Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS)


IAS Turbulence: Engine Oil and Charcoal

by Alison Wright


21 April 2020

Vivan Sundaram, 100,000 Sorties, ‘Engine Oil and Charcoal on Paper’, 1990–1991. © Vivan Sundaram. Courtesy of the artist.


Vivan Sundaram’s Engine Oil and Charcoal on Paper series (1990-1991), like the Deluge drawings by Leonardo da Vinci that inspired them, transform the pale, ‘landscape’ format sheet into a visionary, darkening disaster that is fully, sometimes explosively, in motion. Unlike Leonardo’s black chalk with ink, they act as much on or against the paper as with it. While still probing the potential of the surface to open into ungraspable depth, the drawing materials and their manipulation take on a new significance. Charcoal, which is more friable than chalk, lends itself still better to ‘smoked’ (sfumato) effects by rubbing with the fingers. Produced by slow-charring wood, charcoal is an ancient fuel that produces heat intense enough to forge metal. Burned engine oil, introduced into Sundaram’s drawings at the moment of the first Gulf War, is heavy, slick and penetrating – a spent fuel that continues to damage. By manipulating these materials energetically on the surface, Vivan moves us to see, perhaps smell, barrelling smoke, contamination, and singed bodies. As the materials lay waste to the paper, the analogy with the burning desert and the trace of devastation is absolutely direct. For me, the sepia stain also helps to align these events on paper with earlier acts of human or environmental holocaust, and with desert archaeology, but importantly, the oil is still active and ultimately corrosive, like the iron gall ink of the Renaissance. The continued political force of these drawings lies not just in their war critique, but in the way they remain physically eloquent of the forces of inhuman violence and expanding destruction, willed and otherwise. Nearly thirty years after their making, their environmental and geo-political condition seems even more our own. Even indiscriminate ‘elemental’ disasters, whether cataclysmic flood or forest fire, now emerge as every bit as man-made as burning fuel.

Alison Wright participated in IAS Turbulence: Engaging with Turbulence — A panel discussion on 7 May 2019. Please find more information here.

Alison Wright is Professor in Italian Art c. 1300-1550, at UCL. She has curated exhibitions at The National Gallery, London and her most recent book Frame Work: Honour and Ornament in Italian Renaissance Art (2019) investigates the visual and ideological work of Renaissance framing in the context of ritual and across media.

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