‘He’s going all rogue on us,’ comments a woman to my right. She is part of a group of museum staff and camera crew that has assembled on the balcony of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Robert Lehman Wing. Together, we gaze down at the courtyard toward the artist Nikhil Chopra, who is seven days into his nine-day durational performance, Lands, Waters, and Skies, where, as the museum’s 2019–20 artist-in-residence, he has chosen to eat, sleep and move through the galleries. Chopra has the air of an amused, if silent, reprobate as he slinks sock-footed through rooms housing medieval European diptychs and engravings, 19th-century ceramics and sculptures, before arriving at the hallway housing Sol LeWitt’s monochromatic Wall Drawing #370 (1982).
Chopra has been residing in this space for two days, having made his way there from the main steps, followed by the Great Hall and the Temple of Dendur in the Sackler Wing. Each point of the artist’s journey has been marked by changes in his clothing, intermittent performances incorporating ambient sonic and visual elements, pauses for sleep and meals, and, not least of all, mark-making. Chopra’s performances result in large-scale drawings – made on expansive swathes of canvas or on the walls and ceilings of galleries – that envelop both the environments of their display and the audiences within them. Paul Klee once remarked that a drawing is a line taken for a walk; the sketches that result from Chopra’s perambulatory performances in turn, map exchanges of power, and how in these exchanges, people, places, and histories are created, destroyed, and transformed.
On the first day I observe him, Chopra proceeds to move large rolls of canvas – eight, to be exact – from the LeWitt hallway with the aid of an assistant. ‘He’s going to hang ’em,’ predicts a man next to me. And, in fact, there are eight long black poles in the octagonal space, the centre of which houses a fountain; Chopra drapes his fabric across them, mapping out a landscape he has sketched over the last week, full of snow-peaked mountains and craggy rock formations. The geometric configuration of the Lehman Courtyard recalls the tent that the artist and his crew used as refuge when they travelled across the Balkan Route from Athens to Kassel for Drawing a Line through Landscape (2017), a commission for documenta 14. The path, modelled after journeys historically undertaken by Romani migrants and refugees fleeing war, involved brief sojourns in eight Eastern European cities; at each stop, Chopra would draw on one of the tent’s inner panels. The performance culminated at Kassel’s KulturBanhof, where the artist unfurled the panels and demarcated a horizon line across the fabric masking tape: here, he indicated, was the connecting line upon which all of us could gaze, wherever we were in the world.
At the Met, Chopra’s nomadic journey is physically more contained, but the Goa-based artist’s attention to the specifics of space and time, to the many stories rather than a single linear history, ensure that this project is no less taxing, no less considered. As suggested by the performance’s title, Chopra’s concerns are ecological. He is interested in the life and pulse of the museum, once regarded as a mausoleum for inert artefacts but better understood as a sustained ecosystem of visitors and staff that breathes life into the building and engages with the objects housed within to confer meaning upon them.
Chopra’s project investigates how the construction of meaning within a museum is historically contingent, formed by colonial conquest and imperial greed. ‘I don’t view the Met as a neutral space,’ he says in his artist’s statement. ‘I come from contemporary India and I carry the subcontinent’s colonial past with me.’ Accordingly, Chopra’s movement through the galleries traces the legacy of colonialism, with his path focusing on particular objects that illustrate the violence of imperial conquest. The Temple of Dendur, for instance, is an Ancient Egyptian relic dating from 15 BCE, which was dismantled in 1963 to protect it from the flooding of Lake Nasser and brought to the Met in 1965 as part of a UNESCO project. For Chopra, the Temple exemplifies how Western museums assert that they alone may act as stewards of cultural heritage. During his stay near the Temple, Chopra used swathes of blue-streaked fabric to erect a protective, sky-like canopy. Images of excavators were projected onto the gallery walls, accompanied by the artist’s live and evocative echolalia, summoning the visceral feeling of loss that often accompanies such acts of safekeeping.
This sentiment is even more palpable in Chopra’s selection of his second object of focus: a 20th-century body mask from the Asmat Tribe of Papua New Guinea in the Arts of Africa, Oceania and Americas galleries. The very organization of this wing, which aligns geographically disparate cultures, underscores Chopra’s insistence that the museum is both informed by and in service to its colonial legacy. Shielded from the public in a glass case, the body mask inspired Chopra to change into a red fringed bodysuit streaked with black. As he walked through the Oceanic section of the galleries, clanging sounds evoking industrial factories nodded to the decline of the Asmat – the last non-industrialized peoples of the world. Two days later, further underscoring this shift towards industrialization, Chopra made his way to the Lehman Wing wearing the denim overalls typical of early 20th-century manual factory labourers.
For the performance’s conclusion, Chopra changed into yet another garment: a flowing robe with mirrored embroidery mapping the constellations of that night’s sky and a mask composed of elements derived from various masks in the museum’s collection. Outside the Lehman Courtyard hangs Chopra’s final object of interest: Dutch painter Frans Post’s A Brazilian Landscape (1650), which recalls the tropical Goan landscape that Chopra now calls home. Connected by the history of Portuguese colonization, these landscapes are charged with a longing that supersedes time and space.
As he walked through the Lehman Wing, Chopra was accompanied by security guards, museum staff and a camera crew; when he slept in the galleries, he was monitored by CCTV. By consciously subjecting himself to this surveillance, the artist demonstrates that the display and collection of objects in the museum are inextricable from the colonial violence that got many of them there. Chopra’s occupation of the Met – his decision to live amongst objects whose histories precede and anticipate his presence – marks a shift in institutional critique towards disavowing grand legacies and histories all together. As Daniel Buren noted in his essay ‘The Function of the Museum’ (1970), the museum ‘makes its “mark”, imposes its “frame” (physical and moral) on everything that is exhibited in it in a deep and indelible way […] since everything that the museum shows is only considered and produced in view of being set in it.’ Within this context, Chopra has made his own marks and gestures to extend his practice beyond the museum’s walls and outward into the world.
Nikhil Chopra, Lands, Waters, and Skies, took place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA, 12–20 September 2019.
Main image: Nikhil Chopra, Lands, Waters, Skies, 2019, performance documentation. Courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art; photograph: Stephanie Berger