflict areas of Manipur (Manipur Song, 2007), Kashmir and Assam (A Landscape of Neglect, 2015) was well-received. Yet by his own admission, this project was among the most difficult ones he has undertaken.

“In the course of three years [that Butalia shot the film], it was a restless Vivan working on one project after the other, and finally I had to say I have to stop the film somewhere,” he said. “Otherwise it would be a sequence of the different projects Vivan was doing and I would be sucked into that.”

Parts of the film still convey this breakneck speed. Within 53 minutes, the film tries to give a sense of Sundaram’s vast ranging interests and work in mediums from installation art to video and theatre. If there is one overarching theme, it is the artist’s two-decade-old interest in found objects. It is the thread that links shows from Re-take on Amrita (his excavation and re-interpretations of an archive of photographs and art by his grandfather Umrao Singh and aunt Amrita Shergil in the family home) to Trash (which uses materials rescued from garbage dumps, including soles of shoes and empty soda cans) and Gagawaka, with its strips of medical tape and bandage, among other things destined for the dustbin.

Picture courtesy: Pankaj Butalia
Picture courtesy: Pankaj Butalia

But underneath this speed is a careful slowness enforced by the filmmaker. In Search of Found Objects begins with Sundaram arranging and rearranging the arm, head and torso of a mannequin. There’s a closeup of his hands and the torso, as he places a fiberglass-and-plastic leg besides a dismembered torso and then flips it upside down. The handheld camera considers the object from a distance, in conjunction with the artist.

This proximity to the artist characterises the entire film. Sundaram articulates thoughts as he formulates them. The film touches on ideas and physical spaces (like the Sher-Gils’ Ivy Lodge in Kasauli) that are important to Sundaram, like the open collective studio, where Sundaram works with other artists and craftspeople. The studio is a contrast to his early career in oil-painting when he preferred to work alone. Now, collaboration is integral to Sundaram – he converses easily with carpenters, photographers and potters.

Sundaram also saw the film for the first time on June 12. He said the film was a collage – it gives a sense of his work, making the connections implicit through juxtaposition. A voice-over might have helped the pastiche. At present, the only voice one hears is the subject’s (barring one exception featuring film-maker Kumar Shahani). This is great for those familiar with Sundaram’s work from the last three deaces, but confusing for others.

Picture courtesy: Pankaj Butalia
Picture courtesy: Pankaj Butalia
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