Inside Out Artist

Nikhil Chopra redraws history in performance
REPURPOSED
REPURPOSED, UNFINISHED: As the performance progresses, Chopra transforms from an austere figure standing out in white against the bare concrete walls of an unused space in a half-empty mall to a dark shadow, blackened and enervated by the labour of recreating a remembered Saket (BLACKENING V, 2013/KIRAN NADAR MUSEUM OF ART | PHOTOS: SAHEJ RAHAL/COSTUME: LOIS BRAGANZA)

Nikhil Chopra’s Blackening V, recently at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), occupies the space where performance, installation, theatre, disguise, live drawing, history and photography collide. For his site-specific performances, which can last several days, Chopra creates fictionalised archetypal personae rooted in personal or cultural memory. These characters, inhabited by the artist, move in a fluid space around the site. The result is a lived-in performance where every action, from the eating of a meal to the creation of a large scale charcoal drawing, is infused with critical meaning and symbolism.

Chopra, born in 1974 in Calcutta, is one of India’s most interesting performance artists. He has shown work and gained recognition across the world. Blackening V, part of the KNMA’s Inhabiting the Museum series, was performed over two days at DLF South Court Mall in Saket, Delhi, where the museum is located. The Inhabiting the Museum series seeks to explore the museum as a site and subject of art production, and investigates the idea of ‘belonging’ in an institutional framework.

Blackening V is only one part of a week-long programme centred around Chopra’s work, which also included a three-day performance art workshop on body work by the artist, his wife Madhavi Gore and Slovenian artist Yana Prepeluh. It concluded with a talk by Chopra titled ‘Memory Drawing’, about his work and methodologies.

On the 4th and 5th of May, if you happened to wander while out shopping and sipping your latte into the half-empty new mall, you may have encountered Chopra in a yet unoccupied store, painting his face white and shaving his head. In Hinduism, the shaving of the head is a symbolic offering to appease the gods, a shedding of ego, identity and the past. In Chopra’s performance, the action suggests all of those, plus a transformation of character. A white pleated muslin kurta, churidar, and a lush moustache, as well as a carefully constructed persona slipped over his head, point towards an austere North Indian farmer, possibly a historical tribal/villager/Gandhian archetype. He is the critical outsider, wandering through the shining granite and glass underbelly of the urban beast of mass consumption and instant gratification, whose land and sense of identity have long been swallowed. As the performance unfolds in slow, deliberate movements, everyday actions like drinking tea or sleeping become ritualised—an essential part of the script.

A collaboration with historian Sohail Hashmi and Masterji from Khirkee village informed the artist’s reimagining of the Saket area without its now central malls. This memory of Saket was literally drawn onto the store walls after they were painted white—an ephemeral smudgy black-and-white charcoal landscape contrasting the glossy colour photographic aesthetic of the advertisements all around the mall. The drawing has been left there as a remnant of the process, emphasising the experience of making the work rather than the drawing itself, which is now a documentation of memory, a memory that constantly expands meaning. If the act of drawing, making maps, taking photographs or making images of something is an act of claiming ownership over it, then it is especially poignant to have this particular persona of a displaced farmer redrawing Saket without its malls.

The audience for this 32-hour performance ranged from the usual artists, friends of artists and culture vultures to casual shoppers, mall security guards and young people drinking at pubs late into the night. There is a tangible tension between the spectator and the silent, aloof artist inviting witnesses to interpret meaning and build their own narratives from the visual and gestural clues offered by the part-improvised, part-planned performance. Though constantly gazed upon, the character inhabits a solitary world, viscerally engaging with his identity and the historical memory of the space in which he finds himself. Props such as an unmade white bed, two empty bottles of wine and other carefully chosen objects set up to resemble still-life paintings reinforce the narrative.

Chopra’s complex performances mingles personal histories, cultural memories, narrative storytelling and everyday life through drawing, disguise and installation. It is here, on the cusp of life and art, history and the present, inside and outside, public and private, the personal and the institutional that you will find the artist, occupying the spaces between spaces, blurring the boundaries between them, and, finally, achieving the alchemical transformation of one into the other in an infinite loop.