Artist: Vivan Sundaram
Location: Roshanara Bagh, New Delhi, India
Year of completion: 2008
Researcher: Leon Tan

Commissioned by Pooja Sood, Curator of 48°c Public Art Ecology (Delhi’s first public art festival), Flotage is a sculptural installation created by Vivan Sundaram for the ancient Mughal site Roshanara Bagh (Garden) in North Delhi. Designed, constructed and exhibited in December 2008, Flotage involved the artist working with the city’s waste-pickers and the environmental research and action group Chintan, in order to collect and assemble 10,000 plastic water bottles in a recessed area in direct line of sight of Roshanara’s Mausoleum. Organized as a grid within the recess in the ground that once contained water, the plastic bottles with their bright pink caps laid out a vibrant color field, effectively transforming the waste plastic into a visual spectacle, where otherwise they would usually disappear rapidly from the view of consumers of bottled water, hunted down and delivered to recycling sites in exchange for cash by waste pickers.

Flotage also consisted of two large egg-shaped helium balloons floating in the vicinity of the pink field of plastic caps, functioning as beacons signaling the presence of the recessed polka-dotted color field to visitors from afar. Taken together as a composition, the signaling beacons and the disposable containers for a public resource (water) that has increasingly become commodified as “blue gold,” Flotage may be understood as a meditation on large scale socio-economic processes, privatization of the commons, consumerist throw-away culture, and the resultant problem of accumulating waste, much of which has a very slow rate of decay. In fact, bottled water is responsible for approximately 1.5 million tons of plastic waste per year, requiring up to 47 million gallons of oil per year to produce. Bottled water is not only costly for the ecosystem, increasing reliance on it detracts from the development and maintenance of safe municipal water systems as a public good.

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As a durational installation, Flotage accomplished key objectives of the 48°c public art festival, namely, to interrogate the fragile Delhi ecosystem, one of the most polluted in the world, and to revitalize the Roshanara area, long abandoned and neglected within the city by drawing in numerous visitors and engaging them in leisure activities within the garden. As an extension of the project, Sundaram had the bottles (stacked 4-feet high) transported by a team of waste pickers on bicycles through the city streets to the neglected and polluted Yamuna River. This procession through the streets stimulated a great deal of public attention, prompting many questions to the waste-pickers, thus drawing attention to the life cycle of the ubiquitous commodity of the plastic water bottle. At the river, the bottles were assembled into a 45-foot-long raft, which was then floated along the Yamuna, finally becoming worthy of the project title.

A video-work was produced by Sundaram based on this aspect of Flotage, which was subsequently exhibited in the Berardo Museum, Portugal (2009), the Walsh Gallery, Chicago (2009) and in the Yamuna-Elbe public art project (2011-2012). Part of the Flotage work was acquired by the Berardo Museum, while the rest of the bottles were transported by waste-pickers to a shredding factory, where the plastic was converted into fibre-wool and on-sold as stuffing for puffer winter jackets for guarding against the elements. Flotage ultimately became “a recycling game” to quote the artist, involving not only the recycling of plastic in India, but also the recycling of documentary video across international sites, a game at once playful and serious, raising the specter of a coming war for the exploitation of blue gold.

All copyright belongs to Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, Shanghai University.

Progress Agency