Neha Choksi’s ‘Urgency and Longing’: impressions of touch during the pandemic

At Galerie Barbara Thumm’s experimental online platform ‘New Viewings,’ Neha Choksi incorporates glass as an intermediary to explore impressions of touch in her solo exhibition.

by Vidur SethiPublished on : Jan 13, 2022

In between you, the reader, and me, the writer, this screen – carrying words, images, thin sheets of glass. In between your opaque body and its reflection in a mirror, a transparent glass – forming different perceptions of viewing the self. In between two bodies, a cohabitation with an invisible-to-the-naked-eye virus – birthing the lack of touch. In this lack, an urgency and longing… If we were to really reach out to each other, when must touching through the glass become our only way to establish a moment of contact?

Earlier this year, Neha Choksi was invited to create a solo exhibition in Galerie Barbara Thumm’s experimental platform of New Viewings #37 curated by David Thorp. Incorporating a video and a series of finger paintings on glass, her work titled Urgency and Longing explores traces of connectivity that touch has to offer. In an interview with STIR, Choksi points that “the works for Urgency and Longing were made specifically for an online experimental exhibition platform that was erected for our time of continual COVID. Since I thrive on connections and interactions and friendships and hugs and grazing my eye and hand on everything illuminated by the sun, I had to absorb the fact that laptop and phone screens would be the interface for any online audience.”

Neha Choksi reaching out to an ironwood tree in ‘Urgency and Longing' | Neha Choksi | STIRworld
Neha Choksi reaching out to an ironwood tree in Urgency and Longing Image: Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Barbara Thumm / New Viewings

The titular 10-minute video sutures—with the help of a soundscape engineered by Justin Bates—recent video recordings of Choksi and her travelling lover to camera work by Hiroo Keswani that documents Choksi interacting with an ironwood tree and a sheet of glass, a live performance titled On the Other Side at Gallery Project 88, Mumbai, in 2016. In this and her finger paintings, Choksi uses glass as an intermediate material between her, her artworks and the viewers, and shares that it assumes manifold roles, becoming “a portal, window, barrier, connector.” Featuring her Whatsapp video chat interaction with Claire Anne Baker—recording the two phone’s screen using an iPad and a laptop—the video begins with fingers from both ends attempting to reach out and touch each other. The shifting sound of breath pulsates and times the interaction between two lovers, infusing the edited video with a presence that turns the audience’s attention toward an ineffable exchange. The fingers slide, trace, stroke, and then curl up to become a peephole through which Baker’s eye attempts to behold Choksi’s shadowy fingers (present on the other side of the phone screen) that attempt, in turn, to behold the eye, only to suffer a poor connection. Consequentially, the ‘video is paused’.

Looking and Touching through the screen in ‘Urgency and Longing’| Urgency and Longing | Neha Choksi | STIRworld
Looking and touching through the screen in Urgency and Longing Image: Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Barbara Thumm / New Viewings

The breathing slowly blends with the rustling sound of leaves and the breathing pattern changes once one hears a hard surface being tapped. Choksi—feeling, caressing, banging on a sheet of glass interposed between her and a potted ironwood tree—is performing On the Other Side. The glass sheet becomes an intermediary interlocutor, allowing and segregating touch, acted upon by the performer who slides and slews it along the floor. On her relationship with the sounds present within the work, Choksi says, “My breathing changed when my lover started enchanting me with her dancing fingers. I remember being in a spell, immobilised, eyes glued to her—or more accurately to the framed screen—her prestidigitation taking away my breath. The breathing of longing and the breathing of the labouring body that is straining to connect to the tree, they became a sort of plimsoll line maintaining a balance between conjuring and labouring. With the soundscape of Urgency and Longing I was responding to, including, and heightening both the perceptible and imperceptible phatic and haptic communication along with the attention to the metalinguistic material allowing all this, the effective presence of the glass.”

