Gagawaka: Making Strange
Published by: Chemould Prescott Road
Size – 8 x 10.75 inches
Price: Rs. 2,750/- [includes DVD]
When I saw the Gagawaka presentation by artist Vivan Sundaram at Lalit Kala Academy, I was perplexed. It was neither a fashion show, nor was it evocative of art traditionally seen within a gallery space. There were dancers performing and walking alongside professional models and artists too were participants on the makeshift stage cum ramp. The garments, if indeed they could be classified as such, were bizarre to say the least, yet they were crafted with finesse and some of them were quite marvellous to see. I kept wondering how to contextualize this presentation. It was neither art nor fashion and neither was it breaking totally new ground for in the two decades that I have taught at NIFT, I have seen design students create equally, if not more creatively bizarre garments.
With the intention of finding some context to place this artistic offering within, I picked up the book ‘Gagawaka, Making Strange’, published by Chemould Prescott Road. A slim volume, visually lush with numerous full-page colour photographs of each work, it also includes a DVD of the performance/fashion show and essays by Deepak Ananth, an art historian based in Paris, Shanay Javeri who is a PhD candidate at the Royal College of Art in London and Gitanjali Dang, an “independent curator-critic and shape-shifter” based in Mumbai.
Ananth takes us through a rich, art historical discourse beginning with a rag picker reference citing Baudelaire and later with references to the Futurists, the Dada movement, Oscar Wilde, Arte Povera, Duchamp, Andy Warhol and more. He claims that “from the ragpicker to gladrags, from the lower depths to the bourgeois salon – the contrast will appear flagrant or incongruous only to those unaware of their co-presence in the inaugural texts on modernity”. Though erudite and interesting his essay does not extrapolate this “co-presence” with clarity. He also quotes lavishly from Roland Barthes and brings in references to artists who have made some foray into the realm of fashion, but never quite manages to present the evolution of the ragpicker-fashion designer with any level of conviction. He cites the ragpicker icon in reference to Sundaram’s “delve into detritus” with an installation ‘The Great Indian Bazaar’ , which is followed by ‘The Brief Ascension of Marian Hussain’  and other works that incorporate trash. Implicit in the use of ‘trash’ is the image of the rag picker, but in Gagawka, Sundaram does not use items only collated from garbage bins and kabadiwala’s. A lot of them did not seem used, but newly bought. In addition, a twist to this argument emerges when Ananth states that the initial point of Sundaram’s departure for creating this collection was the body; more pertinently, the body’s distress, which arose from the artist’s own experience of a body “punished by pain”. The argument centred on trash then becomes confusing.
During a period of convalescence Sundaram was inspired to use medical paraphernalia to create garments, transposing materials used for healing the body to create another kind of body. This was done, perhaps, to cloak the presently dysfunctional one as a way of exorcising the body’s infirmity, to present the antipode of sickness through the glamorous dimension of fashion. This disclosure lends far greater authenticity to the body of work than the historical antecedent of detritus or the on-going relay between art and fashion. However, for this most pertinent revelation Ananth does not cite historical precedence or context. Neither does he tell us about Sundaram’s experience through this venture, which we are told was both therapeutic and cathartic. He does not reveal how it benefitted the artist, which could perhaps be the most significant contribution of this venture.
Shanay Jhaveri does not delve into detritus or history but focuses upon his viewing in four episodes, of the work as a moving installation cum performance cum fashion show and also a static exhibition, beginning with his anticipation before the preview, where he was invited to engage with the artist about the work. He describes the performance evocatively, brings films into reference and also mentions fashion stalwarts such as Miyake, Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto and others who have used garments in an architectural and sculptural way, but neither of these two writers provide a considered fashion perspective. Jhaveri however, does not try and provide answers but raises oblique questions. In discussing one particular performance consisting of a single garment, where the performer had been internally ‘miked’ and every breath amplified and broadcast to the audience he says: “Did a force to know, and not forget, guide the performance? Did it precipitate a state of knowing?” After the four encounters he concludes that Gagawaka is an “expansive practice, a constellation, a set of platforms through which a series of questions are asked.”
Dang’s essay is placed strategically between these two and is significant because she does not allude to the work but speaks tangentially of an improbable, bizarre situation, bringing an element of fiction into play. Her essay echoes the discomfort I felt in trying to contextualize the work within the parameters of art and fashion and made fascinating reading.
This volume does not provide a reassuring context to view the work within but raises issues. Is Vivan Sundaram charting new territory, where the cathartic and therapeutic qualities inherent in art-making are the key to understanding this work? Will the art of tomorrow emphasize what artists say, not so much about the world to the world, but what the process of art-making does to the maker, revealing him to himself? Ananth’s almost casual mention of Sundaram’s convalescence as impetus for Gagawaka, generates interest, more so than the historical precedence for this work, or lack of it.