In the ever-developing Manhattan neighbourhood of Chelsea, Vivan Sundaram’s latest exhibition, Terraoptics, harks back to a prehistory bound by fire, water, and earth. An extension of his earlier video work entitled Black Gold (2012), the show presents photographs of discarded terracotta fragments or potsherds from an archaeological site in Pattanam, Kerala. Varied, angular pieces are arranged in trays to form intricate reliefs, miniature rivers of viscous black liquid and fiber optic wires snaking through the constructed landscapes. The patterns of the tiles, resembling ancient settlements, are repeated in different images, with the addition of movement from fire or smoke. Other configurations seem to invoke a land predating civilization itself. Shot from an aerial view that confounds both spatial and temporal perceptions, the 25 photographs were on display at sepiaEYE gallery from May 10th until June 24th 2017. The images are presented as individual photographs, or miniature sets in which the landscape changes with bursts of fire and light, the shadow of smoke, and rivulets of water disappearing under layers of earth. There is a kind of hectic energy racing through the frames, as the years of history held within the once-lost potsherds are reanimated to tell a new and different story.
As one of the most well-known conceptual artists in India, Sundaram pays close attention to the materials he uses and how their history may be used to contextualise his own work. The potsherds in Black Gold and Terraoptics came from the ancient port-city of Muziris, an important place of trade over two millennia ago before it disappeared in 1341. Muziris is mentioned in the Akananuru, a collection of Tamil poetry in the anthology of Sangam literature (600 BCE - 300 CE), as a city where “the beautiful vessels, the masterpieces of the Yavanas [Westerners], stir white foam on the Periyar, river of Kerala, arriving with gold and departing with pepper.”
The port’s main commodity was indeed spices such as black pepper and the cinnamon-like malabathron, but it also served as a trade emporium where precious stones, ivory, Chinese silk, and tortoise shells were exchanged for gold, wine, and textiles. The Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, and the Romans were part of this network of trade, until changes in the Periyar River basin caused floods and earthquakes that wiped out the port-city. Muziris was only known through legend until archeological excavations in Kerala started in 2004, led by the Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR) and its director, Dr. P.J. Cherian. Hindutva groups succeeded in stalling the dig for some time, believing it to be a conspiracy to establish the Syrian Catholic legend that Saint Thomas stopped at Muziris, hence bringing Christianity to South India before Europe.
It was through a conversation with Cherian that Sundaram had the idea for Black Gold, a video installation of an imaginary city made from the fragments of the lost Muziris. Using a hundred thousand terracotta pieces arranged to depict the ancient port, the three-minute film showed the “city” slowly flooding with water mixed with 15 kilograms of pepper, visuals that are both tragic and otherworldly. After resurrecting history at the first Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2012, Sundaram returned with the scaled down version of Terraoptics, using the same potsherds to further this exercise in creation and destruction. The resulting miniature landscapes build on a history of mapping and myth-making that the Indian subcontinent, indeed perhaps the whole world, has been consumed with. The politics of the archeological dig and Hindu nationalist opposition can hardly be ignored in this work that seems to question the ways in which the past can be revived and regenerated through art.
“The earth-body is made of incandescence. It produces a terrestrial-optical consciousness,” says Sundaram. His photographs perform this kind of geometrical illusion, the red-brown terracotta fragments, water, and light work together to create an alien terrain that seems naggingly familiar. When engaged with close-up, the pieces become clearer, their jagged edges more pronounced. Flashes of light and darkness seem to race through the landscape, in the form of fire or rivulets of dark water, the visual movement suggesting a temporal one -- time racing by. One-millimeter-wide fiber optic wires light up furious pathways, lending this scene of prehistory an almost dystopian feel, like perhaps this is not the past we are seeing, but a Mad Max-esque version of our future world.
Urban landscapes and their permanence/impermanence have played an integral part in Sundaram’s work. An alumnus of the MS University of Baroda and Slade School of London, he moved away from painting in the 1990s to work with conceptual installations using photography, video, and found objects. Sundaram became one of the first artists in India to produce installation art, with his series Riverscape (1992), incorporating steel and oil into otherwise two dimensional works using charcoal. His work engaged with ideas of home and landscape with Memorial (1993) produced as a response to the destruction of the Babri Masjid. In 2008 he presented TRASH, featuring cityscapes he had constructed out of plastic bags, pipes, toothbrushes and Coke cans, in his Delhi studio. Huge digital prints show a compressed city of reconfigured garbage, in a similar vein to the kind of terracotta habitations he has been building in recent years. Sundaram’s work has a way of encapsulating the contradictory feelings of the effort of construction and its inevitable decay, man’s impermanence and the ability of material objects to weather through the years.
The materiality of the artwork seems to be at the heart of Sundaram’s art practices. The history of the terracotta pieces, thought to have been produced by the indigenous population in Pattanam some 2000 years ago, carries a kind of aura with it. Using them to reconfigure the history that they represent seems an adept conveyance of that aura onto the artwork itself. Sundaram’s other work like Gagawaka (2010) also relies on the recycling of materials, presenting garments made out of plastic cups, surgical masks, and x-ray film, troubling the signified meanings usually attached to those objects. There’s a certain privileging of material in his work that manifests as a reliance on them to both frame and disrupt form and meaning.
The construction of a certain kind of past and a collective memory is crucial to projects of nation-building. We see this in Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” ideals as well as the Hindu Nationalist agenda of reclaiming an imagined Hindu Nation’s past glory. However, Sundaram’s Terraoptics evokes the past not by romanticising it, but through its own fragmented relics, lendingthemsize and scale through optical transformations and constructing an alternate historical world that does not fit neatly in our timelines. It affirms the understanding that history is changeable depending on what fragments of the story get told, how they are configured, and who tells the story. While yet more discoveries at Muziris are being unearthed, Sundaram shows us the ability of artistic practices to demonstrate the fragility of the things we construct. That the port-city was once a flourishing center for trade, only for shards of their civilisation to be pieced together two millennia later is both disturbing and poignant.
Today, the neighbourhood of Chelsea, as the epicenter of the New York art world is changing dramatically. As luxury homes and high-rises loom around the recently constructed park, the Highline, many small and medium-sized galleries are being priced out of the area. So it seems ironically fitting that Terraoptics, showing in the heart of the neighbourhood, reminds us of how easily our “civilisations” can crumble, the earth staying steady as the things we build eventually fall. Instead, Sundaram’s world is one where constant flux, destruction and collapse are beautiful things to behold, and can always be regenerated and transformed.