Beginning Thursday, September 12, Goa-based performance artist Nikhil Chopra will present a 9-day performance at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. For nine consecutive days, Chopra will live within the Museum as he presents his performance titled, Lands, Waters, Skies.
Chopra, who is the 2019-20 Artist in Residence at the Met, is the first artist in the Museum’s 150 year history to actually live within the museum for any duration of time.
45-year-old Chopra who completed his Masters from Ohio University in the US, has done nearly 50 performance works across the globe over the past 15 years.
We chatted with Chopra about his upcoming performance, his love for the art, and his audience. Excerpts:
What attracted you to performance as an art?
I grew up in a household with a father whose love for theatre was very impactful. I was very much in the performance space while I was in school. Art then was boring. Drawing and painting came to me much later in my teens. So there was always this relationship with performance from the very formative years of my life.
While I studied fine arts I naturally progressed towards doing a performance work at the end of my Master’s thesis. The experience was exhilarating and I felt I was walking some very interesting lines between theatre and visual arts, between photography and sculpture, between various medias, genres and histories.
But my training is in drawing and painting and drawing also becomes a part of this very extended practice. It’s not just performance but it is also painting and making drawings.
How did it all start?
I began my professional life in Bombay. In 2005-06 I came back from New York. That was a very exciting time in the Indian art world.
India was getting a lot of international attention and there was this buzz around contemporary art. So in that whole euphoria I decided to make a performance work following up from my education. Till then I had not had a professional interaction with an audience. So this was a chance to test out certain ideas I explored in university.
I organized a solo performance work in which I brought a character whom I called Sir Raja and I did a performance called The Death of Sir Raja III.
It was essentially creating a tableau that resembled a Renaissance painting with a highly decorated Maharaja lying on virgin carpets motionless as if he was on his deathbed.
On the first day of the performance there were a few people, on the second day there were a few more but on the third and last day the place was full.
I got the sense from it that I was provoking something, asking certain questions that needed to be asked. I was creating a performance and not an art object.
It was on the back of that that I was able to get a residency at Khoj where I interacted with other performance artists from around the world. It was there that I was able to marry two distinct mediums like drawing and performance.
A little later I undertook my first long duration performance work which was a 72-hour drawing performance in a shell of a space. That set off a whole series of international performances.
"I felt I was walking some very interesting lines between theatre and visual arts, between photography and sculpture, between various medias, genres and histories," says Nikhil Chopra about performance art. (La Perle Noire: Aspinwall House; 2014 Kochi Biennale; Photography Shivani Gupta; Costume Design Loise Braganza; Image courtesy the artist)
Could you share details of what you are going to do at the Met?
I am taking a brand new performance piece to the Met that will involve making a drawing on a 58 feet long piece of canvas.
It is an 9-day long performance work that will begin on the 12th of September and end on the 20th of September. For those nine days I will live inside the museum. I will draw/paint a landscape of the sky, land and water -- the three elements that will come together inside the enormous, encyclopedic museum.
I am going to be playing different personas. They are all costumed and made up. The act will braid performance art with fine arts. I also have a sound artist working with me who will be making sound. All the while I will be making this large drawing. It will be performed.
I have songs that I will also sing. They have been written for me. It’s an elaborate production with many aspects.
It’s a continuous act from the moment it starts to the day it ends. For those days I will not interact with an audience or the public.
What can be done to reduce the perception gap between visual arts and performance arts?
The position of performance art in world art history is very strong. It’s very well grounded. We cannot look at contemporary art anymore without considering the work that performance art has done for its history.
There is always a gap between an audience that is not aware of the conversations that are happening in the larger contemporary art world. There are people who do not have access to the most cutting edge of contemporary art in the world. But I think those bridges are narrowing and those walls are collapsing and the Kochi Biennale is an example. It is a most interesting contemporary art exhibition of world-class quality that happens in Kochi. The world is so excited about the biennale. This time it was full of performance work.
Now village kids in Kerala are getting a chance to look at Anish Kapoor’s work. So we are totally on our way.
Chopra has performed across the globe including at the Havana Biennale in 2015 (La Perla Negra: Plaza de Armas; 2015 Havana Biennale; Photography Paola Martinez; Costume Design: Loise Braganza; Image Courtesy: GALLERIA CONTINUA, San Gimignano. Les Moulins. Beijing. Havana and the artist)
The way the audience responds to you, is it different in India and abroad?
I never go into a performance assuming who my audience is. Sometimes an audience that has been over exposed to performance art, people who have seen too many museums, attended too many performances can come to an exhibit with an attention span that is lesser than that of a fruit fly. So I feel, for those so-called intellectuals, at times the point is missed. Sometimes the security guards, the ushers, the people engaged with the art work and those who come to it with no expectations other than to make sure it is in proper order, are so deeply moved by the experience of the performance that a high-power curator coming to it with all the exposure in the world can completely miss.
How can I assume what an audience in say, Tokyo, will think of what I do. I am so far away from the Japanese experience.
Seven million people come to the Met every year. It’s the second largest visited museum in the world. I cannot possibly begin to divide or segregate audiences on the basis of culture or nationality or age. The most important thing for me is to be able to connect with human beings going beyond nationality, urbaneness, access to technology etc.
I feel I want to connect more with the Shaman who comes from the jungles of South America, than I want to connect with the most important curator in the world.
You always appear as different avatars or personas at different performances. Will you be appearing in a whole new persona at the Met?
Yes, but I feel I always carry a bit of the older personas that I have worked with as a way of entering a performance. The first part of the performance will bring the traveler, the nomad, the wanderer from performances that I have done before. The costume designer and I are working together. She is giving me something that is quite bizarre and tribal for the second act. Let’s see what I am going to become after three days of being inside the museum. So while there are familiar personas there are also unchartered territories.
How do you decide which persona to don?
The site is a very important clue giver. So often I will do site visits. In this case I have done four visits to the US to actually make the work. So then I decide on how I want to be in the performance, where I want to position myself, what are some of the elements I am going to use etc. All are informed by the site, in this case the museum.
You prefer long duration performances. What attracts you to them?
Time has a way of sculpting itself on our body. As I have turned 45 I realize the way in which time has played itself on me. And I feel that time is one of the most important materials that I work with in my performance. I have to give myself time to not only make the painting but also to go through many cycles of day and night in the work. I am looking at not just transforming a white surface into a painting but I am also looking at transforming myself by immersing myself for those number of days. This is why I am interested in duration, especially in a world that is obsessed with speed.