Time is on our side: A chat with Vivan Sundaram and Kiran Nadar on art for the people
It's a dream situation, by any stretch of imagination for an art enthusiast — to spend time with behemoth éminences grises like the veteran artist Vivan Sundaram and Kiran Nadar, one of the country’s foremost
collectors and patrons of the arts.
To sit both of them together for a conversation is beyond the hope — and time — for most people. But that’s just what we managed to pull off, for this special interview — to discuss one of the most significant shows on the Indian art calendar, and the various initiatives of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA).
Curated by Roobina Karode, the show — titled, ‘Step Inside and you are no Longer a Stranger’ — is sprawling in scope, and breathtaking in each of the works on display.
For Sundaram, who was quite the iconoclast in his time, the retrospective brings together not just his best work and everything he has stood for as an artist, but also all that he defied as an activist. In an exclusive chat, the artist and the patron spoke at length about the ideas behind the show, and their efforts to take art to the people.
Tell us about the selected artworks at your retrospective. Is there an underlying message for viewers?
Vivan Sundaram: This retrospective puts together 52 years of my practice — from 1966 to the present. Roobina (Karode) and I wanted to display these works in a non-linear form, intentionally demonstrating disjunctures in my practice, and juxtaposing material, colour, abstraction. In that sense, the viewer moves through the space and witnesses the various trajectories I have explored as an artist from 1966 to the present, which are non-linear and change with regard to the material, scale, and the messages embedded within the works.
The exhibition is divided into sections, or ‘rooms’, and these are by and large thematic, in that the works thread together in some way — either drawn together by time, a series, a particular exhibition, etc. They function as cross-sections of my expeditions, so the viewers experience the change in my vocabulary — my experiments with abstraction, scale, visual languages and, of course, changing messages without which the works aren’t complete.
As a patron, how would you describe the works at the KNMA as significant in our cultural landscape?
Kiran Nadar: My journey as a collector started almost three decades ago, and I continue to enjoy the meandering, chance encounters and discovery that works of art often lend them to. Over the years, living with art has been life transforming and enriching, and inspiring. All the works we have in our collection and those that we show in exhibitions are incredibly important and significant to the cultural landscape — these works have helped shape the landscape and it is the reason we want to make these works accessible to the larger public for engagement, research and education.
And, how do you perceive works that are politically charged?
KN: I must respond to a work of art — to consider it, I must respond aesthetically, emotionally and stylistically. Sometimes, I am drawn to very political works, but that isn’t usually a consideration. I see good art all the time that I don’t respond to.
As an artist, how do you consider works that make a political statement, as a part of your practice?
VS: Well, I have had to wear this label — the hat of being a ‘political artist’. The political aspects of my work are, as I mentioned, embedded — whilst experiments and explorations in scale, discipline, conceptual ideas and material are on the surface.
Give us your overview, of the rise in political art over the last few years.
VS: Art is expressed in diverse forms, and there is the surface of the work and the message within the work. Sometimes, political statements can be made indirectly, and don’t have to be overt or override the work.
Would you like to see more artists making powerful works with a socially relevant message?
KN: Our core collection highlights a magnificent generation of 20th century Indian artists from the post-Independence decades, who made very politically charged works. We equally engage and
present different art practices of younger contemporary artists working today, whose languages and messages are different.
Art can be considered by default as conveying the “political” and “socially relevant” — the very act of making a work is a statement of sorts.
Give us your take on the idea: “All art is political in the sense that it engages society in some way, either influencing or influenced by it.”
VS: It really depends on how you choose to define art, the political, aesthetics and ethics — they do all have a fluid relationship in reference to the viewer, and the viewer’s definition also affects the message. In my work, I invite the audience to participate in the relationship between aesthetics and politics — even the title of this show, “Step inside…” is an invitation, a slightly ironic one, since you can’t step into a painting (the title refers to one of his 1976 paintings).
But you can step inside, interact and participate in say 12 Bed Ward, which I suppose, could be described as political work by most people — it is a part a of series I made following a trip to Auschwitz (the Nazi concentration camp used in World War II).
What, according to you, is political art — in essence?
KN: I am not sure that you can detach ‘political art’ from art — art itself has a range of visual languages and dialects — that’s what makes it exciting, and contemporary artists are consistently expanding this vocabulary. Political art is a means to discourse, and dialogue, where the attempt is to sensitise the public to issues of contemporary society.
In a sense, that’s one of our primary objectives at KNMA — we conscientiously work towards expanding our audiences, engaging the younger generation and inspiring them with our collection and our initiatives — to change the way they think, the way they look at the world and the way in which they engage with their own and other cultures across the artistic spectrum.
VS: I was a part of some very physical acts in the 1968 student protests in the UK, and many of my paintings from that time (which are on show at the exhibition) may display fragments of those institutional and policy-related issues, which relate to the circulation of political and philosophical idealism of the time.
