“The subtle instrument:

Program for an avant garde:

‘The world has surely become unhinged, and only violent movements can put it all back together again. But it may be that among the instruments for doing so, there is one-tiny, fragile, which requires to be wielded delicately...’” [1]

“Breton's call for 'psychic automatism in its pure state' was based on Freud's notion of the subconscious mind and belief that the irrational could be harnessed as an instrument of refusal directed against the prevailing culture.” [2]

“You can't politicise the unconscious directly...” [3]

“The eye exists in its savage state.” [4]

Here then, is an attempt to cast a network of perspectives, pull them across from far-flung corners in an interweave that constantly thickens. Then to play with the veils-shift them around, gaze through, peel them thin, and the game turning dire, rip through...

A map is a (diagrammatic) representation of the surface of a terrain making the distribution of its (physical) features and of the position of an area in relation to others. A map uses a restricted system of symbols, codes, to stand in for actual features. The subtleties of these features undergo a filtering with only the dominant distinctions being culled for a 'clarity' in categorisation. Further, the codes are uniform, universalised, to make for easy deciphering. Thus, a map, in representing a place, selects some differences and suppresses others, translates these into a schematic generalised language so as to order the body of the land into an easily graspable structure. Codes in a map are constructs on the real features and the more detailed a map attempts to be (for greater use value) the denser the net-working of codes, the more the constructions. Under this veil, lies engulfed, the true nature of the territory.

"The map precedes the territory... "[5]

A territory is one's own, a place one inhabits, the nature of which one experiences daily. A territory is what one belongs to and defends (against the other). The notion of one's territory knows no views from above, no constructs--only a space in relation to oneself: the 'knowing' of it a cumulation of intuition and memory, of living experience.

The map is a guideline for one who journeys to places other than his own, to lands unknown. The map precedes the experience of territory, even as it follows from some knowledge of it.

I use the map as an analogy for discursive practices. A map, like knowledge, functions by the ability to make distinctions and separate: a world charted out. Inversely, the idea of territory as analogous to truth: a world realised through experience and moments of intuitive apprehension.

To overlay the map on the territory:

to continuously seek the slippages, the entries and exits in the walls of a maze, to transpire through them-if only to arrive at fragments.

To collude the map with the territory:

a strategy to penetrate its determinations; to introduce entropy. Within the alternate workings of order and disintegration, to interpolate the moment of resistance...

“Kublai asks Marco: ‘You who go about exploring and who see signs can tell me towards which of these futures the favouring winds are driving us.' 'For these ports I could not draw a route on the map... At times all I need is a brief glimpse, an opening in the midst of an incongruous landscape, a glint of lights in the fog, the dialogue of two passersby meeting in the crowd, and I think setting out from there, I will put together, piece by piece, the perfect city, made of fragments mixed with the rest... of signals one sends out, not knowing who receives them. If I tell you that the city towards which my journey tends is discontinuous in space and time, now scattered, now more condensed, you must not believe... Perhaps while we speak, it is rising, scattered, within the confines of your empire...’”[6]

‘Approaching 100,000 Sorties'. There is the appearance of a landscape and then its recession as it moves away onto the wall. Deceptive, this map, pretending to unfold and open to view the terrain.

Immediately it is inscrutable in its markings. You move closer trying to look for routes, find those mountains, trees, houses that must be there: shelters. As you approach your pace is quickened by the dynamic of images propelling you in -images that plummet you towards the land. An explosion-and the territory is finally penetrated.

But there is another approach to this land. From below, through deep waters, by boat. Closely shored, one sees it differently: towards the moment of explosion, in the midst of destruction. Columns of dense black rise, scattering the fall-out, obliterating. In the vortex there is the dissolution of singular worlds into multiple realities, the charred remains of the dead past are unearthed into the present topography, the stressed flight of birds deflect into bombing formations, and the shattered order throws up distinctions between the true and the made, between reality and the game... I return to the map and the boat to link them in a circle of connections.

The map and the boat are both the products and the instruments of travel. Randomly: The traveller, adventurer, explorer, discoverer, who then identifies (the find), defines it, claims authorship, authority and knowledge, power and rule. The traveller who becomes the coloniser.

