Nikhil Chopra is camping at the Met

Performance artist Nikhil Chopra is traversing the Metropolitan Museum of Art, tent and sleeping bag in hand, exploring questions of identity and Land Water Sky

This month, performance artist Nikhil Chopra plans to pitch a canvas tent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the 150-year-history of the New York museum, he will probably be the first to do so. The tent will be coloured indigo on the outside, to reflect the sky, and inside, he will draw landscapes, while ‘camping’ like a nomadic traveller.

The trope of the itinerant painter has always appealed to Chopra — the 2019-20 Artist in Residence at the Met — but this time, when he revives and reprises the role, he will be surrounded by priceless artefacts. “Naturally, it is difficult to negotiate a space like the Met because one has to be aware of the artworks and the aura they inspire. Yet it is an encouragement to create a live intervention and reaction to these prized pieces,” says the artist, whose durational performances have the contemplative act of drawing at its heart.

Chopra, 45, will perform live for nine consecutive days and eight nights, in three different spots in the museum — drawing, singing (accompanied by a sound artist), eating, changing costumes and sleeping. And the overarching theme will be Land Water Sky. “While my work will celebrate the natural landscape, it will also quietly ask, whose land, whose water and whose sky? These questions are becoming very important, especially in the 21st century,” he tells me, over a scratchy phone line from New York.

Nikhil Chopra is camping at the Met

Goa to New York

Two years ago, on a balmy December afternoon, Shanay Jhaveri, Assistant Curator at the Met’s Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, and co-curator Limor Tomer (General Manager of Live Arts), had visited Chopra in his Goa studio. After partaking of a lavish lunch — sharing of food (a ‘living’ aspect of art) is an important part of the artist’s practice — they’d discussed the residency. “As soon as Nikhil proposed the idea of a nomadic traveller crossing the various imaginary national frontiers of the galleries of the Met, we knew we were developing something that was ambitious and conceptually challenging,” Jhaveri says, adding, “The performance is querying the physical organisation as well as engaging with its historic collection. It will raise questions about the displacement of past colonialism and present day migration.”

The space adapts naturally to Chopra’s work, that ranges between live art, theatre, painting, sculpture, photography and installations. His performances, which, for the most part, dwell on issues like identity, combine everyday life and collective history to convey his message. “His work is layered and considered. It interfaces with our historical past with great intelligence, but in an ever-accelerating, image-based culture, Nikhil’s practice is deeply grounded in the experience of the body, of the lived experience, in slowness, the long duration, and it is this aspect that has always captivated me,” shares Jhaveri, who has been working on getting more Indian and South Asian art represented at the Met Breuer.

Nikhil Chopra is camping at the Met

Mapping the Met

Chopra began his performance on September 12, climbing up the Met’s steps and making his way to the Egyptian Temple of Dendur in the Sackler Wing. A couple of days later, he moved to the Modern and Contemporary Art Gallery housing Sol Le Witt’s abstract Wall Drawing #370 (1982), a series of 10 geometric paintings that will also inform his work while there. Finally, he will end his performance in the Robert Lehman Wing’s skylit courtyard, where the ongoing exhibition, In Praise of Painting: Dutch Masterpieces at The Met, is housed. “It features names like Rembrandt, Hals and Vermeer,” he says. “Since a lot of my work is painting and drawing based, I think it will be my fitting tribute to the great masters.”

While he creates his large-scale, immersive landscapes, he will use his own body as an artistic medium, adopting a number of personae, changing costumes and applying make-up. Through this, he will interrogate how identities are formed and understood. As he told The Art Newspaper, “Somewhere I will look like an abstract painting, somewhere a shaman, and somewhere I might even look like a Chinese lantern, with tassels hanging from of my costume.” He will don a red spandex bodysuit, evoking the body masks worn by the Asmat tribes (represented in Oceania, the Met’s display of art from the Pacific islands), and on the last evening, he will wear a costume with embroidery that maps the constellations for that date.

Nikhil Chopra is camping at the Met

Artist as a young man

In the past, I’ve seen Chopra, covered in charcoal, frantically sketching on a wall, dressed in nothing but a loincloth, his eyes wide and full of an almost animal instinct, as he draws the world outside on the walls of the gallery within. This was in 2010, when he executed a performance, titled Yog Raj Chitrakar: Memory Drawing X, with Mumbai’s Chatterjee & Lal. I know the extent to which he can become absorbed by his performance.

Since his early days at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda’s Faculty of Fine Arts (where he and I were batchmates), Chopra’s practice emerged from that of drawing and veered towards theatre. He was part of a theatre group, The Play House, directed by Arun Agnihotri, and even in those formative years, his performances stood out for their intensity and conviction. His ability to transcend the limitations of the stage, to become the character he was portraying, stands him in good stead today as a performance artist. “It is a search of the sublime, in the persona of a hopeless romantic. The melancholia and irony of my performances reflect the mess of the world we as humans continue to make,” says Chopra of his journey.

As a painter, too, he never took the conventional route. He wanted to experiment with live drawing in public spaces from a very early stage in his artistic career. Some of my most vivid memories of him are at the faculty canteen, sketching portraits, being ‘watched’ by a possible ‘audience’. He has always revelled in the gaze of a viewer.

Nikhil Chopra is camping at the Met

Chopra’s many faces
  • He has performed internationally since 2005. Chopra’s key performances include transforming himself into Queen Victoria at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai (2010) and as Le Perle - Noire Le Marais (The Black Pearl) at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. At the latter, he addressed matters of India’s colonial history through the trope of sea-faring ‘conquer and conquest’. Other solo performances include Fire Water, at the 2nd Yinchuan Biennale (China, 2018); Drawing a Line Through Landscape, documenta14, Athens (Greece) and Kassel (Germany, 2017); Blackening VI, Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester (UK, 2017) and La Perla Negra, La Bienal de Habana (Cuba, 2016).

Balancing personal and political

A large part of Chopra’s performance is spontaneous, so it is difficult to predict what he will execute. But the duration is important, since they are known to last for days and stretch his mental and physical endurance. At the Met, as he admitted to The Observer, he thinks of it as going on a trek, with his sleeping bag and food supply. “Climbing the mountain, going over the pass and descending, then the fatigue and the euphoria all play themselves out over these days. While I don’t do any real preparation, other than working on the drawings (in his studio, over the past few months), I’ve gone on a couple of treks since I took on this project, to prepare myself, precisely because of that sense of endurance that is addressed. I have to confront my body and its limitations.”

Bringing in autobiographical elements into his work, though, comes more naturally. Land, water and sky have been recurring themes in his work since last year, but their genesis goes back much further. “As a child, I spent many summers in Pahalgam with my grandparents, in their cottage on the Liddar River. My grandfather was what they call a ‘Sunday painter’, and I grew up around his landscapes and I guess that had an impact on my own practice,” he says, observing that the personal and the political are always entwined. “They had to sell their home for a pittance in 1989, when the area became politically troubled. My formative years were framed within this landscape.” With Pahalgam a political hot-bed right now, it will be interesting to see how Chopra will incorporate it into his performance at the Met.

Chopra will be performing at the Met till September 20.

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2020 2:19:10 AM |

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