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The idea of a "desert trail," with its associations of hiking and exploration along natural pathways of the land, may well be a by-product of the American imagination. We can trace it back to the myth-making effects of early Hollywood westerns, where a desert trail was essentially a wagon trail, as in the 1935 film The Desert Trail, which featured the iconic actor John Wayne as a rodeo cowboy. A desert trail, in this sense, is also a "gringo trail," signaling the tracks of a foreign, Anglo presence in the landscape. Vivan Sundaram's Desert Trail (1991) in figure 1.1, a diptych made with engine oil and charcoal on paper, is definitely a picture in the spirit of the latter. It depicts a material trail, in the form of archaeological remains and petrochemical debris, in the aftermath of the first American invasion of Iraq. We are presented here with spillage, wreckage, shrapnel, fumes, and shell-shocked desert creatures in a shattered food chain. It is a portrait of an ecosystem ravaged by war, a corroded landscape of toxic remains, where unexploded ammunition settles into the soil alongside bones and (future) blasted limbs. This is certainly not the rambling desert trail of the John Wayne-as-rodeo cowboy sort. It is rather the hideous trail of a storm in the desert, or more precisely, the trail of Operation Desert Storm.
Sundaram's diptych is part of a series consisting of forty-some works on paper in engine oil and charcoal undertaken by the artist in 1991 in response to the first Gulf War. Occupying a place in between drawing, painting, and installation, these compositions, which were not exhibited outside of India until recently, mark a pivotal moment in the artist's practice at a crucial historical juncture. Here, for the first time Sundaram abandoned conventional painting and allowed his pictures to slide out of their frames and off their walls to generate alternative forms and relationships to the gallery space. The series thus marks Sundaram's transition to the installation, video, digital photomontage, and multimedia work that would define his art-making from 1991 on, a formal shift that was driven by several historical conditions of crises, namely, the international crisis of the first Gulf War, the collapse of the former Soviet Union, and the rise of communal violence in India, leading to the destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya by organized gangs of Hindu extremists the following year. Moreover, the economic reforms implemented by the Indian government in 1991 marked the beginnings of a new era of liberalization in the country, leading to the simultaneous phenomenon of India's neoliberal turn, which — for many — has had similarly cataclysmic effects. As Sundaram stated in response to these conditions in an interview, "Changed circumstances and new experiences required a new articulation." Elsewhere he reflected, "I began using unorthodox media, and then I started the process of breaking out of the easel format, such as by stitching sheets of paper together, which allow[ed] one into a space outside the frame, allowing me a greater flexibility."
In this chapter, I suggest that Sundaram's engine oil works, and his understated search for "greater flexibility" in 1991, represent something of a major constellation, the kind of coalescent gesture that T. J. Clark once described in the context of modern French painting as "supercharged with historical meaning" around which significance clusters. "The more we look and enquire" into such works, Clark stated, "the more facets of social reality they seem to touch and animate." Situated at the vanguard of the formal experimentation that radicalized Indian art in the 1990s, Sundaram's engine oil compositions were an important effort to grasp the new configurations and have proven to have an enduring relevance to the contemporary, even as they have refused to conform to the preservationist imperatives of archival conservation. The status of the materials in this project — oil, handmade paper, charcoal, and zinc — stands in marked contrast, for example, to those used by the British artist Richard Wilson, who also turned to recycled engine oil for his 1987 installation in London. Wilson's site-specific work, 20:50, filled the gallery to waist height with petroleum to produce a perception-altering reflective sea and remained permanently installed in the Saatchi Gallery in a custom-built room for over two decades, in a sense, fully absorbed into the commercial gallery space. By contrast, several of Sundaram's drawings with oil have become fragile artifacts in their own right, growing more brittle, discolored, and faded over time, reflecting the reality of eco-historical change that is itself of crucial concern in the work.
As I will show, the multiple and intertwined meanings of oil in Sundaram's series — at once a geological resource, a global commodity, and a painterly medium with its origins in Euro-Western high culture — point to the interconnections between vastly different histories of oil (ecological, art historical, economic, and political) and present a powerful indictment of the violence generated by American militarism in the Middle East. On one hand, Sundaram's images of falling bombs, cataclysmic explosions, and carcinogenic fumes work to expose the spectacular forms of military destruction unleashed by the "smart bomb" in two successive wars in Iraq and anticipate the expanded use of the aerial drone by the American military in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, and elsewhere. On the other hand, his mysterious oil-drenched images of fallen Babylonian soldiers and Akkadian kings point to a less visible, more elusive, and open-ended sense of devastation, a form of violence upon both culture and the land whose effects are distinctly linked to the passage of time.