I suppose the works abbreviate these ideologies and abstract themselves into the works such as my ’60s paintings. I have also made works that incorporate more theatre into photography, and video — these cross over, moving from one point to another.
How important, do you believe, is it for artists today to take up the responsibility of making a political statement?
VS: There are multiple strategies of making political statements, and similarly, multiple ways in which artists can gain visibility. I have been an activist, and I have curated shows about activism, and issues that I feel are pertinent. I consistently shift the axis of my work. Being an artist, and being political, means taking a private space into a public space. Often, the personal is political — and that isn’t always easy to do.
Is it essential for artists to make politically charged works, to possibly gain visibility?
KN: Art is a very personal, intimate practice, and so it is the artist’s choice and what they want to say that dictates the message within their work. Sometimes it’s intuitive, sometimes it is very conscious. The nature of art and artists is that they reflect society and comment on it — a work may be very personal and still retain political undertones. It isn’t necessary for artists today to take up the responsibility of instigating change, as that is something they already do.
A lot of contemporary art tends to get discussed in closed and often select groups. How would you encourage further discussions on art among larger groups of people, and possibly extend art appreciation in a more inclusive, rather than exclusive manner?
VS: Accessibility of the arts — dialogue and making them art inclusive, is sometimes about working outside the space of high-art and commenting on issues that are affecting people, things that are oppressing them in some way. Art is always more accessible, because the image and visual ideas create a deeper dialogue and communicate on a more intimate level. Making something less exclusive and more inclusive is perhaps about exposure, and allowing people to experience it.
Art can be made more accessible to the public with more institutional arts spaces, perhaps changing people’s ideas about art spaces and/or making more public spaces for art.
KN: The idea of opening a private art museum occurred with the intention of sharing my art collection with the larger public — to make art more accessible, inclusive and for the community, and the public. I was also acutely aware of the dearth of institutional spaces in India that could bring visibility to the exceptional art in the country.
Art spaces for the public are the way forward, and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art’s core objective is to be a place of confluence, so our exhibitions, school and college workshops, art appreciation discourses, symposiums and public programmes are all focused on bridging the gap between art and the public.
Today, we see many contemporary artists addressing concerns of racism, identity, power struggles, and women’s empowerment, among other issues. How effective do you believe their attempts are, to produce artworks that truly make a difference?
VS: Art can make a difference, because it appeals to people on a deeper and sometimes more subconscious level. The image tends to live much longer than the moment and ideas are infinite. Art is often more explicit and embedded with complexity. An engagement of politics of the memory has been at the heart of my practice for sometime, and as an activist, I was a part of founding the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust, which is a collective response by several artists, photographers, painters and writers to Safdar Hashmi’s murder. So, as I said before, there are many strategies to imbue political messages.
How do you believe these artists need to be supported more?
KN: Artists need to be supported through patronage, the community, and events like exhibitions and workshops. Art must be accessible to everyone, we need more initiatives that take art outside traditional spaces, and to facilitate that, we need more patrons, more community initiatives, and more festivals.
In the last few years, we have also seen the rise of varied forms of art — spanning performance, video, installations, street theatre, poetry and even music, especially of the folk kind. How would you like to see all these forms coming together, to make more of an impact?
VS: In the 1990s, my work moved into a much more interdisciplinary space, and crossed over to more languages of expression, more dialogues within medium and disciplines — these allowed me to connect forms, and make them more open to collaborations. For example, my recent work with Ashish and David Chapman for Insurrection 1946: Meanings of Failed Action. Working across disciplines allows for more inclusion, and makes the work more present — which is impossible without dialogue.
Is the KNMA actively working to support different art forms, and the possible melding of media?
KN: We strongly support and encourage interdisciplinary programmes at KNMA, work closely with artists who use a variety of languages and mediums in their practice, often combining painting,
drawing, video, installation, photography, performance.
The exhibition Vivan Sundaram — ‘Step Inside and you are no Longer a Stranger’ is a shining example of this. Collateral programming for our exhibitions often includes music performances, and dance, alongside talks, workshops, and education programmes that energise and activate our exhibitions, making them more accessible to diverse audiences.
There’s also the final question about balancing the aspects of aesthetics, beauty and taste, with technique and skill. How important is it, in your view, for a powerful work of art to also be artistically pleasing?
KN: I must respond aesthetically, emotionally and stylistically, and to the message.
VS: Yes, aesthetics and politics do form an inclusive frame and structure. One cannot go without the other — in that relationship, beauty, taste, visual language are all important components. However, technique — which just sits on the surface of the work — can be good or not. Less than perfect technique and skill can still say something.
Vivan Sundaram, A Retrospective: Fifty Years; Step Inside and you are no Longer a Stranger is on display till 15 July 2018, at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Delhi.