Performance art stands on the threshold of India’s contemporary art scene
As they were entombing Turkish artist Pinar Derin Gençer in the earth, covering her carefully with soil and grass, Ella Fitzgerald was singing about love on a set of tiny speakers. At the end of the ritual, Gençer lay buried with only her head exposed, a rose clamped between her teeth, closed eyes and a peaceful visage. Much to the un-rest of the crowd watching her, Gençer lay in her shallow grave for half an hour. People were left wondering, was it a contemporary take on Romanization of death? Or it perhaps a symbolic mourning for the death of nature—a physical connect with the inner world? Was it existential angst reminding humankind of their mortality?
Gençer’s piece was part of the Morni Hills Performance Biennale that was held at Morni Hills and at Chandigarh University in February 2016. The students of Chandigarh Art University were exposed to such a variety of international performances for the first time and they appeared to be excited and overwhelmed in one breath. For, just as they were grappling with the mysteries behind Gençer’s meditative piece, a group of three artists burst into spontaneous interventions.
The first performer Tapati Chaudhury, began by ominously swinging a rope with a noose at the end of it, next Rahul Bhattacharya frog-marched into the garden area, blowing a loud whistle, while upon the roof of the building Chirantan Mukherjee (Chimuk) symbolically hung an effigy made of his clothes while pounding his head against a stone. The performance moved from the garden onto the road and Bhattacharya and Chaudhury, tethered to each other by the noose, began crawling across the tarmac while writing cryptic messages on the road in Hindi and English. It ended with all three performers lying still and spent on the road. The performance was in direct contrast to Gençer’s since they appeared agitated and in a mood to protest.
Incidentally Bhattacharya, Chaudhury and Chimuk are also core members of the Kolkata International Performance Art Festival (KIPAF) a festival that has been cited as one of India’s important performance festivals. Decoded, what the three performers staged was an ‘intervention’ to protest the Right Wing clamping down on the freedom of speech and protest at the Jawharlal Nehru University. Since their energetic performance was anchored in a topical subject, it was relatively easier to decipher in comparison to the elliptical and subtle acts performed by Gençer. This was also perhaps because their references were more local than the Turkish artist’s performance.
Without wanting to create any a hierarchy or labeling a performance ‘good’ or ‘bad’, one must simply state at this point that there are different registers at which performance art occurs. Some require audience participation, others are more internal and exploratory. Some performance artists evoke revulsion or shock— like artist Audrey Baldwin whose works focuses on the body as a fraught space of constant contention.
Rocío Boliver is a Mexican performance artist who creates body art about the repression of women in Mexico. Boliver shocked her audience by sending a pin through a balloon filled with colour that was attached closely to her underwear. The act of piercing the vaginal white underpants was an obvious critique of certain patriarchal tropes.
Other artists like Anna Kosarewska, from Ukraine/Polande, and Nikita Maheshwari, both of whom performed pieces based on the drug problem in Punjab, intended to evoke a certain lyricism and pathos. While Maheshawari is trained in contemporary dance, Kosarewska sees herself as an artist activist who underlines certain causes through her body that she considers to be a ‘post-human' object. 'Art it is a tool of changes, performance it is a language. Artist should be responsible for the community and for delivered message.'
Performance art is nascent in India and the Biennale, organized by Harpreet Singh, the director of Morni Hills and curated by Adrianna Disman, was an international convergence of performance artists. The Tate Modern defines performance art as a form in which artists uses their own body as the medium, performing an action or series of actions which become the artwork.
The surge in performance art events in the country indicate a coming of age of performance art which has been spearheaded by artist like Inder Salim, Sonia Khurana and Rummana Hussain to name a few. While the 1990s saw a handful of dedicated performance artists, the 2000s have virtually exploded with many expressions of performance among numerous artists whether they operate dually as painters, sculptors, photographers and video artists or if they are dedicated to being primarily performance artists.
