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New York

An Old Life Lived in the New Museum
by Sophia Powers

Have you ever wondered how you would behave—what you would do, how you would comport yourself while doing it-- if others were watching your “private actions?”  I suppose this sort of rumination is the secular update of the classic notion that God is always watching.  Perhaps the need for this feeling is still there, despite the jump from deep interiority to radical exteriority that much of modern consciousness seems to have taken.  What if there were a public audience for your private actions?

On the week of November 4th – 8th, Nikhil Chopera found out just what it was like to live everyday life in view of the world.  He’s not a Hollywood star hounded by paparazzi, but rather a Bombay-based artist whose newest work, “Memory Drawing IX”, included a 100+ hour stint eating, working, bathing, and sleeping in the lobby/exhibition area of the New Museum.

The performance was inspired by the artist’s Grandfather, Yog Raj Chitrakar, who studied art in England at Goldsmiths in the 1920’s before returning to India to sketch and paint his native Kashmir. Chopera’s performance does not invoke either India or England, however, choosing as its inspiration instead the pivotal period of the 1920’s in New York.  He begins his journey dressed as a dandy—much as his Grandfather may have appeared on his passage from India a century before.  Chopera/Chitrakar then steps out of the silent gallery and into the bustling street—passing through Chinatown and onto the subway for a trip to Ellis Island.  Surrounded by the brilliant fall foliage, he proceeds to sketch a large-scale charcoal portrait of the Manhattan skyline, just as his father may have recorded the contours of the Himalayas in Chopra’s homeland.

Each day the artist returned to his “home” in the New Museum lobby exhibition space, ate dinner, prepared for bed, and went to sleep in full view of passers-by on the street outside.  As he lived out his time as a silent early 19th century gentleman artist, the gallery accumulated the remains of his day-to-day existence—half finished meals, the ends of cigarettes, and the sprawl of art materials, set off from the neatness of a well-made bed.

I arrived for the final day of the performance. Chopra/Chitrankar had completed his canvas cityscape, and was perched on a ladder carefully stretching it taught across the expanse of the gallery wall with heavy rope.  He had discarded his period apparel, and was clad only in a hooded and skin-tight black bodysuit.  His movements were slow and meticulous—like a dark sloth feasting thoughtfully high up in a tree.

When he was satisfied that the canvas was secured, he carefully climbed down from the latter and approached an antiquated gramophone.  Museum visitors stood all around the room, transfixed by his measured movements, careful to shift softly aside if ever he seemed to be heading in their direction.  They not only shared his space, but organized the space always around him as the center point through their constant movement just out of his way.  The artist ignored his audience completely. He turned on the machine, and it began to play what sounded like scratchy old Hindi show tunes.

Next to the gramophone sat a large round table with the remains of what looked to be a formidable feast—half eaten chicken and fruit skin and pits along with a lonely pair of scissors.   Chopra/Chitrankar picket them up and began to zigzag around the room slowly, exaggerating the effect of the scattering audience members, as he noisily snapped them open and closed, open and closed, all the while staring straight ahead.

It’s easy for me to imagine this sort of performance feeling melodramatic and kitschy, but somehow it didn’t.  I can only chalk it up to Chopra’s true talent as a performer.  What makes this interesting is that he was in many ways simply performing himself.  I cannot imagine there is any way that he would know how his grandfather would snap a pair of scissors.  Even if he did know him as a child, he could not have remembered how the old man went about the 100 hours worth of life’s day-to-day details.

The performance continued as Chopra made his way through the parting red-sea of viewers to the opposite end of the gallery—a wall covered with a gigantic mirror that reached two stories up to the ceiling.  He picked up a brown paper package from the floor, and with his scissors carefully snipped the twine that bound it to reveal a pair of ornate red and black high heels.  He put them on.  His slim ebony figure was transformed into an odd apparition of fetishistic mystique.

He strode silently through the gallery and circled back to the mirror, finally settling seated before his own reflection.  Then, slowly, dramatically, he cut the bodysuit around the circumference of his neck, pulling the severed black headpiece off to reveal a thoughtful, somehow tired face.  He contemplated his countenance along with the audience for a few long minutes. Camera’s flashed.  The gramophone played on.

Then he reached for a second brown package, which he opened to find a bundle of makeup—lipstick, eyeliner, pencils, rouge, which he proceeded to carefully apply to his smooth fair face.  A black cropped wig (a la Pulp Fiction) rounded out the voluptuous vamp glamour he had deftly achieved.

Was Chopra’s Grandfather a drag queen? Unclear.  However, the puzzling transformation transfixed viewers, many of whom had made themselves comfortable on the gallery floor.  In the exhibition’s final grand gesture, Chopra/Chitrankar unwrapped a third brown package to reveal a magnificent green satin dress that he gingerly pulled up over his broad shoulders.  He was, remarkably, elegant.  For the first time, the artist confronted the audience with his liberally lined eyes, and languidly smoked a single cigarette.  Then he switched on a spotlight in the gallery center, struck a classic leading lady pose, and held it defiantly without moving for the final half hour of the five-day performance.

What to make of this installation/performance/painting that invokes everything from history to sexuality to the significance of presence?  There is nothing minimalist about it to be sure.  “Memory Drawing” seems to be as much about imagination as it does about memory.  But, of course, what is memory but a privileged imaginary anyway?  What in Chopra/Chitrankar’s performance is memory and what is fantasy?  What is Chopra and what is Chitrankar?  It’s not clear how to parse the piece, but it occurs to me that this difficulty is exactly the point.  It is a meditation on liminality and transition—switching places, switching genders, switching generations. It is unapologetically narrative without giving the audience any logical thread to the “story.”  It puzzled me, appealed to me, and hasn’t let me forget.

-- Sophia Powers

(Images: Courtesy of the artist and The New Museum)

Posted by Sophia Powers on 11/22/09 | tags: performance

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