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Artist Profile2
Portrayal of a passionate performance artist
Nikhil Chopra is known to be an unconventional art practitioner, who follows a distinct mode of creation but situates himself firmly within the Indian context. Having participated in the 53rd Venice Biennale; the Kunsten Festival Des Arts in Brussels; a group show at Marina Abramovic; Serpentine Gallery, London; the Pompidou Centre in Paris; and so on, he has already received immense recognition internationally as a dynamic and unique performance artist.

Live performance is critical to his practice. The score or script for it usually revolves around making of a drawing. His idea is to question the level of engagement in terms of intensity with the performer – swinging from his presentation as an object on display to narrator of his character’s life tale. His lavish outfits are made by a costume designer who works exactly to the artist’s specifications. A ubiquitous performance at one level and an unusual work of art at another level, the artist will make us contemplate and get involved in his tableaux created with a mix of painted backdrops and vivacious video, he himself inserted into the picture.

Nikhil Chopra plays out for days and weeks his protagonists in front of meticulously created backdrops - for hours at a stretch - transforming himself in the process, into various guises and switching from one scene to another. The viewers drop in and out, but he carries on. For example, he pitched a tent outside the Serpentine gallery for their grand survey exhibition, entitled ‘Indian Highway’ (2008–9), walking about as an effete fur-coated gentleman, as if an Ottoman general. Then he even inhabited a chapel, the artist used theatrical equipment – swathes of colorful cloth he draped around ladders and blue and red lighting – so as to fabricate elaborate backdrops for different tableaux. For a show at Mumbai-based Chatterjee & Lal, he conceived of a project that wove positions associated with museum display around the residues of a performance undertaken in the environs of a Mumbai based museum in March 2010.

Born in Kolkata,in 1974, he was encouraged to take up drawing while in Class 10 when his grandfather noticed him doodling behind his notebook. He did a degree his Commerce, but his father, a banker by profession and also an amateur actor, let him choose his own path - prompting him to travel instead of doing an MBA. He studied at the faculty of Fine Arts, M.S. University, Baroda, before joining Maryland Institute, College of Art, to complete his BFA in 2001, and MFA in 2003 from Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio. He was artist in residence at New Delhi-based Khoj International Artists’ Association for the Performance Art Residency (2007).

His first major exhibition was with Chatterjee & Lal in 2007. He did not look back since then and his career zoomed after that. His work has been featured at sevreal significant shows, such as ‘Performa 09’, New York, NY; ‘The Self & the Other: Portraiture in Contemporary Indian Photography’, La Virreina Centre de la Imatge, Barcelona; ‘Manchester International Festival 09’; ‘Making Worlds’, curated by Daniel Birnbaum, Biennale di Venezia, Venice; ‘Indian Highway, Astrup Fearnley Museum, Oslo; ‘Indian Highway’, Serpentine Gallery, London; ‘Chalo India!, Mori Art Museum, Tokyo; ‘Time Crevasse, Yokohama Triennale, Yokohama.

His varied interests encompassing theatre, photography, drawing and video drew Nikhil Chopra to performance art. He infused elements of ambiguity and intensity with a touch of drama, to make them gripping. In a scintillating series of photographs, he transformed himself into the character of Sir Raja III (2005). His body of work ‘What will I do with all this land?’ journeyed through his vast estate. It was an extension of his effort to explore through surrounding tableaux the very theatrics of posing. The narrative woven around the central character did not relate to any specific place or moment in history. Built largely from and around personal memory, old family photographs, and an ancestral home, the artist himself became his alter ego, while adopting the Indian prince’s stereotype during the colonial era, prompting s viewers to notice the finesse and complexity of his photo-performance, involving the self on display even while enacting another.

His ‘Yog Raj Chitrakar: Eating’ (2007), quite unlike his earlier works, was conceived like an ephemeral event. Elements of silence, conversation and food were utilized for drawing a personal narrative – both engaging and haunting. Visitors were asked to share a meal in a homely ambience. Embodying a persona resembling his grandfather, he wore a Victorian costume. A video portrayed his character actively moving though the captivating city streets, juxtaposed with densely populated and modern scenes alongside mostly rural scenes displayed on a slide projector.

The spectacle tends to unfold in the ritualistic details embedded in mundane actions like eating, drinking, washing, bathing, sleeping, shaving, dressing, and creating a charcoal and chalk drawing. What often goes unnoticed, if observed and felt, turns into a heightened moment of revelation that mirrors our personal and social anxieties, he reveals. The photographic images, which form part of the residue of his live performances, are aimed at re-igniting its concerns after the act is over. Though seduced by the tableaux he creates, which leads to our admiration of his social position and beauty, we remain aware of the farce. By desiring conscious identification with the being he has created, the artist exposes to us the complexity with which we tend to receive and revile icons.

His art looks to explore the fine boundaries existing between performance, live art, theatre, photography, drawing and sculpture. He is walking the thin line between two contrasting worlds - fictional and autobiographical, the real and theatrical. He merges these fascinating reflections with serene, seductive, multi-disciplinary allusions. His aloof role-playing means when playing a character, he won’t utter a word or make any eye contact. His multiple personalities silently but surely make us to reassess our pre-defined notions and assumptions about history as well as our immediate milieu.

Duration has become an important aspect in his work. Elaborating on it, the artist states, “What does the cycle of day & night do to a performance? When I wake up in the morning and realize I’m in the middle of a performance in public view, what choice will I make? What indeed is real and what is theatrical? And how do I project this transformation?” Nikhil Chopra feels that performance art as a genre has ‘a huge space’, which is still unchartered.