Vivan Sundaram, an influential artist whose installations have been credited with opening new possibilities for his Indian compatriots, died on Thursday at 79. His death was announced by the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT), an arts organization that Sundaram cofounded.
Sundaram’s art in many mediums is seen as key within the development of the Indian art scene of the past few decades. In India, he is considered to be among those who helped solidify installation art as a veritable artistic medium during the early ’90s, a period when the previously dominant mode of formalist abstraction was waning in influence.
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In a statement to ARTnews, Shireen Gandhy, creative director of Chemould Prescott Road, the Mumbai-based gallery that represents Sundaram, said, “In the early 90s, if one looks back at a breakthrough of mediums, where the norm of artists working in traditional oil paintings (something that Vivan very much did too), Vivan would be considered one of the earliest ‘breakthrough artists.’ He truly was the trailblazer.”
While Sundaram’s installations, photo-based art, illustrations, paintings, and more are well-known in India and in the international art scene, he is also fondly remembered for his outspoken leftist views. His work marked one way to marry his politics and his genuine belief that art could mirror the world—and potentially even change it.
Among the installations that are considered game-changers by Sundaram is 1993’s Memorial, a piece made in response to destruction of the Babri Mosque, a 16th-century religious structure in Ayodhya, by a right-wing Hindu mob the year prior. Composed of photographs struck through with nails, a triangular structure with a plaster body on its floor, trunks stacked to form an archway-like sculpture, and more, Memorial paid homage to how Sundaram had experienced the events of 1992 remotely.
“The fact that the photograph was a found object, and that I didn’t witness the violence first-hand as my friends in Mumbai did, added another layer: my entry into the tragedy was from a distance,” he said in a 2019 interview with the White Review.
Later works would continue to rely on found materials. 12 Bed Ward (2005) features 12 bed frames lined with the soles of shoes instead of mattresses. Arranged in two rows like a Minimalist grid, the bed frames hint at people who are left at the margins of Indian society. “Its shadows gesture mutely toward those who are deemed irrelevant in the New India,” critic Zehra Jumabhoy once wrote.
Much of Sundaram’s output cannot be contained within a gallery, however. By forming an art center, a publication, and SAHMAT, Sundaram also pushed Indian artists in new directions and ended up having a lasting impact on the country.
Vivan Sundaram was born in Simla, Himachal Pradesh, in 1943. He had a decorated family history: his grandfather was Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, an early photographer in India and a landowning Sikh; his aunt was Amrita Sher-Gil, a pioneering modernist artist; his father was Kalyan Sundaram, a prominent politician. The family had a plural identity, since the Sher-Gil side contained Hungarian and Jewish ancestry, and his father was a Tamil Brahmin. He would later describe his comfortable upbringing as “colonial” and reflect on it in his art.
Having initially gone to school in Baroda, where his teachers included K. G. Subramanyan, Sundaram departed for London to study at the Slade School of Art, where he took courses with the painter R. B. Kitaj and focused on the history of film. In the British capital, Sundaram encountered the upheaval of 1968, which ended up reshaping his art.
Works from his time at Slade reach beyond the history of painting and comment on leftist causes. From Persian Miniatures to Stan Brakhage (1968), a painting now owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, alludes to the work of the titular experimental filmmaker by way of intersecting geometric planes. May 68, a work now on view at Tate Modern in London, features such objects as a police helmet as a meditation on the leftists protests of the period.
After graduating Slade in 1968, Sundaram stopped making art to take on a political career. But as he returned to India in 1971 with the aim of becoming an activist, the Communist politician Prakash Karat convinced Sundaram to stick with art. The first major series he presented in India upon his return was a grouping of ink drawings called “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” (1972), its name a reference to a Pablo Neruda poem. The works, featuring semi-abstract landscapes and people ensconced in them, marked an attempt to visualize some of what was described by Neruda.
Yet, as Sundaram said in a 2016 interview, “I wasn’t an artist who was just sitting in his studio, painting and coming back.” This meant becoming engaged in the art scene in ways that went beyond what was traditional.
In 1976, Sundaram formed the Kasauli Art Center, a workshop in Himachal Pradesh that convened artists, playwrights, and more. Sundaram’s mother had lived in Kasauli and had died not long beforehand, and he created the center to honor her with the help of his father. The Kasauli workshop ended up luring more than just artists—Communists, feminists, and theorists began paying attention, too—and soon, a scene began to form around the space.
Kasauli’s impact continued to reverberate throughout India. “Place for People,” a 1981 exhibition at the Rabindra Bhavan museum in New Delhi, featured a number of artists with ties to the workshop. That show marked a turning point for Indian contemporary art, as it initiated a pivot away from formalist abstraction toward politically engaged figuration.
Sundaram was also a founding member of the Journal of Arts and Ideas and one of the people behind the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust, whose founder was a Communist playwright who was murdered in 1989 by Indian nationalists.
As Sundaram’s art gained prominence in India, it became widely seen internationally, too. It has figured in editions of the Gwangju Biennale, the Biennale of Sydney, the Taipei Biennale, and the Sharjah Biennial, whose current show contains Sundaram’s art. His work featured in such famed exhibitions as “Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art,” which was curated in 2008 by Okwui Enwezor for the International Center of Photography in New York.
One project in particular has attained widespread renown: “Re-take of Amrita,” in which Sundaram revisited and edited photographs from his family archive, creating dialogues between generations and images. When the project visited New York in 2006, New York Times critic Holland Cotter wrote, “Anyone interested in modern art in India will find these pictures fascinating for the glimpse they give of Amrita Sher-Gil’s life. Anyone interested in how art can alter the unalterable, making the past at once brighter and sadder, will treasure Mr. Sundaram’s art for that.”
The final years of Sundaram’s life saw some of the widest recognition of his work. In 2018, the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi hosted a full-dress retrospective for Sundaram. Nancy Adajania, writing in the Hindu Times, was moved to call the exhibition “one of the finest retrospectives I have seen in a long time.” A separate survey initiated by Enwezor also took place that year at the Haus der Kunst in Munich.
Sundaram viewed his art as part of a political struggle that was never complete.
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He once said, “By and large the level of our liberal democracy allows a certain level of freedom, and even when it is curbed, by non-state players, the debate goes on.”