The latter is a portrait of what literary critic Rob Nixon has defined as "slow violence," that which "seeps long term into ecologies," both rural and urban, and for generations to come, and whose hidden forces and protracted processes contrast sharply with the spectacle of high-speed global capitalism in our era. For Nixon, slow violence involves delayed effects, deferred victims, and the microprocesses of erosion and erasure; it refers to the "long dyings — the staggered and staggeringly discounted casualties, both human and ecological that result from war's toxic aftermaths" and penetrate the substratum of our planet. In what follows, I discuss how Sundaram's turn to certain materials, motifs, and techniques in this series — in particular, his embrace of archaeological detritus, petrochemical debris, and oscillating underground and overhead views — makes legible these new regimes of violence and vulnerability and provides the basis for a critical perspective linked not to abstract universals but to the materiality and logic of the concrete. Moreover, the radical temporality on display in these works, linking a fossilized, geo-civilizational past to a technological present and environmental future, will come to define many of Sundaram's later and more ambitious endeavors, for instance, the vast material landscapes composed from rubble and debris that form the basis of his project Trash (2005–8), which I analyze in chapter 4, and Black Gold (2012), which I discuss at the end of this chapter. I thus turn briefly here to lay some conceptual ground for grasping the persistence of this particular configuration in his work.
The Rubric of Ruination
In recent years, artists and intellectuals across the humanities and social sciences, often drawing upon the seminal insights of the German critic and theorist Walter Benjamin, have turned to the tropes of ruination, rubble, waste, and debris to reflect on the contingency and fragility of certain sociohistorical configurations associated with modernity. In his "Theses on the Philosophy of History," Benjamin famously posited progress as a storm that "keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage," leaving "a pile of debris" in its wake. Writing on the eve of the Nazi genocide of the Jews during the Second World War, the philosopher was drawn to these signs of material excess, accumulation, and decay to develop his critique of the ideology of progress and the forward march of European civilization. In his account, the romanticized classical and neoclassical topoi of the ruin, representing the rise and fall of glorious empires, came to signal a disenchantment with modernity and its myths of progress and civilizational glory. The account has helped to stimulate, as anthropologist Gastón Gordillo has explained, a shift away from the type of ruins studied by classical archaeology, "such as vestiges from an ancient past or sites associated with heritage and tourism, and toward modern, contemporary, industrial forms of decay and destruction, the physical and social detritus created the world over by capitalist, state and imperial projects and conflicts." Benjamin saw in ruins ambivalent "allegories of thinking itself," providing the basis for an expanded, more paradoxical, and less sentimental approach to ruination as a critical analytic for the modern era. The recent turn by anthropologist Ann Stoler to ruins as "epicenters of renewed claims, as history in a spirited voice, as sites that animate new possibilities, bids for entitlement, and unexpected political projects" is an impassioned effort within the social sciences to activate such a critical imagination.
Sundaram's turn to the physicality of detritus — to engine oil figured as petrochemical spill, to archaeological rubble in his installation Black Gold (2012), or to actual garbage from Delhi in Trash (2005–8) — involves a similar rejection of the grand narratives of civilization and a purposeful reappropriation of the materiality of debris. In these projects, as we shall see, refuse is simultaneously a hazard and a resource, a framework for historical understanding, and a powerful lens onto human subjectivity, for it defines those subjects who must survive its proximity and whose vulnerability and marginality are bound up in that fact. In Sundaram's art, ruins are left in the wake of wars and sectarian conflict; but they also result from other kinds of societal processes, for example, the excesses of consumption and accumulation arising from rapid and uneven urban expansion and growth. In the ruin-landscape of Black Gold (2012), moreover, a large-scale model composed of 2,000-year-old terra-cotta shards, there is no singular culprit or agent of destruction. Here, the more elemental processes of time, wind, and water lead to sunken places and forgotten pasts, as temporality intersects with human activity, and the aerial perspective summons not the mechanisms of imperial surveillance but a more abstract fantasy of history itself. Equally important in Sundaram's oeuvre, however, is that such motifs of degradation and decay are simultaneously images of renewal and regeneration. In other words, a productive dialectic between the material and the social is opened up through these frameworks of ruin and repair. This chapter thus investigates how three interlocking themes introduced for the first time in the engine oil series — the sophisticated semiotics of oil and debris; the place of archaeology, landscape, and the ruin; and the visual optic of the aerial perspective — converge in a powerful portrait of our human ecology in crises that is more relevant today than ever before.
The Epistemology of Oil
Figure 1.2, titled Land Shift, an exemplary piece from the series, depicts twelve pieces of paper stitched together — beginning on the wall and stretching onto the floor — in front of which is a flat zinc tray containing a small black pool of engine oil. The dark swirls make the work distinctly geological; it is like a profile cut from the substratum of the land depicting a microecology of indiscernible processes. Here, accumulations of oil point to an elusive dynamics of metabolic exchange. We sense movement, mutation, and disruption as petroleum insidiously mingles with earth. But what is the nature of the "shift" in Land Shift? Is this a picture of a "natural" mineral deposit in the soil bed being subjected to processes of sedimentation and flow? Or is it a portrait of an unnatural thing — of contamination — that speaks to the formlessness and terrible irrevocability of the hazardous leak or toxic spill? Here, as fossil fuel meets the fossil record, we sense an ambiguous new ecological order where chemicals are literally inseparable from the soil and where it becomes difficult to discern what is unjust or out of place. At the same time, a number of associations with oil are established: "oil" is simultaneously an artistic medium, a geological entity belonging to the land, a commodity that is dredged from the earth (hijacked, collected, and contained), and a substance released back into the land as industrial waste or hazardous spill.
