Over a period of nine days in September, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York became an unlikely home for artist and performer Nikhil Chopra. Chopra’s performances typically employ his body as conduit for multiple identities and subjectivities. He paints, dresses and uses props to challenge perceptions of gender, race and identity, to de-mystify what is normally hidden. Chopra’s is a poetic rather than didactic practice. As the Artist-in-Residence at the Met, Chopra performed a durational piece with the intent to interrogate the museum collection and engage with it as an institutional space. Lands, Waters, and Skies (2019) addresses equally the performance, the performer and the space.
Curated and organised by Shanay Jhaveri, Assistant Curator at the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, and Limor Tomer, General Manager of Live Arts, the performance was conceptualized by the artist. The Met facilitated Chopra’s multiple visits to the museum, where he studied its collections and, over a period of time, formulated the intervention he wanted to make. The museum was keen to diversify its identity going into the future, and Chopra’s performance became the lens through which it re-examined its own relationship with its collection. Chopra specifically selected galleries based on the history of their objects. For instance, the Temple of Dendur, was relocated to the Met in the 1960s when the creation of the Aswan High Dam threatened to submerge the ancient temple. The Robert Lehman Wing, where there is an ongoing exhibition of paintings by Dutch masters, became another site of engagement. Logistics played an important part, as with any artistic production of this scale: Chopra’s movement between the galleries and the placement of his canvas and his belongings had to be carefully planned. To prepare for the process of living and painting in the museum, Chopra painted landscapes on large canvases in his studio in Goa and spent time trekking in Kashmir.
Lands, Waters and Skies followed the travels of a nomad through the museum, exploring collections sourced from all over the world. Moving from gallery to gallery, Chopra assumed different identities. He painted as he went, lands, water and sky on a 58-foot long canvas that doubled as a tent. At the beginning, Chopra wore the garb of a traveller in shades of indigo and cobalt blue, with a turban wrapped around his head, carrying his luggage from the outdoor plaza into The Great Hall inside the museum. He then moved to the Egyptian Art gallery, where he assembled the first part of his performance, in the vicinity of The Temple of Dendur in the Sackler Wing. Chopra painted, sang, ate, relaxed, and moved among the museum objects, observed all the while by an audience. On day four, he moved to the Modern and Contemporary area, where he changed into a red body suit with black stripes that complemented the geometrical black-and-white of Wall Drawing #370 by Sol LeWitt. Against this background, Chopra continued to paint his landscape, now resembling the mountains of Kashmir. He moved through the African, Oceanic and Ancient Americas collection, and on day seven, entered the open courtyard of the Robert Lehman Wing, adopting the guise of a factory labourer from the early twentieth century. On the last day, he transformed into a Bedouin-like figure, changing into a shimmery bronze robe, reflecting the night sky, and a patchwork mask. Chopra’s performance ended in the Great Hall, where, followed by a captivated audience, he lay down dramatically on the floor of the hall. This last gesture positioned him as a hallowed object of decoration and admiration, to be beheld by museum visitors as yet another object.
Lands, Waters, and Skies was a political piece: it spoke of colonisation, migration, displacement of cultural identities, and subjectivities of the past and present. Chopra had three ‘Objects of Interest’ in his performance: the Temple of Dendur, the Body Mask from the Asmat Tribe in Papua New Guinea, and Frans Post’s A Brazilian Landscape (1650). Each of these objects reflect a fraught colonial past, and Chopra engaged with their individual histories of cultural displacement. The museum is the bearer of colonial artefacts, a site for objects that have been dislocated from their social-geographical origins. Through his performance, Chopra became a part of the museum narrative, positioning himself as an art-object, to be viewed alongside and in conjunction with all the museum holds. His various identities - that of the labourer or the Bedouin - become channels for questioning the museum itself: whose land, which water, and what skies. This was particularly evident in the Sackler Wing, where the Temple of Dendur was a crucial site for Chopra’s intervention. As he set up his tent, a monochromatic video of the excavation and relocation of the temple was projected on the wall facing it. The temple reflects the museum’s colonial tendencies, as it becomes the saviour of artefacts, otherwise doomed if left in their place of origin. The looping of the video, with its repetitive motifs, brought into conversation the labouring bodies, refugees and migrants who participated in the relocation of the temple. The displacement of objects thus also opens onto the displacement and relocation of bodies in colonialism.
Chopra instinctively draws on his own life and location in his works to make interventions that prod, poke and instigate. In this most recent presentation, Chopra performed songs, some original and some traditional folk tunes, that spoke of nostalgia and loss. The historically contested space of Kashmir which provides the animus in several of his other performances features here on the painted canvas. It is based on Chopra’s memories of spending his childhood at his grandparents’ cottage in Pahalgam, which they were forced to leave due to political unrest. In his artist’s statement, Chopra says: “My body, like yours, is a ‘museum’ that holds a collection of memories…. they move from New York to Kashmir, where my family comes from, and from all my past homes to where I live now, in the Indian state of Goa.” The Kashmir canvas along with the artist’s transformation into the figure of a Bedouin woman rounded off the show. The conclusion, taking place in a wing adjacent to the ongoing In Praise of Painting: Dutch Masterpieces at The Met exhibition, created a powerful juxtaposition bringing together as it did apparently disparate works. Chopra both challenged and paid homage to the works of the Dutch masters, placing his landscape against the paintings of Rembrandt, Hals and Vermeer.
Lands, Waters, and Skies even as it marked continuity with Chopra’s larger oeuvre, also heralds a new paradigm in his practice. His intervention at the Met can be seen in a longer lineage of institutional critique going back to the first critical examinations of site in the artofthe sixties. Chopra’s gesture is to introduce the nomad within the fixed coordinates of the museum. The Met’s exploration of its own institutional history must proceed by such means, with artists like Chopra, who bring to fore the unsavoury histories on which the establishments of culture and learning have been built. The museum’s negotiation of the present and future can take place only through a recursion to the past.
Lands, Waters, and Skies (2019) by Nikhil Chopra was performed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from 12th-20th September 2019.