When I was a smoker, the world was my ashtray. It’s a philosophy on a short leash of intelligence (or, should I say, with short-sheeted intelligence). I don’t smoke any more, but it looks like the world is still somebody’s ashtray – actually, somebody’s garbage dump. And this is what Delhi artist Vivan Sundaram forces us to reconsider in his new exhibition at the Chemould Prescott Road Gallery in Mumbai.
The exhibition (called Trash) is made up of sculpture, video and photographs. The huge digital prints (some as large as 60” x 40”) are of changing perspectives of a massive urban cityscape made of compressed and reconfigured garbage. Picture in your mind waste transformed into teetering skyscrapers, bridges, streets and parks, and old toothbrushes mangled into sickly palm trees.
Sundaram built the garbage cityscape in his studio a few years ago with the help of members of Delhi’s waste-picker community (the waste-pickers were hired and the project coordinated through an NGO called Chintan that works to help waste-pickers gain rights). The photos capture the garbage-scape from a dizzying array of angles designed to both highlight the junkheap’s at times remarkable simulacra of an urban landscape, and to playfully provoke. Take, for example, the digital print of skyscrapers of trash ornamented with a tiny Spiderman in mid-leap floating above the city …
In another image, Sundaram photographs the colourful trashscape from above recreating the effect of a surveillance bird’s eye view. There is even a sequence of images showing houses being flattened by bulldozers, and then built up again in the endless cycle of the production of waste. The images are arresting, beautiful in a way, and humorous — the compressed trash produces a rich texture and vibrant mash-up of colour while the staging forces us to see the landscapes where we live in the mess.
Another of the exhibition’s entries – this one an installation – is “12 Bed Ward”, a large barren room installed with 12 beds made from the soles of old shoes.
Sundaram, now 65, was deeply influenced by his early contact with political artists in Paris shortly after the 1968 student uprisings — so influenced, in fact, that he quit making art for a number of years, preferring instead to become an activist. He returned to art and has exhibited throughout South Asia and in Canada, Cuba, the UK and Australia. He currently lives in Delhi.
Trash will continue on to the Biennale of Sydney later this year.