During a six-month residency in Paris, where he converted a part of Gallery Continua into a live studio, Nikhil Chopra spoke to Critical Collective, walking us through his “magical world” of painting and performance. He discussed ‘engendering’ as a part of his practice, the interchangeability between the body and landscape, the powerful play between the opposites of serenity and destruction, and the making and scarring of an image.


I use performance as a way to “exorcise”, as opposed to “exercise”. It is to implicate the body in the practice, as the body is at the centre of making. My introduction to art was through the landscape paintings of my grandfather that I grew up with in my house. If I was to imagine the first letter, word, or image in my life, it stemmed from those watercolours. From there stemmed my language of understanding the power of an image -- how it can take you into memory, into imagination, into a world that’s so far away from where you stand right now and so elevated from reality. I was sucked into this magical world of making pictures, and it was not till much later that I was able to bring my love for acting and theatre to the tradition of painting that I had inherited from my grandparents. It has been ten years since I started my journey with this gallery, when I began to figure out ways of placing our bodies within a landscape. It was an important moment. I was finishing a fellowship at Berlin in 2012, and I walked into an exhibition at Continua. What I have done for the past six months with my residency seems to mirror those early experiences in Paris. I have gone through an incredibly transformative time here, and the result is this exhibition.

In this show, which I have titled “Fire”, I have been obsessed with land, water, sky, and the pandemic, which in a sense, ignited for me a fire and gave me new direction. Taking on the element of fire makes sense. I was not performing in the years when the world went into lockdown, and I kept asking myself the question “Where is the fire?” This is because the presence of the body was not felt anymore. There was a sense of absence of the material I typically worked with. So, it was natural for me to start looking at images of not just fire, but of landscapes in distress. Landscapes that are not just politically fragile, like Kashmir, where my grandparents come from, but also ecologically fragile, like the Himalayas. In recent years, I have been obsessing about the mountains and the ocean. In this in-between thing, I place myself between the mountains and the sea, almost as a body in that landscape.


I did a three-day performance that I treated in three acts. The first act took place here, where my military persona, kind of conformed in my movements, began to draw a lyrical landscape. I had a sound device, so I was able to loop together bird calls and wind, creating a multi-layered sonic experience to accompany me while I was drawing.

At the end of the first day, in the process of making, drawing and painting, the uniform started to fall apart. And so, this military man starts to fall apart -- he is like a soldier from an unknown land, maybe even an artist who has been drafted into the army. This man says, “No, I don’t want to fight this war” or “Whose war am I fighting?”. And we see the poet and painter resurface from behind the garb of a soldier.

Then, of course, as in most performances, I punctuated these very dramatic transformations by shaving off my moustache and turning into what I call “the diva”. In that way, I was able to challenge “masculinity” and the gender conformity we have all grow up with. This idea of “disrobing”, “re-robing” and cross-dressing is really about engendering, which is what I am most interested in. I have always created my costumes in collaboration with costume designers. I had the chance to work with a Paris designer, and we put together a “diva” look with high heels and a bejewelled costume. What she [my diva avatar] does on the second day is literally throw the bomb in the picture. She is the one who really, in a sense, disrupts the image, violates, scars and wounds it. It is this tension and opposition that was my biggest takeaway from the performance. Here, I was really able to have that conversation about fire, its power to create and destroy.

The third part of the performance happened in my studio, where in my final persona, in a gothic leather dress, I made the drawing of an exploding mountain -- like a volcano. I collaborated there with a drummer and a sound artist. After this very quiet, lyrical performance, we were able to make a noise, beat a drum, and create a very action-oriented volcanic drawing in my studio.

My studio also has on display the last drawing I did for this exhibition, which I call “Love Letter”. It is essentially about a view from my window and a view from my bed, looking out into the garden. It was also a way for me to close the window on this exhibition -- to go back to the idea of placing myself at the threshold of “outside” and “inside”. It took me back to this obsession with windows and paintings that mimic windows.

