By Sukant Deepak
New Delhi, Feb 20 (IANS) He says magic always happens in slippages and place in between things. Breaking expectations, tying a tight rope across a space, conceptually is what is most important for him. And then, walking that line between sky and earth, between gravity and flight, between falling and flying. And that is where India’s best known performance artist Nikhil Chopra is most alive — between reality and fiction, between today and yesterday, soft and hard, land and water, earth and sky, day and night.
“Now, some of the most interesting communities in the world are the ones which exist near borders for they adopt multiple cultures and what emerges is a something peculiar. That something else is what I am interested in. Some of the most exciting movements in life are always in that space. When you are in a half sleep state, and you feel the lover’s hand on your leg…the experience of that touch. That crack, that little window makes us experience the enormous universe. As soon as life is static, it ceases to exist, and is forgotten,” says Chopra, who was the 2019-2020 Artist in Residence at the prestigious Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, USA.
Chopra, who was part of the recently concluded Goa Open Arts Festival had two strong creative desires while completing his graduation at Faculty of Fine Arts at M.S. University, Baroda — art and theatre. Even as he enjoyed the process of discovering things on canvas while in the studio, he also got involved with an amateur theatre company ‘Playhouse’ during the years 1997-99 and started acting on the stage. Some of the theatre started to play in the subjects of his paintings too.
“I started to enjoy creating scenarios not as a narrative painter, but as someone who was interested in looking at it from the place of theatre. It was not until I went to the US and started to get exposed to performance art and its ability to create really powerful and political meaning that I acknowledged what was really creating that power. It was essentially coming from the dynamics that the artists’ art was creating with its live audience, and the ability to hold the attention of the live audience and deliver a message,” says the artist who in 2007, dressed as a character based on his grandfather walked to the Lal Chowk in Srinagar, drawing houses on the road.
Chopra, who participated in the Havana Biennale (2015) and the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009, and co-founded HH Art Spaces in Goa in 2014, which has been instrumental in pushing alternative events and spaces in Goa, says that when it comes to performance art, generating a dialogue is easy, but producing performances and convincing funders is not. “But then, we are interested in the dialogue it generates, that’s why we go through all the effort that goes into producing, no?”
Stressing that performance art is definitely becoming more and more familiar, especially within the art community, and has come to be recognised as a serious form of engagement with material and as a highly aestheticised practice, he adds, “It’s a politically charged form of art. When Marina Abramovic had a retrospective at MOMA, it meant performance is here. And forever. Not that I am attributing all the credit to her, but she is the symbol of that becoming. She is also the culmination of a lot of body of work that preceded here. Micheal Jackson needed the James Brown. Making doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens because a fabricating an idea is not a solo endeavour.”
Chopra, whose career picked up soon after his first solo show with Mumbai-based Chatterjee & Lal in 2008 even as he was already preparing for ‘The Indian Highway’, which travelled to six major art museums and institutions in Europe, uses a lot of drawings in his performances as a tool to transform spaces and alter relationships with walls, floor and ceiling, thereby challenging the confined architecture. A flat wall suddenly starts to represent infinity as there is a seascape has been drawn or because there is representation of disappearing horizon lines or gathering storms.
“The drawing and all the detritus from the drawings, for example, the dust from the charcoal, the muddiness from the mud also transform the body. Not just the space, but the body transforms as well. We are all built into the work and composed into it. At the end of the day, there is this desire to create an image which will offer us the objectivity to read what is going on beyond the fact that the body is suffering . We can then distance ourself from the body, look at it as material. We can only do that if we are successful in thinking about it as material. Often I get asked, how can you be so brutal in your connection with the body? How can you be just flesh, bones. What about love and pain, joy? What about politics that emirate from body? What is important to realise is that when I am performing, I am not Nikhil. My work is political and there are obvious political signifiers that are sent out there for people to read.”