At the Kochi Biennale in 2014, it was Nikhil Chopra who captivated audiences with his transformation to Le Pierre Noire (The Black Pearl)--a colonial trader and impresario, while at the India Art Fair in New Delhi it was Priyanka Choudhary, from Gallery Maskara, who caught people’s attention as she mimicked the Lemon Butterfly, a beautiful but dreaded predator that destroys citrus plants.
Chopra spent 55 hours at the Biennale living in a large hall-like room, where he painted the surrounding walls with the landscape outside, transforming the inside into the outside. His body transformed as well, from a white angel in the middle of a becalmed sea, the character gradually gives way to the dandy, and finally the monstrous Sir Raja, alone on his raft in the middle of a storm. Importantly Chopra, whose themes revolve around different periods of colonization in India, from the Dutch and French to the English, slept and ate and interacted with his audience.
'The challenge for an audience is to sustain the long duration of the work: its slow gestures and unfolding narrative, as they watch me, or gaze at me through a camera lens, maintain safe non-intrusive distance so as to not disturb my "private" dinner, lounge, wash or sleep time. I watch them back, negotiating their space around me. In a performance I voluntarily resign myself to the solitary world that my character inhabits, even as I am continuously being watched and gazed at,' says Chopra in his artist statement.
'Live art performance allows me to experience my immediate world viscerally, in the here-and-now, and engage my muscles and mind in alternative ways,' he adds.
During the three-day Indian Art Fair, 2015, Choudhary performed a piece titled How to become the Lemon Butterfly. With her hands behind her back, she munched on citrus plants allowing the overspill to dribble down her white garment forming a spontaneous pattern. By the end of the Art Fair she was drenched in the green juice and the plants were bare. The intention was to contemplate the darker side of beauty, the act of invasion and its geopolitical ramifications.
'The tiny caterpillar that devours these plants and then turns into a gorgeous butterfly is a metaphor for the kind of invasion and conquest we see across the world,' says Choudhary, who also got people to write down words on bits of paper through free association to her performance. 'I think people got the general gist of what I was driving at,' said the artist.
While curious onlookers, who had probably lesser exposure to performance were forced to ask, 'Is this art?', there were others who judged it by comparing it to the artist's pervious forays into performance rather than dismissing it.
For many, ‘Performance Art’ remains in the realm of the ‘unexplained and fanciful’, a bit like the Emperor’s New Clothes. But for others it appears to be emerging as a popular medium of expression: whether it is the involvement of the ephemeral live performers or the trails of the more permanent performance photograph or video that documents it, there is something visceral, temporal, immediate and exciting about collapsing boundaries and pushing the notion of art, through performance.
'Performance or gestural art has gained acceptance over the years and I think that is why a lot of artists are now able to turn to it as a form of expression,' says Pooja Sood, director of KHOJ, the artists residency and Khoj Live. KHOJ hosted some of the earliest performance based art, including Subodh Gupta’s defining performance video ‘Pure’ (2000) where he partook in a ritual cleansing with cow dung. Although Gupta went on to become an installation artist whose sculptures of ever-silver utensils has captured the nation and the international art market as well, his beginning was in theatre and then in performance art.
Sood adds that there are many ways to understand a performance: 'It is a positive step, but with a lot of artists turning performers, there are naturally degrees of good and bad performances; some are more convincing and successful than others. Time will sift out those who are less committed to the form than others. It’s not just about the gesture but what it leaves you with', says Sood.
Internationally, the move towards performance is being viewed with favour as well. 'Today's Indian artists are taking risks of combining genres and defying disciplinary boundaries,' says Eleanor Cunningham, a writer and art aficionado for the Culture Trip.
In Kolkata, seasoned and emerging artists, from India and internationally, came together to celebrate the International Performance Festival (KIPAF) that took to the streets and made Performance Art. Project 560 is an artistic quest initiated by India Foundation for the Arts, to recode the city of Bangalore through performances.
Individual galleries are also hosting a number of performance-based artworks, like those of sculptor and performance artist Anindita Dutta whose solo premiers in April at Latitude 28 and NIV Artist Centre that showcased a Performance Mini Festival with young artists from Kashmir, essaying their angst about the floods. NIV has an ongoing International Arts festival that features performance art as well.
