The Mumbai-based artist Nikhil Chopra challenges the boundaries of drawing, photography, theater, sculpture, new-media, and live-art practices. In conjunction with Performa and his solo exhibition at the New Museum, on view until February 14, Chopra will perform as the Victorian draughtsman Yog Raj Chitrakar at the museum November 4–8.
I CAME ACROSS a lot of photographs of early British imperial photography and Indian dignitaries dressed in regalia when I was studying for my master's at Ohio State University. I thought I could adorn myself and play this part. It began as a fun, nonacademic project. I decided to dress up as a fictitious persona and sit still as if I were posing for a photograph. That moment was a bit of an epiphany. I quickly realized that I was walking a line among painting, photography, theater, and sculpture. My thesis at Ohio State University then developed into a performance piece involving the character Sir Raja and an enormous tableau vivant–style setup of a dining table that resembled a Flemish still life.
When I moved back to India, I was invited by the Khoj International Artist Association, an experimental nonprofit artist-run space in Delhi, to partake in a performance-art residency. I was also teaching at the time at an art school in Bombay. I found myself talking to art students about drawing and began to make connections between drawing and its performative aspect. I felt like I needed to boil it down. My grandfather came to mind: He was a hobby landscape painter who painted romantic vistas of Kashmir that hung on our walls, and I’ve been seeing them for as long as I can remember. It became urgent to think about the role of being the documenter, landscape painter, of the romantic, by thinking back to traditional ways of making.
I developed the character Yog Raj Chitrakar at this residency. It’s interesting how these performances become about where I am, my own personal history, and how that collides with the present, contemporary landscape or cityscape. It is presumptuous, but I want to take the audience to a place they do not encounter every day. Hopefully there’s a chance for me to create the space for a transformation.
I use various strategies of separation in the performance, one being the vow of silence. Yog Raj Chitrakar never advertently communicates with the audience. So there is a tension, the viewer can come up very close to him and his dinner plate, but there’s a sense of restraint as an audience member to look at this act of eating. I think I create that through objectifying myself, making myself into a picture as opposed to a human being who is inviting people to come and sit at the table and eat with me. But I hope you salivate when I put a roast chicken or roast goose in my mouth, with gravy and potatoes.
The audience are a major aspect of the performance, but they are not the end of the performance. The act of performing involves the conditions and circumstances that I put myself in as well. If you arrive at the performance following a quiet moment after which I didn’t have an audience, I’ve already invested so much in that quiet silent moment. It adds a melancholy to the work, a pathetic, perhaps ironic, tongue-in-cheek element. You realize he’s sleeping there all night. You see an unmade bed or a half-eaten breakfast. So the audience might create their own story. I walk into the performance with a clear sense of what I need to go through and I list it out: Eat, sleep, drink, draw, stand, wash, bathe, but there are gaps in between those tasks. In those gaps is where the performance becomes spontaneous.
The need for this work is expressed in an Indian context, and it is a call for artists in India to think about performance as a serious practice. There are questions about how the market plays a role, and the fetishized art object, inflated prices of artists working in traditional media. There has been a longing for “What next?” in the art scene in India. I’ve been asking that question as well.