You know everything, because I do not hide anything. In fact, the whole idea behind the work that I do, or want to do is, is to grant access. I am giving as much information as one can possibly give.


For years, I have been obsessed with water and with Goa -- the sea, its waves, the salt and smell of it. The mountains are also carved into my soul because of my relationship with Kashmir and growing up there. And I feel that I have always perhaps had a relationship with fire, right? Because fire is the body that is making the performances. Fire is the body that is making the paintings. And like any fire, this fire will blaze, glow bright and then start to dwindle. Eventually, it will die, like any fire would…even the sun.

I think as human beings, we have a very fraught relationship with this element. We know the alchemy about how to create it. But I think that we are all at a juncture when we need to reassess and re-understand our relationship with fire.

Growing up in a Hindu family, I was eerily aware of the fact that, in the end, my body will be put to flames and my ashes will be disposed of. Once I die, this will not matter. But while I am alive, I keep wondering whether, in life or death, I really want to become carbon, a part of the greenhouse gases that are polluting the atmosphere? It comes right down to the charcoal that I am working with, becoming so hyper-aware of the fact that this is a piece of burnt wood and it has a very simple, cave-like relationship with us. Perhaps, some of the earliest marks that were made on a wall by a human being were from that log of wood that was burning in the cave. And from there, we separated and a line wasdrawnbetweenour past and our future. That is why I have been looking and thinking a lot about fire. Fire is like a volcano, creating islands which in turn give birth to light; and in that light comes civilization and biodiversity. I have been looking at a lot of images from Iceland, for example, and then at images of forest fires. But I also want to allow memory to conjure these images and to rely more on that. The aim is to present fire with its creative and destructive forces at play with each other.



In this time in Paris, what I have done a lot is to think, recollect and remember. I have been really interested in exploring my relationship to the body and the role it plays in my practice. It is, in fact, not just one body, but many bodies. I start to look at all the personas and the schizophrenia within my practice. I see it as multiple personality order, not disorder, that I would like to work with. And I keep asking myself the questions -- “How does one look at other bodies? How does one look at “another” body?”

I faced a major problem trying to place “another” body in this work. I realized that I have a massive archive of positions that I have already put myself in -- situations and circumstances that I have created, which have been very difficult to go through. At the end of these acts, I came out in a very raw, vulnerable, yet accepting, victorious and self-empowered state. I started to realize that a lot of those feelings emerged from my absolute submission to a moment, as it was creating me -- as opposed to the feeling that I was creating the moment. You asked, “Do you script these performances?” My response would be: “No, I don’t.” It is more about mapping than scripting. In a way, this drawing becomes a point on that map for me.

One of my works in this exhibition draws on a performance I did at the Centre Pompidou, where I had a very visceral experience. When I stood at a spot in the Pompidou, this pose started shaping itself before I decided to draw it. I believe that spaces and places have vibrations and ways of rewiring you. If you stand at the same spot that you stood in, perhaps when you were five years old, and you see every object in the same place that you saw it back then, all of that memory would pour right back into you. I went through my archive and said, “I know I have this moment and this pose.” Once I found this pose, I felt like making the walls of the institutions disappear again. I love covering an institution like the Pompidou in black dust. It is the most satisfying feeling of messing the space up completely. I want to explore what happens to this hard architecture of brick walls and stone in institutions when they become soft as a result of a drawing. And so, when I bring these figures back into the drawing, I feel like I have come full circle. My practice is my research. The archive is the result of that research, and the drawings archive my performance work.

Drawings like these come from thinking and reimagining performances as research work, and the body as the transmitter of that memory. They do not really need a fire in its physicality as an entity of the images. I am comfortable entitling and placing these works within the context of fire, because then it is me recognizing their presence. Each and every one of us, with our presence, are thirty fires, burning together in this room at this very moment.

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