A map marks out the region in which power will operate; the vehicle of travel enables access to that site. The site of conquest. The map and the boat are, therefore, a means as also material objects (commodities). And as commodities in the economic order they possess an exchange value, but they are also implicated, now as signs, in modes of domination operative in the cultural order.

For the artist who must necessarily make images that are commodities and signs at once, the problem lies in the impulse to (impossibly?) free both from the 'monopoly of the code'. To appropriate the object-sign from power systems (in order to restore it-to what notion of original belonging, or meaning?) is a strategy of break-down. True, such fragmentation can lay bare the manipulations of power and the logic of its structures. But this, as an end in itself, can run the danger of becoming a continuum of shifting perspectives. Repatterning can actually recycle, replicate the code. Dislocatory devices might only result in its further fragmentation and dispersal.

To appropriate from an other (artist, culture, social group, disciplinary category) is to break the notion of purity, originality. As such it is a symptom of transgression: that revolutionary practice of the historical avant-garde. On the other hand, today in the consumerist order, appropriation could also mean a subsuming of the other; and transgression an irreverence for and a fudging of difference. Thereby re-assimilating the world into a homogenous one-ness.

Yet, perhaps, there is another possibility. Toappropriate critically so as not to recoup into a singular language, nor to relay dislocations that will establish fragmentation as a neutered state. Instead, to foreground difference, stress conflicts-to splinter (the major) language into multiplicities. And from here go on to form a concert of separates that not only disperses cultural monopolies but seeks in reflex, modes of resistance.

In his works on paper, Vivan Sundaram collides various ‘separates’: history, and the representation of it; the world of objective reality and memory, civilisational/ personal; a disaster 'out there' and the practice of art. Discursive practices, objects as material, as symbolic order, and so on and on. The collision makes the work of art function on several levels, moving from the far edges of intellect-that 'subtle instrument'-to the gut responses of the body-the eye in its 'savage state'. Images are transposed, seen through different registers; a push and pull of mind and body to seek other formations of meaning.

Re- 'Approaching 100,000 Sorties' Twelve sheets of paper stitched edge to edge hang on the wall. This is rising, exploding land. Following its collapse down to the bottom, onto the floor where the sheets almost slip under one's feet, the eyes are grounded by a still boat carrying a weight of black oil. One gazes into its depths and as if through a glass darkly, sees fragments, charred relics of some ancient land floating to the surfaces of the mind. Closer now, the startling introduction of one's own face. A doubling in time and one becomes aware of a reflected moment in the present. The surface of oil like a mirror reflects double the actual distance, both oneself and yet an other (and yet another). And reflects as one shifts, the landscape on the wall, dim, shifting views, framed, in parts-never the whole. Like newspaper photos.

A reflection is a double, a duplication of the original. As such, it follows after the first, the singular unit. "But in being seen in conjunction with the original, the double destroys the pure singularity of the first.' It thereby releases multiples, which although seeming to be the same, are always copies, models of the original. And as a double comes after the first, as a deferred image, it creates a distance, a kind of detached space.

The mirroring oil in the boat allows both alienation and intimacy. It invites one's subjective presence within the work, then plays on duplicity: an identification with it as 'myself', a negation of it as 'other' than myself. Thus the defining of self and other within the illusion of sameness, multiples that ceaselessly rupture the notion of unity.

Copies, models, duplicity and play. Take their cue and step back to look at the work again.

The boat and the map are only simulations of the real. A boat-like zinc tray filled with used engine oil, a drawing recalling a large map; like toys these play with our imagination, our senses, and the archive of information stored as memory. This game is about war, destruction and death, but it is dangerously close to reality. Military strategists actually use model boats in planning attacks. In 1940 when Hitler conceived an invasion of England by sea (Operation Sea Lion) actual zinc tubs were used to represent boats. Today such games are played on television screens. 'Operation Desert Storm', the battle between Iraq and the Allied Forces early this year was projected in the mass media as bloodless high-tech warfare: the very stuff of science-fiction.

"Panic seized her. Blood seemed to pour from her shoes. This is death, death, death, she noted in the margins of her mind; when illusion fails." [8]

Vivan plays the images of art, its materials, against actual events and historical texts. He intensifies their conflictual representations of reality, posing them as continual counter-negations of each other. But he also indicates that at their stressed edges there is something affirmative that lies submerged, that must be retrieved.

