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Memorial In Memoriam | Vivan Sundaram at Tate Modern

Thinking about the life and legacy of Vivan Sundaram (1943-2023) through his installation on display at Tate Modern, London.

L: Photocollage from Vivan Sundaram, Retake of Amrita, (2001), R: A photograph of Vivan Sundaram taken in 1996 by Ram Rahman.

A hexagonal room on the lower floor of the Tate modern. The walls are dark, the room is illuminated only dimly by a few yellow lights and the lights emerging from the installed artwork. The installation spans across the surfaces of the walls, and the floor, diverse constructions of architectural structures, objects, sculpted figures, an amalgam of representations and objects brought together in a peculiar formation. I don’t immediately recognise the codes of the display or how I am supposed to navigate the space. The map offers no didactic pathway, but I follow the journey of the numbers which mark each exhibit. I know enough about the context, but I try to detach myself from what I’ve read in academic scholarship and immerse myself into the presence of what is available to me at the moment. Eventually I take to wandering, without a plan, looking at the works and looking at other people who also navigate the space.

Memorial at Tate Modern, 2023, photo by Ananya Jain

Immediately striking is the rhythm and movement of figures around the space, visitors who almost tip toe around, softly, quietly, cautiously, looking around with curiosity, making sure not to accidentally tread upon the art on display. Some are backlit, others who stand closer to the lights, illuminated as a result of the display, have parts of their faces and bodies dimly lit up, in an uncanny, eerie way. Tracking the movement and rhythm of the shadows becomes a preoccupation. The shadows are soft, ghostly, and the slow and cautious rhythm of the figures suggests forms of apparition. The tone and hum of the room reminds me of the solemn environment of a prayer meeting, but perhaps I’m looking at the space in context of recent events, The way visitors experience the art work, and the way their bodies occupy the gallery space seems oddly fitting, both for the subject of the work on display and the the passing of the artist, Vivan Sundaram, just days before. There is an uncanny tension between the peace and catharsis alluded to in the use of architectural features, mirroring elements of Mughal architecture. The tension between a peaceful and silent memorialisation and the undertone of the anxieties and violence of the events being alluded to.

Memorial at Tate Modern, 2023, photo by Ananya Jain

Memorial is a 1993 multimedia installation made by pioneering modern and contemporary Indian artist Vivan Sundaram. The installation revolves around a singular image of an unidentified deceased man, taken by Photojournalist Hoshi Jal during the 1993 communal Bombay (Mumbai) Riots. The riots were just one of the many uprisings sparked in the aftermath of the demolition of the 16th century mosque Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. This event remains one that sparked a resurgence of large-scale religious tensions and violence, for the first time since the Partition of 1947. The work meditates upon ideas of death, violence, remembrance, precarity of lives, and the functioning of collective south asian memory, in a world driven by the photographic image. It raises countless questions that perhaps plagued Vivan, as he tried to come to terms with the waves of violence that spread across the nation, during the time this was made.

I think a lot about Susan Sontag’s words as I navigate the space.

Are some lives more valuable than others?

What is the role of photography in capturing ‘the pain of others?’

What are the implications of the fast pace of mechanical reproducibility of the image where trauma can be shot, and reproduced over and over again?

The questions remain as relevant as ever, even 30 years later in light of the increasing polarisation and right-wing nationalism that continues to take over the Indian national context. Whilst the installation is a ‘memorial’, from over 30 years ago, it could very much be a representation of present events.

Memorial at Tate Modern, 2023, photo by Ananya Jain

The installation was on display just days after the passing of Vivan Sundaram who was a pioneer of Indian Modern and Contemporary art practice. There is a wall label, accompanied by a bouquet of flowers on the left as soon as one enters the room, as an ode to the artist's contribution to the art world. The flowers, with their pink and lilac hues are visually discrepant to the dark and somber ambience of the space they occupy, yet in the context of the memorial, they are also fitting. I spend a long time looking at the shadows they cast on the walls, looking at the way the light hits them, thinking about how long it will take for them to dry out? Will they be replaced? When will they be replaced? Will the museum wait for them to completely decompose or will a fresh bunch be put there as soon as there are signs of minor decay? The flowers remind me of many others that are offered on graves, park benches, plaques, in public places where they often wither and dry out before anyone actually gets down to removing them. The work leaves me with many thoughts to meditate on, and I think about coming back again, and again to explore the ways in which I see the display anew each time.

Memorial at Tate Modern, 2023, photo by Ananya Jain

The rest of my afternoon was spent at Iniva (The Stuart Hall Library) in Pimlico, looking through as many exhibition manuals and catalogs I can find from Vivan’s highly dynamic, multi and interdisciplinary artistic practice. My regard and admiration for his practice only expands further after chancing upon works that I had previously not been aware of. The depth of his engagements with the world around him, continue to resonate with me despite the years that lie between us.

Multiple exhibition Catalogues found at Iniva.

After leafing through the material that I am able to find, I engage in making a collage of my own as an ode to him.

Memorial is currently on view at Tate Modern, London, on Level 0 of the Blavatnik Building and is free and open to all. Find more information here.



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