First as a painter and subsequently in large-scale conceptual installations, Vivan Sundaram's artistic practice has responded to contemporary politics with radical vanguardism. After graduating from the MS University, Baroda in 1965, Sundaram held a Commonwealth Fellowship for study at the Slade School, London between 1966-68, becoming politically active as a student and remaining so afterwards. Working primarily from Baroda in the 1970s, he participated in the Artists' Protest Movement and was among a group of emerging artists advocating local concerns through a language of figurative narration.
Sundaram participated in the landmark 1981 exhibition "Place for People" in Bombay and Delhi in 1981, the force for which germinated during the Artists' Workshops he had organized in Kasauli in the late 1970s. "Signs of Fire," a solo exhibition of works on paper and mixed media that referenced materials and changes in the natural environment, was held at Gallery Chemould, Bombay, in 1985.
Experimentation with alternative media led to a shift away from painting in 1991. With the project "Collaboration/Combines," executed in New Delhi and at Gallery Chemould in 1992, Sundaram became one of the first artists in India to produce installation art. The series "Riverscape" (1992-93) used traditional artists materials like charcoal on paper alongside industrial products like engine oil and steel, fashioning three-dimensional elegies to a decayed environment.
Sundaram's seminal installation "Memorial" (1993) responded powerfully to the December 1992 destruction of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and the violent aftermath. "House/Boat" (1994) narrated the trope of migration away from one's home, suggesting also a dialectic between monumental construction and detailed craftsmanship. The artist's sustained exploration of the politics of 'home' culminated in his 1999 solo exhibition "Shelter." He produced for that show Bunk-Bed, which used the structure of a bed to consider issues of sleep, desire, and sexuality.
In 2001-2, Sundaram began the photomontage and video project "Re-take of Amrita." Manipulating photographs of Amrita Sher-Gil taken by Umrao Singh (Sher-Gil's father and Sundaram's grandfather), the artist complicated issues of preexisting artistic agency and familial relationships and history. The series employed the concept of the archive, and drew also on The Sher-Gil Archive, which Sundaram had created in 1995-6. In 2007, Sundaram exhibited his Retake series, along with his other works that drew in his aunt thematically, at the landmark exhibition "Amrita Sher-Gil" at the Haus der Kunst, Munich, and the Tate Modern, London.