Engine Oil and Charcoal: Works on Paper – Vivan Sundaram
After the outbreak of the First Gulf War in 1991, Vivan Sundaram made an important set of around forty drawings, Engine Oil and Charcoal: Works on Paper, as a reaction to the horrors of massive oil spills, oil fires of volcanic lava, and the army squadrons burnt alive. Occupying a place in between drawing, painting and installation, these compositions mark a pivotal moment in the artist’s practice at a crucial historical juncture. Here, for the first time Sundaram abandoned conventional painting; this series marks his transition to the installation, video, digital photomontage, and multi-media work that defines his practice from 1991 onwards. The slick of crude oil becomes his medium, as he begins staining the surfaces of his paper with it to convey the televised accounts of the war. By rubbing charcoal with his fingers he creates a smoked effect, suggesting the scenes of a war-devastated landscape and the tortured earth, and signaling an unhinged common future. As Sundaram introduces burned engine oil into his drawings, he moves us to see and smell a barreling smoke and contamination by energetically applying the heavy fuel onto the surface of his paper. These drawings have become fragile artifacts in their own right, growing more brittle, discolored, and faded over time, reflecting the reality of eco-historical change that itself of crucial concern in the works.
Extracts from Mathur, Saloni. A Fragile Inheritance: Radical Stakes in Contemporary Indian Art. Duke University Press, Durham, 2019.