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Split Wide Open: Vivan Sundaram takes back the body
NIDHI GUPTA  2nd Nov 2013

Vivan Sundaram with works from Postmortem

wo years ago, artist Vivan Sundaram ventured into the big bad world of fashion with a very intriguing exhibition of 'sculptural garments'. Using everyday readymade and discarded items like sanitary napkins, paper cups, underwear and rubber tubes, he crafted 'clothes' that could never qualify as haute couture, but did re-engage his audience with notions of fashion, dress and the idea of covering up the body.

At the Lalit Kala Akademi, where he had set up the show, Sundaram also organized a ramp show where models wore these outlandish garments, walked and posed among the mannequins set up at strategic positions, in an attempt to question posturing — which is the real body? How do we draw the line between real and artificial in a consumerist world?

Now, with a new show called Postmortem (After Gagawaka), Sundaram takes his investigation a step further. He moves on from what's on our bodies to the body itself, playing with mannequins, both whole and mutilated. "Postmortem is a sequel to Gagawaka in the sense that it follows from the previous show where the garment was privileged. Now, it is the wearer that is in the spotlight — more particularly, the mannequin as a site of violence and sexuality," he elaborates.

This week, Vadehra Art Gallery's sophisticated, muted exhibition rooms will be transformed into stark spaces invaded and inhabited by mannequins. Unlike in shop windows where they remain mere objects on which to display apparel, here they are bequeathed a new life. Torsos, arms, heads and decapitated bodies are stuck to walls, boxed into frames, and even re-arranged — one sculpture has two legs holding a head, with pouting lips, between them.

he mannequin is structurally available to being chopped up. One can play with hands and arms. I explore themes of death and destruction, transforming these objects from inanimate to sculptural," says Sundaram. In this process of "opening up the body", he also humanizes the mannequins — seeing them re-configured in this manner invites, even compels, one to relate to them.

There are also semi-clad mannequins — one wearing a little black number, with one breast exposed, stands out. "With Gagawaka, we had to tailor and adjust the garments to the needs of the model. In this show, this is not a concern — the dress can expose as much as it can cover. With mannequins, nudity is not the nudity of being naked," observes Sundaram.

Postmortem is a sequel to Gagawaka in the sense that it follows from the previous show where the garment was privileged. Now, it is the wearer that is in the spotlight – more particularly, the mannequin as a site of violence and sexuality. —Vivan Sundaram

He also plays with 'framework' — he has chopped up the benches from the ramp show in Gagawaka to create cabinets and coffins, within which some of the mannequins or body parts are placed — bringing in a dialectic about support systems and contexts that serve as identifiers, but may as well imprison you within them. Also part of the show are two video channels and a sound installation created in collaboration with German composer Bettina Wenzel and Ish S. of Delhi-based electronic outfit Sound Reasons.

While Gagawaka was seductive and quirky, Postmortem is decidedly macabre, but promises to be equally thought-provoking. For Sundaram, whose long career span has included a consistent engagement with conceptual art — he has, in the past, created a city out of garbage in Trash, and exhibited his political anxieties in the Indian Emergency and Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie series —archiving as well as digging through the mores of history have been important exercises.

But he admits that these twin exhibitions are unlike his previous work. "The garments I fashioned as part of Gagawaka were also sculptural exercises. Using readymade material or garbage was a way of archiving material and in the process re-configuring it. The history of fashion and textile is too long, and I was never interested in being a fashion designer," he says. Which is just as well, since none of the garments he created for Gagawaka and put up for sale have actually been bought, he laughs.

"With Gagawaka, I stepped into the world of fashion, and with Postmortem, I'm stepping out of it and back into art," he states. What he will leave behind is an important punctuation in the evolving discourse on body politics.

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