Glass becomes an intermediary, a portal, a connector in Choksi’s performances| Urgency and Longing | Neha Choksi | STIRworld
Glass becomes an intermediary, a portal, a connector in Choksi’s performances Image: Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Barbara Thumm / New Viewings

And so, never does the contact become direct between Choksi and the tree. Pressed are her palms and face against the glass—summoning a desire and a longing to touch the tree. Later, the tip of her fingers, the nails, and the eponychium occupy the entire screen and a play begins—choreographing multiple screens, exchanges, and bodies through an interflow of collaborative and lived performances. Eyes and fingers become active forms of attempting a contact, for “fingers are what we test any new material with. We touch things with our fingers more readily than, say, ears or knees. When I think of haptic communication, I think of hands, limbs which extend themselves outward to touch. And so, the hands and face came into focus even with the tree, especially since I was handling the sheet of glass in order to perambulate the tree,” says Choksi.  

Enlarged to the size of the floor, this finger painting by Choksi serves as
Enlarged to the size of the floor, this finger painting by Choksi serves as "a nod to the lover" Image: Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Barbara Thumm / New Viewings

Translating the artwork from a response—embodied, carrying a desire to reach out, perceiving the quiddity of things through touch— into the video’s edit with all the cameras’ perspectives, the phone screen within the video frame, the glass sheet’s movement; all this is felt as one views Choksi negotiating different relationships in an unusual setting. Though the artist acknowledges that she is aware of the various cameras that are recording different materials, and the glass camera lens that reframes reality, she points that she traverses through time and space as she edits, “I was face-to-face with these recordings, my past interactions, the hauntings of my own experience, the persistence of their effects through my screen. Phenomenologically speaking, that was more profound than knowing that I was being recorded while performing. I found myself physically moving while editing, not unlike how Gregory Bateson involuntarily mirrored the Balinese dancers while filming/watching with his camera/body.”

The other work featured in the exhibition Urgency and Longing are the finger paintings on glass. Marks of touch are felt upon seeing impressions of fingers that appear to have run through and imprinted the glass with hues of green, black and brown. One painting, carrying the fleshy browns and pinks on both sides become an exception and is, in Choksi’s words – “a nod to the lover.” On the question of what the paintings mean to her, she says, “The one-way mirror pane behind the paintings both echoes the work, like being haunted while editing, as well as projects the viewer into the work by reflecting them through the filigree of the paint. The front face of the sheet of glass has the fleshy fingerprints, as if I was touching a leaf or two behind the glass and leaving behind my skin, in memory of the lost fingerprints from the On the other side performance. All the greens, yellows, and browns are painted on the reverse side—the tree side, the other side, the side of the ‘other’ even.”

Finger paintings in Neha Choksi's 'Urgency and Longing'| Urgency and Longing | Neha Choksi | STIRworld
Finger paintings in Neha Choksi's Urgency and Longing' Image: Brica Wilcox

Further, the work is presented in an impossible material and spatial configuration. The gallery itself is darkened via image reversal software. The floor-projected video Urgency and Longing slowly wanes and waxes in opacity on the gallery floor, revealing and concealing a finger painting enlarged to the size of the floor. Both video and painting are faintly reflected on the walls as a ghostly flicker. “I wanted the viewer to imagine crossing the threshold of the screen, to enter the unstable image on the other side, to tread on glass underfoot, to have their dancing feet meet the lover’s extended fingers, to have my backlit hand and the painted touch meet their downward gaze, forcing a back to earth, back to gravity, back to the body feeling, and then jolted back via the screen’s presence to the fact of our current and forever craving for connection being a matter of urgency and longing,“ shares Choksi. Ultimately, the audience becomes a participant in thinking about the limits of bridging distances from psychological to geographical and explores, through Choksi’s work—the bending of space and time, especially if not only in the time of corona, and with that, the impressions, meanings, and mediums of touch.

Urgency and Longing can be viewed here

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