by Shailaja TripathiAug 12, 2020
One definite upside to poking around the Art Dubai website was coming across an ‘artist portrait’ of Nikhil Chopra among the series of videos at the bottom of the fair’s home page, produced in collaboration with Forward James Filmmakers. It has the generic feel of similar such studio-based films, which are created and showcased to seduce art enthusiasts into the notion of accessing a region or domain of creativity to which they are typically not allowed entry, or which exists otherwise on the fringes of market discourses. “Art Dubai Portraits is a film series that provides a short perspective into the lives and workspaces of artists that are connected to the fair through its programming or participating galleries,” reads the series’ description. While the trend had been in place even before the pandemic, the onslaught of lockdowns that compelled institutional closures until further notice definitely enabled and amplified the production of more such films, commissioned either by magazines, museums, art fairs or galleries, either as a form of publicity or a way of refocussing attention to the labours of the artist, the very physiological energies involved in the making of an artwork. Since these videos centre the artist as the spokesperson for their work and do not include the voices of either critics, galleries, museum professionals, or collectors, they do promote a shift in attention and remind us of the point of conceptual origin.
Through the pandemic, many artists have been forced to contend with the nature of the driving force within their practices and to reconsider whether they have, thus far, been living their truth abundantly enough or had only been feeding a market. Videos like these that have the artist as an interviewed subject voicing over footage of their work space and works-in-progress definitely allow for an aura to be replaced around their work, as if to compensate for the present absence of a tangible encounter with its materiality. They are frequently between one to five-minutes long, short enough to cater to the limited attention spans that characterise social media appetites. They package artistic process and play an instrumental role in initiating audiences by giving them a bite-sized offering of the artist’s central themes and urgencies. The format is not meant to be substantial, is more digestible than a critically written review or feature, and is rarely ever drowning in theory or art jargon. There’s a candid quality to the videos, which also serve as a stand-in-witness for art journalists currently unable to travel, offering clues and insights into how an artist has been progressing with their work, giving you a sense of where they are currently at.
Had the pandemic not intervened, I would have, as scheduled, probably spent time with Chopra in his studio about a year ago in Moira, Goa. I have had the privilege of intimate conversations with the artist at the erstwhile HH Art Spaces when he had invited me to evolve a performance piece, challenging my writing practice, daring me to operate within the realm of a durational, live performance piece, which had, until then, remained for me unchartered territory. Of course, had I made the time to tune in to his virtual conversation with Marina Abramovic in August 2020, I would have perhaps caught a glimpse of his new studio. Thankfully, this article summarises the proceedings for STIR readers, and the Bengaluru-based Museum of Art and Photography, responsible for facilitating the event, have since posted the video transcripts online.
You can watch Nikhil Chopra in conversation with Marina Abramovic here
Yet the Art Dubai artist portrait of Chopra achieved an immediacy within a really contracted time span, packing in dense ideas but spacing out their heaviness by weaving in shots of the lush greenery that surrounds Chopra’s studio.
We encounter the genre-defying artist seated casually on a divan in what seems like a home studio. One sees his drum kit in the background, though it isn’t the turquoise blue nine-piece set he had used in 2016, in his eight-hour live performance, Drumsolo at the Mill, in which he played the drums and made large drawings “in a persona resembling a Punk/New Wave drummer”. I have a memory of seeing a video of this live art piece, made at Le Moulin, Paris, in an erstwhile paper mill, at Chopra’s Indian gallery, Chatterjee & Lal. “Performance art became very naturally for me that brought together various aspects of my creative make-up,” Chopra begins.
He proceeds to reflect on his decision to focus on painting and drawing instead of acting when he was ‘transitioning’ from a business studies background to a more creatively fulfilling vocation. He thought of the two interests as two separate, yet connected, until he did his Masters in Fine Arts, and found a way to “marry” his relationship with painting to theatre. Outside Chopra’s studio, the skies seem monsoonal. Rainwater drips from the palms of the coconut tree. The gush forms a soundtrack parallel to that composed by Ranjit Arapurkal, which we hear through the three-minute film. We learn about how Chopra possibly inherited his talent for drawing and his highly attentive proclivity towards landscape from his grandfather, who painted Kashmiri landscapes, and his acting talents from his father, who was ‘never able to become the actor he always thought he would become’. “I felt like I was absorbing both their spirits and their talents,” says Chopra, who speaks intriguingly of how his family both empowers and disempowers him, a tension he enjoys.
Chopra goes on to speak about how the process of making a performance is in itself a form of documentation, and perhaps here he hinted at what he might be showing at Art Dubai at Gallery Continua’s booth, B9. “While I am aware that I am living and making this work in the present as an ephemeral piece, I am also aware that I am making a drawing of what it is I am looking at. And that, to me, is very much a document, an objective eye that the artist is employing on the world. Recording the moment is also like possessing the moment, turning the moment into an object,” he says. Through photography, the performance returns to a two-dimensional surface, becoming, once again, a painting, he believes.
At Art Dubai, Gallery Continua is supposedly showing Chopra’s 12-minute-eight-second-video, Remembering Being There, dated 2020, commissioned by the New Art Exchange, Nottingham. I was able to wrangle some details of the synopsis, though the gallery wasn’t keen on sharing anything more before the fair was officially open and in motion. “A framed painting hangs on a wall to imitate a window. In the tradition of landscape painting, the artwork aspires to puncture the wall and give us a glimpse of what lies behind and beyond its surface, while the marks on its surface allude to its object-ness. As we stand in front of art and gaze at it, we are caught in the crossfire of what it reminds us of and what it is. Memory then becomes a vital tool to allow for any suspension of disbelief that is required to plunge into the world of the painting. To make a painting is to remember a painting.” I did also secure a brief elaboration by Chopra, who said he wanted, in this work, to examine the role of landscape painting in his artistic practice. “I make live performances that incorporate making drawings of places, real and imagined. Live Art is in a crisis; my persona of the traveller, wanderer, explorer, trekker and nomad are at rest, as the world comes to a standstill, buckling under the effects of a pandemic. My video will traverse between shots of a turbulent, monsoon-beaten sea, with my persona making his way across the beach, and a drawing in progress of the sea on paper. The desire is to collapse the space between ‘being there’ and the memory of that moment is the impetus.”
While I wish I could ‘consume’ the video in the immediacy of my home, I suppose I have to be at Art Dubai to see it, to validate all the labour that has gone into ensuring a physical edition of the fair could take place.