Talking about his process, this Goa-based practitioner insists that he believes in following a rhythm and not routine as the latter is regimented while the former is lyrical. “I would align myself with rhythm because I would rather listen to my inner drum than the clicking of my clock. Routines are boring, they are without creativity while rhythms come from the creative space. The moment I start to fall into a routine, I start to worry. Routine is so external, rhythm so internal.”
Forever interested in intermixing of fact and fiction and believing that history is very interpretative, the artist feels that there are always a million invisible stories that come together to form large one. “And then, history has always been written by the victors. Don’t we all know that what is taught in school is always just one side of the story, something that must be challenged. Imagine, in the UK, school students are not taught anything about the British colonial history. What linearity are we talking about when in certain histories those lines have been erased or systematically an effort is made to ease them. The attitude is whatever is uncomfortable, leave it out.
Feeling that Goa allows him to crawl into his own forest and get away with things that he does, Chopra adds, “There is no self-censorship and I can have deep stakes here without anyone batting an eye lid. Stating that platforms like the Goa Open Arts Festival goes to show that there is a real urgency amongst artists to create this kind of a platform, he adds, “To have this kind of dialogue and interaction… all around there is talent — and not just artists from Goa, but also those who have moved to the state which offers not just physical, but also intellectual space.”
Talk to him about art in public spaces, and Chopra feels that when it comes to performance art, public spaces in India are not potent enough, as urban spaces are a constant spectacle and have always been a place for showmanship — a place where all social dramas get played out.
“In that milieu/chaos, when you put performance art or any other art, it is going to be received in the exact same way as any other spectacle. People will gather and watch. When it is done, they will go home. Will it have any effect? Yes, maybe it could, but largely speaking, it gets lost. People need to be lured into institutional spaces. That’s the work that needs to be done. It’s important to bring the public to the art, you can’t do the opposite because we are an over saturated and over-stimulated nation and frankly speaking, a very small percentage of us have the tools to understand and receive art.
“In order for us to make a case about art, we need to block out the less of the chaos. Maybe India needs more white cube spaces where you are able to look at the art exclusive of anything else around it. And are able to have a quiet, contemplative engagement with it. The art space is really important because everything needs a framework.
“It is important to have performance work inside spaces to be read and experienced as paintings, sculpture and video. Young performance artists find it very easy to walk out on the street and gather attention. You just have to be a bit of a freak in this country and boom — you got a crowd. Try that in Europe, and it’s not easy. It’s a totally different story. When a guy on the street can walk comfortably into a beautiful institution with his family, we have done our job. And that’s where art will get democratised.”
Pleased that major art and film festivals are finding a space outside metros, Chopra feels that bigger cities are not only full, but even the space for creativity is becoming slimmer.
“It becomes difficult for us to function when one is choked for space, ideas money and opportunity. Outside of metros, you find yourself in a much cleaner, saner, bearable living situation which helps expand our critical mass at a highly accelerated rate. Information and accessibility to technology is everywhere, so why are we hanging on to our urban spaces as cultural practitioners? Culture goes where the practice goes.
“As far as I am concerned, we are very excited about trying to make Goa a cultural hub. The biggest mistake any artist can make is assuming their audience. To assume what your audience is going to think is to dumb them down. We never want to limit our audience to a person or a particular kind of people. We make work for ourselves that we put out there for everyone to witness. Now look at Goa, it feels like the last really liberal corner left in the subcontinent. It’s the only place you can dress how you want to. You can walk on the streets at 4 a.m. It’s probably the only place in the subcontinent where you feel your neighbours aren’t judging you.
“It allows artists to be themselves — to experiment with ideas and be risqué. I’m thankful that Goa wasn’t a British Colony – I think that different cultural background sets it apart. Being in touch with nature, the food, the beach, the quality of spaces and architecture – these things set it apart. It has a really deep impact on people who move here and live here. For an artist I think it’s an unbeatable quality of life.”
In the recent future, HH Art Spaces, which has been invited in a collaboration with Galleria Continuaa in Italy, and a space called Bagni Misteriosi in Milan, is taking 12 artists, of which six are Goa — based for an exhibition titled ‘Haze’. HH will be curating the show will open April 15 this year.