Another picture shown in figure 1.3, titled Approaching 100,000 Sorties, reveals that oil in Sundaram's series is also at the contested center of American militarism in the Persian Gulf. The phrase in his title, like that of Desert Trail, highlights the cruel vocabulary produced by the American political elite by playing on those perverse sets of military euphemisms like "Desert Storm," "Enduring Freedom," "Shock and Awe," and the "War on Terror," designed to conceal the violence inherent in their operations. Like the previous work, this one also constructs a profile of a landscape, but now as a series of explosive collisions or — as the title suggests — as an act of violence on the landscape of Iraq. These and other images mimic explosions, or more accurately, they propel you into the moment of an explosion: we are presented here with a formation of bombs dropped from above, a swirling cloud of black smoke, vortexes, chaos, and general fallout and debris. On the floor again is the zinc tray of engine oil, this time like a miniature boat docked in front of this great picture of destruction, or — as you move closer to the piece — like a black glass mirror through which the viewer adds their reflection to the whole alienating scene. It is the voracious historical appetite of modern warfare for petroleum, the deadly complicity between oil and war, that these oil-saturated images of combustion and destruction evoke in a particularly haunting way.
"Petroleum resists the five-act form," Bertolt Brecht stated in his 1929 response to a play about the effects of an oil strike in Albania. "Today's catastrophes do not proceed in a straight line but in cyclical crises." Brecht's comments, emerging from the fraught conditions of modernity in Weimar Germany, express the necessity of grasping modernity's catastrophic effects in a nonlinear, dialectical way and speak to the difficulty of presenting oil's industrial realities within the conventions of traditional aesthetic forms. "Petroleum creates new relationships," he argued, which are immensely complicated and "can only be simplified by formal means" (emphasis in original). The formal challenge of representing the twentieth century's oil experience was similarly the subject of a short essay by the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh, titled "Petrofiction: The Oil Encounter and the Novel" and published in 1992, a year after the start of the first Gulf War and Sundaram's own formal experiments with oil. Ghosh's essay was a review of the "immense significance" of Jordanian writer Abdelrahman Munif's Cities of Salt, the first of five novels in Arabic dealing with the history of oil, and it questioned the lack of creative writing on the subject and decried the "barrenness" and "imaginative sterility" that had characterized this epic story until then. For Ghosh, the history of oil, with its principal protagonists — America, on one side, and the peoples of the Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf, on the other — had been a devastatingly painful story, "a matter of embarrassment verging on the unspeakable, the pornographic." The world of oil, he argued, with its "bafflingly multilingual" communities "lived out within a space that is no place at all," is "intrinsically displaced, heterogeneous, and international" and challenges the novel's comfortable relation to the settled boundaries of nation-states; "it tends to trip fiction into incoherence." Ghosh's account pointed toward the dispersed spatial, temporal, and geopolitical coordinates of the twentieth century's experience with oil, and it emphasized — in contrast to Brecht — the specifically postcolonial character of this slippery terrain.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Fragile Inheritance"
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Table of ContentsPreface vii
Introduction: Radical Stakes 1
1. Earthly Ecologies 40
2. The Edifice Complex 72
3. The World, the Art, and the Critic 96
4. Urban Economies 129
Epilogue: Late Styles 160
What People are Saying About This
“Saloni Mathur's A Fragile Inheritance immerses the reader in the long march of Geeta Kapur and Vivan Sundaram, leading figures of India's avant-garde in criticism and artistic practice. Against the background of the indescribable complexity of India's many languages, political parties, and aesthetic movements, Mathur traces parallel and intersecting careers with a brilliant sense of the improvisatory, provisional, and timely character of their numerous interventions over half a century. Renouncing any claim to survey the art of India, or to provide a progressive narrative of relentless novelty, Mathur provides an in-depth account of works, projects, ideas, and the situations in which they arose. Writing ‘alongside’ rather than ‘about’ the work of these two essential figures, Mathur offers a striking model of engaged critical practice in a project that is far from finished.”
“This critical retake on the work of Geeta Kapur and Vivan Sundaram offers a deeply informed reading of their joint and separate works but also turns the biographical norm inside out, reading their lives as illuminations of their tempestuous times and not simply as cases or examples of larger processes. It will be read with keen interest by anyone who cares about the making of modern art worlds in places like India.”