For Dutta, the move toward performance was a very gradual one and arguably occurred before the hype around performance began. 'I do not make a distinction between my sculpture or my performance, for me both are equally important and one feeds off the other', says Dutta.
From her early work, Brick Coffin, where Anarkali-like she allowed herself to be covered by bricks (1999) to more recent works like Limited II, where she covers her head with a wooden fruit crate and is rendered faceless and trapped, Dutta has moved to complex performances.
With an emphasis on a primeval material like clay, she included props like clothes, a bicycle, human forms that are all covered in clay. For her solo she has collaborated with other actors as well as performed herself. 'Most of my works are about coming to terms with the fact that our life is not permanent. My work thrives on conflict, desire, pain and social issues', says Dutta.
While Dutta is all about stripping to the primeval, for Manmeet Devgun, who was one of the important artists featured at KIPAF, it is more about dressing up than dressing down.
Through high camp and glossy make-up she plays with the notion of femininity and the whole ‘gender act’. During KIPAF, Devgun explored the notion of women and ‘pleasure’. Dressed up with silver eye shadow and a golden stole, Devgun invited people to read out aloud, shocking and interesting confessions about pleasure.
'Read out in part Bengali part English, the work created an abstraction of sorts and a certain level of curiosity. The intention to read it out in the street was to share it with general public as well, other than the art audience', says Devgun.
Murali Cheeroth is known for his psychedelic urban canvases, however, he has been using performance as a medium of expression since 1986-87, when he was in Kerala. 'I was part of a street theatre group in Kerala and I was working on haiku poems and breath exercises…I wanted to explore performance as a discipline that was different from what was being practised in the West', says Cheeroth who held a workshop at the KIPAF where he encouraged the performers to become aware of the power and energy of their breath. He also held workshops with children and has worked with large groups of people—almost 3,000 people, with the concept of breath and energy. 'I try to involve my body, time and space—these are recurring themes in my work,' says Cheeroth.
Looking critically at performance art, it essentially evolved as a form of ‘protest’ against market forces and to create non-collectable art. Some of the defining performances have been by noted sculptor and performance artist Joseph Beuys of the Fluxes Movement and others like Rebecca Horn and Marina Abramović. Over the years however, the market has subsumed performance and its documentation through photography and video-work and some of the edge of the initial performances that were not market motivated did rub off.
There are however ways of being inventive and challenging even within the market system as some artists have proven.
Sonia Khurana for instance stepped into performance art in the late '90s, when there was neither access nor exposure to performance art in India, except in theatre and dance. 'It was for multiple reasons that I started to move towards working with time-based media and performance art in the mid-'90s; I was beginning to think about duration, about more democratic praxis, about corporeality, and the immediate presence of bodily action, and about resolving the struggle between body and language through performance. In terms of following genres, I tend to resist being type-caste and continue to sit on the edge of several things, working conceptually, often in the performative mode, and with moving image.' says Khurana.' It is a relief that performance art is beginning to gain more ‘acceptance’ in the art world in India, however, its understanding remains on a surface level, and its inclusion rather perfunctory; for instance, for most part, performance art is still seen as something that can fashionably ‘flesh out’ the opening event of an exhibition. The popular purchase and attraction of performance art in the current art scene in India primarily remains centered around the presenting of a theatrically produced idea and/or an extravagant persona. In the absence of support structures, and given that galleries etc. are self-funded, there is pressure on performance art, which is intrinsically largely ephemeral, to produce ‘residue’ that can be commodified. On the other hand, not being co-opted into a commodity system can well be seen as a privilege of performance art. In every case, in terms of building a critical discourse around performance art, we are still at very nascent stages and have a long way to go.' says Khurana.
It is true that India has many shades of the performing arts… however performance, which is located in a contemporary art movement has room to grow, it has the potential to inhabit the cutting edge, like no other art form because it’s ephemeral nature renders it impossible to ‘collect’ as a fetishized object. Hence performance has the potential to be highly political and it can dare to push boundaries in a manner that perhaps more established art forms cannot—it is a 21st-century art form.