Art: Making Beautiful Pictures Out of Garbage

Mountains of garbage have never looked more beautiful than in Vivan Sundaram's photographs. His exhibit "Trash," now on view in Manhattan's Sepia gallery (before traveling to Sydney and Tokyo), includes 15 large-scale photos and three video installations that depict the underside of the economic boom gripping his home city, Delhi. Used soda cans, soiled milk bags, empty yogurt containers, dirty toothbrushes and plastic toys mix with industrial waste products to create a striking indictment of consumption.

Sundaram assumed the role of architect and curator in developing the show. In his vast Delhi studio, he created a faux cityscape with the garbage he collected from waste pickers. Then he directed two photographers to capture the tableau from various perspectives and digitized the results, adding music to turn some into video installation. Though his process reflects the works of some early modern artists—collages by Picasso and Matisse or Joseph Cornell's boxes—his subject is contemporary: the detritus of rapid globalization. With the collected garbage, he built miniature landfills and precarious towers that tumble repeatedly in his videos. The uncanny effect of assembling such ugly waste is that it produces esthetic pleasure. "Artifice is central," he says. "The work is meant to be beautiful."

"Trash" is the logical outgrowth of a theme that has engaged Sundaram since 1997, when he put together "Great Indian Bazaar," a show for which he shot secondhand goods, displayed the photographs on city sidewalks and sold them at nominal prices. For his "living.it.out.in.delhi" exhibit in 2005—which he describes as a "sociological project"—he photographed 500 waste pickers and invited them into the show's gallery to sell their wares." 'Trash' is more abstract, it's about the environment, it's about labor—those who work in an unrepresented domain—about how the city transforms itself at a rapid pace," says Sundaram, 66. "All good and glossy things are foregrounded, but there are others that don't get named. As an artist, I'm looking at the visual urban landscape to make beautiful pictures out of it."

The Delhi he depicts is not the city in which he grew up. Known as the "garden city" for its beauty, the Indian capital was never a teeming urban metropolis like Bombay or Calcutta. Transformed overnight, Delhi has leapfrogged into the 21st century, bypassing the age of industrialization and fast-forwarding directly into the high-tech era. It is home to the urban complexes of Noida and Gurgaon, the ugly hub of the industrial, IT and call centers that have come to define the new India, where the fast-growing, aggressive middle class works. In his video "Turning," Sundaram interprets this phenomenon as displacement and regeneration, where the trash towers collapse and then get re-created. He observes that it's the new middle class who are the world's biggest consumers, and produce most of the trash that informs our visual landscape.

Recycling is another important theme in "Trash." As a poor country, India has always recycled. Nothing gets thrown away; everything from old newspapers to used clothing has traditionally been bought and sold. In "12-Bed Ward," Sundaram creates a huge installation with beds made from iron frames and the rubber soles of discarded shoes. The beds look sterile and institutional, as if they belonged in a hospital, dormitory, concentration camp or jail; with their shadows on the floor cast by the dim light from naked bulbs, they evoke night and melancholy. The soles from shoes worn out by waste pickers make up the base of the beds and, as Sundaram discovered, such soles have another incarnation to come: they will be recycled into new shoes. In fact, an entire industry has grown up around garbage. As he was planning his upcoming public art project—a 13-meter boat made out of water bottles—he learned that empty plastic bottles are cut into tiny chips and then turned into "fibrous wool," which is exported to China as stuffing for puffy jackets.

Even as Sundaram's work explores esthetic concerns, it raises political questions about millions of uneducated people who work day and night to sort and recycle things. "It's a huge industry that is part of our landscape," he says. "You can't wish it away, just as you can't wish away the poor. The urban middle and upper class, rather than turn away from the garbage they generate, must face the reality of the people outside their gated colonies." Sundaram did, and turned it into art.