Nikhil Chopra

Nikhil Chopra, The Death of Sir Raja III (2005), performance, Kitab Mahal, Mumbai, courtesy Nikhil Chopra and Chatterjee & Lal, Mumbai, photo: Shivani Gupta

Upon an oriental carpet, propped up with pillows, the mustachioed subject with kohl-lined eyes in Nikhil Chopra’s The Death of Sir Raja III (2005) projects the decrepit, decadent state of royalty after the expiry of its statute, burdened by finery. One iteration of a multi-episode project constructed around the fictional Indian aristocrat Sir Raja, it is typical of the Goa-based artist’s interest in blurring the distinctions between art, theater, cinema, painting, photography, installation, autobiography, and performance. In that blurriness—that space between spaces—he finds form.

After his education in Baroda (Vadodara), Gujarat, and during further study in the U.S., Chopra became interested in the crossover of theater and performance art. Through the shaping of protagonists and taxonomies of memory, the artist conceives live settings where the backdrop—wall drawings or panoramic paintings on cloth—is as significant as the human protagonist driving the narrative. Chopra, who was born in Calcutta (Kolkata), in 1974, casts scenes that are both historiographic and intensely proximate. In the style of early moving panoramas, the landscape horizon remains transient, therein framing a way of travel.

A gentleman in a top hat, Yog Raj Chitrakar (loosely based on the artist’s grandfather) faces a small crowd, and within the course of a few hours transforms into a lady draped in fake pearls and black lace. Meanwhile, a foreign landscape is drawn onto the wall in many shades of lipstick. Gender is repeatedly deconstructed in Chopra’s work: this embodied fluidity is not simply directed against the violence of a heteronormative society but unveils how the socialized body may attain freedom by altering its representational logic and public image.

In his durational performances, the undulations of time—its elasticity; its compression as ellipsis; a circuit of remembrance; its service in measuring labor—become perceptible. Ordinary life motions are bound together with transformative modes of staging the self. Therein lies the crux of how Chopra’s artistic work figures a tableau between stillness and motion, the solitary and the communal: never entirely complicit in a history of identity politics but instead “testing out” narratives of aristocracy, colonial modernity, and an itinerant minor subjecthood through different skins—masks, props, backdrops, and sets.

In his recent work, characters such as the Black Pearl in La Perle Noire (2014) set a course of capture and voyage: the struggles of being lost and found while crossing disparate geographies that include rivers, the desert, and cobbled streets. This migrating form continues in Chopra’s upcoming new work, which connects the cities of Athens and Kassel through a nomadic journey among people, landscapes, and cultural memory.

—Natasha Ginwala

Posted in Public Exhibition
Excerpted from the documenta 14: Daybook
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