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Numero 71 ArteeCritica

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NIKHIL CHOPRA'S EXTENSIONS

Interview by Daniela Bigi

Nikhil Chopra is one of the most interesting Indian artists among those emerging in recent years and probably one of the most promising at an international level. He has taken part in major shows that in recent times have focused on themes and ways of making art in the Indian subcontinent and, like many artists of his generation – not only Indian –, he has wanted and has had to deal with the big issues that geopolitical readjustments and the developments of global economy have made increasingly urgent. With a solid artistic education completed both in India and America, Chopra has worked with very complex performances, in which through drawing, disguise and installation, the action has explored his memory and that of a country undergoing enormous changes, creating and interpreting characters (Sir Raja, namely a maharaja, Yog Raj Chopra, his grandfather, an artist who studied in 1930s England, a painter of Kashmir landscapes) that would enable him to dig into the past, to look at his generation from the outside, to reread some pages of history by playing the part of characters who represented precisely what had been surpassed, to look at the post-colonial phase through more free eyes with respect to clichés that the same phase produced. In the performance recently made in San Gimignano by invitation of Galleria Continua, and even before in some works made in Berlin, the artist seems to focus on issues that are increasingly closely linked to the relationship of a body, his own, with a space that, changing each time, modifies the same body in its most ordinary and at the same time profound existential condition. History continues to be not only a projective scenario but also the origin of possible conditions in which he can experience himself, an incessant source of reference points for the construction of an autobiography that can be defined such in the most exacting sense of the term, outside the script through many scripts.



Yog Raj Chitrakar: Memory Drawing V Part 3, 2011. Musée d’Art Contemporain de Lyon. Costumi di Tabasheer Zutshi. Foto Blaise Adilon.


Inside out, 2012, site specific performance di 99 ore (San Gimignano, 25-29 aprile). Costumi di Sabine Pfisterer. Courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing /
Le Moulin. Foto Shivani Gupta.


Inside out, 2012. site specific performance di 99 ore (San Gimignano, 25-29 aprile). Costumi di Sabine Pfisterer. Courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing /
Le Moulin. Foto Shivani Gupta.


Inside out, 2012. site specific performance di 99 ore (San Gimignano, 25-29 aprile). Costumi di Sabine Pfisterer. Courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing /
Le Moulin. Foto Shivani Gupta.


Broken White II, 2011. Paris-Delhi-Bombay Exhibition, Centre Pompidou, Parigi. Costumi di Sabine Pfisterer. Foto Ali Dolanbay.

DB: Let’s start from the performance that you have just done in San Gimignano, inside out: 99 hours spent in the space of the Arco dei Becci, in the guise and in the studio of a Renaissance painter (Benozzo Gozzoli?). What was your initial project? What were the main phases around which your performance was developed?
NC: I approach most of my performances from the perspective of a painter. This is largely because I studied painting in art school. And when I think back to my art education I realize how much the Italian Renaissance was drilled into us. To learn about perspective, the human figure and the still life was an intrinsic part of my study.
On my several visits to San Gimignano and Tuscany I became acutely aware of where the Renaissance came from, even in conversation with people in the main piazza I couldn’t help but frame the people in its architecture and its lyrical landscape, and this became the initial impetus for the performance. Most of the performances I do attempt to locate the body in a place and a time. Making drawings of what I see become a tool to do this. When I visited St. Agostino and saw the frescos of Benozzo Gozzoli I was awestruck and immediately realized that these were going to be a valuable source of inspiration.
DB: How many roles did you actually take on during inside out? How does your new character relate with those you interpreted in about ten years of performance activity (I’m thinking of the first character you worked on, Sir Raja, conceived in 2002, and also of Yog Raj Chitrakar and Drum Soloist)?
NC: It is difficult to say how many roles I took on only because I don’t see myself play characters anymore. I see them as personae or as extensions of myself. The situations and circumstances turn me into a monk, pilgrim, warrior, painter, adventurer, dandy or clown. For instance walking through the streets of San Gimignano at the end of the performance, face painted white, robed and drenched in the rain created a sort of clown that seemed sad, helpless and bitter; quite the opposite to the happy holidaying tourist that passes through San Gimignano.
DB: What kind of day-to day experience did you have in those hours? What happened in your opinion during that long lapse of time spent in a place, San Gimignano, which was so distant from your experience, and therefore from your memory?
NC: I gave myself a task, which was to make drawings of San Gimignano. Everything I did revolved around this task; eating, sleeping, and wearing and parading the drawings through the streets and landscape. The long duration allows me to inhabit a place, have it crawl under my skin and to transform myself. The transformation happens physically but also psychologically.
DB: How do you conceive of a place within your work? And the working space in which you make your artworks?
NC: I often feel like a place chooses me as much as I choose it. The invitation to come to San Gimignano came from Galleria Continua and the story began from here.
DB: The painted clothing you wore in San Gimignano during the performance and the charcoal landscape drawings made on the walls of the studio are part of a rich process that usually animates your work. I tend to think that they are integral parts of a way of conceiving performance both as an exploratory and a cognitive act as well as a constructive moment, an arts and craft practice in the broadest sense of the term. What significance do you give to the use of the different expressive media making up your works?
NC: Drawing seems like the proverbial bottomless well. The more I do, the more I learn. Its potential is limitless. It has been around since we have; from the caves of Altamira and Lascaux and will be till we are extinct. Making marks is one of our most primal forms of expression. Quite often it is a way of saying, "I was here”. It can also become a measure of time. For example a prisoner counts his days in prison by making marks on the walls.
DB: You worked for a long period using disguises that, projecting you in a far-off temporal condition – that of an India still governed by the English –, allowed you to investigate in an authentic way and from multiple perspectives, the epochal change that affected your country. What were you able to focus on in these years, having worked on a strong instance of current events through the filter of history?
NC: The more performances I do the more I realize the role of memory in my work as opposed to history. History seems rigid and linear and memory seems fluid and malleable. Yes, I am a product of India’s colonial past. But this is recounted more in personal experiences, possibly around conversations at the dining table or in photographs.

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