While setting up his show at the PhotoINK gallery in Delhi, one of the things artist Vivan Sundaram did was to get the entrance altered. Instead of the usual grass pathway, the visitor must walk on glass – literally – to access the show. Under the glass slab is displayed Mound (2016), a bricolage of terracotta potsherds that is the first work in the exhibition.

This ramp in turn leads to Unearthed: document (2019), a 72-inch vinyl print of what looks like an archaeological site, mounted on the outer wall of the gallery. Finally, a 54-inch x 250-inch vinyl print covers the rest of the way to the gallery door. The print is an aerial view of Black Gold, arguably the starting point for the show.

Sundaram’s Install: black gold, terraoptics and the work of termites is as much about the act of installation as it is about history and the act of reimagining, recreating and retelling it. The exhibition is a collection of 44 works – old and new – including pigment prints, light boxes, sculptures and a 10 minute 55 second video called Black Gold.

Sundaram created Black Gold for the first Kochi Muziris Biennale in 2012 with ancient potsherds, which quite possibly trace back to the lost port town of Muziris – a famous trading hub that was destroyed by floods in the mid-1300s.

Till a little over a decade ago, children in Pattanam, Kerala, were digging up bits of pottery and beads while playing outdoors. In 2007, when a research team was sent in to investigate, they unearthed over 1 lakh objects, including potsherds, which likely came from Muziris. Sundaram acquired some of the potsherds that were discarded by the archaeologists and brought them back to his studio in Delhi.

In 2012, Sundaram used those to reconstruct Muziris – or what the city might have looked like. It is believed that Muziris was a major centre for exporting pepper to the Roman Empire, and the river Periyar playing a key role in the trade, so Sundaram added a riverbed to the model. To recreate the city’s destruction, as narrated in literary accounts, Sundaram used peppercorns to flood his Muziris. All the while, he took still and moving pictures of his creation. These photographs and videos finally culminated in Black Gold.

In 2016, the materials from Black Gold translated into another show, Terraoptics. The same shards were reconstituted into miniature sets, and Sundaram’s treatment of the landscape became more experimental, more destructive. He worked with photographer GV Girish to lay fibre optics and LED torches – contemporary tools to illuminate a city of the past. Sundaram used heating elements, such as the ones seen in electric room heaters, and oil on the models, sometimes setting the ancient riverbed on fire (Burning River) and photographing it even as the team put the fire out (White Smoke).

These pictures are part of his current show, too.

Changing perspectives

In a recent book Vivan Sundaram is Not a Photographer, Ruth Rosengarten writes: “Nothing in Sundaram’s past work points inevitably to a future direction. Indeed, his use of photography occurs within – and as part of – a practice that values revision as well as improvisation, moving into and away from and around an initial proposition.”

If Black Gold and Terraoptics were joined by material and theme, the third series in Install, the Work of termites, too carries forward the ideas of destruction and reconstruction. It features photos of half-eaten, incomplete books. In some, snippets of text are visible. An art book in a vitrine is open to page 61. The words “Death comes in slow and subtle forms, revealing itself in a beauty unreal and inexperienced…” compel the viewer to come closer. Poetically, the facing page that is supposed to show a work by artist Vasant Wankhede is half-eaten, defaced, obliterated.

An exhibition brochure guides visitors to see the works anti-clockwise once they’re inside the gallery. Yet it’s almost impossible not to be distracted by the abstract light boxes suspended from the ceiling. The exhibition design is neither chronological nor continuous. One sees works from Terraoptics, then the duratran boxes painted with light (2016), then new works from Termites (2019) and finally Black Gold (2012). Burnt Mound (2016) from Black Gold recalls the first artwork in the show, Mound, that visitors saw through the glass, bringing everything full circle.

“Shifting the material and the scale alerts the viewer to see things,” explained Sundaram at the show’s opening. “It’s a discontinuous order. You see one, two, three photographs [of the same bricolage/set], when you see the fourth, you connect different points, and it makes sense.”

Another fine example of this repetition – and the invitation to connect “different points” – is the diverse ways we see the video projection of Black Gold in the show. It appears once at the threshold and then again over the sculpture of a bird of prey (Condor, 2019). (The sculpture is accompanied by a silk screen print and an excerpt from Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s The Heights of Macchu Picchu on the wall.)

In the end, Sundaram wants his visitors to go back and forth between the images, recognising elements that are common to them, making connections and revising their opinion of a photograph they may have seen five minutes before because another image gives them new information to re-view it. This is what makes Install particularly interesting: it combines works from three different series in a way that draws attention to the exhibition design, and also invites viewers to see the continuing threads across the series made over seven long years.

Install: black gold, terraoptics and the work of termites is on view at PhotoINK gallery, Vasant Kunj, New Delhi, till June 1.

All photos by Chanpreet Khurana.