“The unconscious is that chapter of my history which is marked by a blank or occupied by a falsehood: it is the censored chapter. But the truth can be found again, it is. most often already written down elsewhere. That is to say:

- in monuments: this is my body...

- in archival documents also: these are my childhood memories...

- in semantic evolution: this corresponds to the stock of words and acceptations of my own particular vocabulary...

- in traditions as well, and not only in them but also in the legends which, in a heroicised form, transport my history...

- and lastly, in the traces which are inevitably preserved by the distortions necessitated by the linking of the adulterated chapter to the chapters surrounding it and whose meaning will be re-established by my exegesis.” [9]

From the jolts of doubling and duplicity emerge the traces of a restorative act. Sutures painstakingly worked through dismembered parts to hold a body together and the possibility of further extensions: stitches that could be made through the picture plane and into the real world, eternally incomplete...

Oil and charcoal on paper: ancient matter. To feel the surface and gather telluric and historical clues as if from antique seals and manuscripts. An “archeology of the act of touching”. [10]

Shatter. This rooted self, heavy land masses.

Scatter. Its bones, anthro-logical structures.

Cut and carve. Shards, shrapnels, knife edges. We have known them so much lately. Gashes that will set in time, return to positions again and again?

And spill. The dense body like an ocean that moves easily around and under, heaving, jostling, pulsating.

Dark, so dark, the blotch and the run. Clotted blood quick, magnifying over a rubble of bones.

Sharp, frail, nerve-like inscriptions bleeding into each other. The contours of figures; smudged metaphors.

Expose the fibre of body, swell the soft flesh. Rip. Tear.

But what final killing, what death? A whole world disappearing from view, vanishing point spinning away, displaced, each time.

“And differently again, at the core of these rotations; the centuries' old gaze of the sacrificial victim.” [11]

Who is the victim sacrificed? 'The Soldier of Babylon' blown to bits, identified by only a uniformed, booted leg, or 'The Akkadian King', symbol of a vast empire, of a civilisation and its glorious past. Or is it 'The Land of the Euphrates'-fertile and beautiful, rocky and arid. Or humanity itself, this population of living beings with its layered history of deeds, memories, meanings.

An ambivalence here, as in the very notions of life and death, negation and affirmation, love and war, self and other. It is this very dynamic that informs Vivan's work: that of the desire (always -unfulfilled, deferred) to invaginate these opposites, like a negative and positive pulsion.

“From that language, one wonders, did these lovesick, melancholy grenadiersdraw their passion (scarcely in accord with their class and profession)? What books had they read-or what stories told? Perspicacious... identifying love with a battle, not-banally-because two partners confront one another, but because, cutting as rifle fire, the erotic explosion provokes bewilderment and fear: crisis, revulsion of the body, madness... Now, to such a madman, no modern word is given today... no language to usurp except a very old one... as if I were borrowing a quotation... Entanglement of language and the body: which begins?” [12]

Vivan's drawings are suffused with this obsessive eroticisation of language-in structure and in the mark. Perhaps this can be seen as an excess of symbolic gesture. But it might also be that this excess (of quotation, appropriation, transgression and the act) is anarchy and that it ruptures taboos, provokes different formations of meaning. And as if to compensate for our erotic incompletions it aspires to spill over into a freedom-a utopian freedom, above all.


[1] Bertolt Brecht quoted by Barthes, Roland Barthes on Roland Barthes.

[2] Rosalind Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths.

[3] Julia Kristeva paraphrased by Jacqueline Rose, Sexuality in the Field of Vision.

[4] Andre Breton, Surrealism and Painting.

[5] Jean Baudrillard, Simulations.

[6] Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities.

[7] Rosalind Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths.

[8] Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts.

[9] Jacques Lacan The Language of the Self: The Function of Language in Psychoanalysis.

[10] Tony Godfrey, Drawing Today.

[11] Sean Cubitt, ‘Retrato Hablado: The Airmail Paintings of Eugenio Dittborn’, Third Text. No. 13.

[12] Barthes, Roland Barthes on Roland Barthes.
‘Tracking’ written for Vivan Sundaram’s show ‘Engine Oil and Charcoal’ in 1991
Sign In Close
Only Critical Collective subscribers can access this page.
If you are already a subscriber, then please log in.
 Forgot Password?
Subscribe now