PRINT September 2017


Nikhil Chopra, Drawing a Line Through Landscape, 2017. Performance view, Tsarino, Bulgaria, May 18, 2017. From Documenta 14. Photo: Madhavi Gore.

THE NOMADIC TRAVELER encounters simultaneous solitude and community: I blurs with we, as does here with there, then with now. During a long journey, the sense of settlement itself paradoxically becomes portable. Such was the case, at least, in Drawing a Line Through Landscape, 2017, a peripatetic performance piece by Nikhil Chopra conceived for Documenta 14. Chopra began in Athens and traveled to Kassel in a van with a tent and crew, successively occupying eight Eastern European sites along a trajectory between the two cities that mirrored the so-called Balkan Route, used by refugees in record numbers, while also referencing histories of Gypsy migration. The team stopped in courtyards and in the countryside, whereupon Chopra performed, partly by drawing whatever local vista he encountered on a unique canvas: a blank stretch of the tent’s inner lining.

The artist’s journey concluded in Kassel’s KulturBahnhof, a defunct subterranean railway station, where the performers arrived to fanfare, as if members of a circus returning after a long season away. There, reprising the journey’s primary ritual one last time, the artist and his team pitched the tent, their measured pace refusing the spectacular for the sedulous. Just like the shelter’s skeleton, Chopra’s plans were laid bare. In front of the audience, he adorned himself with one of the symbolic costumes designed for the performance by Loise Braganza, some of them made from throwaway textiles, their sheer material, loose-fitting cuts, sequins, and embroidery trespassing the boundaries maintained by sartorial markers of gender, class, and ethnicity. He then put masking tape around the tent’s interior, marking out a horizon line. A leather case of oil pastels was brought out; over minutes, hours, and finally the course of a day, one turquoise stroke led to another. A wave gave way to a cloud; hard lines collapsed in hues of blue and shades of dreamlike recollection. At points, Chopra paused to rub his eyelids with the crayon, as if to extend the specific tableau before his eyes with the more multivalent sea of recent memories: distances traversed, stretches of time endured.

The tent’s design, by Aradhana Seth, itself encouraged this marvelous merging of perception, memory, and sentiment. Constructed as a dome with an octagonal base, it offered both the comfort of a corner and the ambitious sweep of an arc. Seemingly inspired by the shamiana, a ceremonial Indian awning, and perhaps also nodding at the nomadic histories of the Roma, the space was inviting yet private, open yet sheltered, its fluidity mirrored by Chopra’s simultaneously pliant and focused demeanor.

While everyone was welcome to sit inside as he worked, the communal atmosphere did not flatten national differences: A video displayed outside the tent at the final stop in Kassel, Tánc és Rajz tilos, 2017, its title Hungarian for “dance and drawing forbidden,” outlines the bureaucracy that overshadowed the performance in Budapest, providing a brief glimpse into the country’s totalitarian tendencies and hostile reactions to refugees headed for Western Europe. Another video—a time-lapse sequence on view before Chopra’s arrival—harked back to the artist’s first performance in Athens, during which he assumed the guise of a laborer in blue overalls and proceeded, over three days, to spread swaths of clay on the walls. After completing a landscape, he covered his face in the material, then exited.

On the first day of his Kassel performance, the drawings Chopra had made on the tent’s linings during previous stops on his journey were unfurled and hung from a bar against the wall, parallel to the tracks. They formed a continuous scroll, mimicking views out a train window. Instructed by Chopra, a friend painted a long, thick red line on the platform. Time rolled, coagulated, and thinned, coating the tracks with itself.

Meanwhile, Chopra continued making repetitive blue strokes. From this imagined vantage point, Kassel and Athens were briefly bridged, connected by a historical route of voyage, migration, sadness, and hope. A 1990s-era television set displayed slice-of-life glimpses into Chopra and his team’s journey thus far. The video—rose-tinted, filled with sounds of laughter and the low wheeze of someone taking a summer nap—reflected the friendships and collaborations that formed an integral part of the work’s realization. It was perhaps the force of these relationships that really united the two locations across which Documenta 14’s artistic director Adam Szymczyk split the exhibition as an abstract, precarious evocation of the real longing and loss that accompanies displacement. Chopra’s piece is more sensitive to this decentering, reminding viewers that distances are not just dissociated points, but the continuous paths connecting them—paths that demand waiting and stillness to traverse.

Himali Singh Soin is an artist and writer based in London and New Delhi.