Nikhil Chopra at He Said She Said

by Madeleine Bailey

Even before entering the Oak Park based home gallery, visitors were greeted by rich scents wafting out of the building: cumin, coriander, and onions lay pungent and heavy in the air. A series of quiet but distinct contradictory sounds spill out; Indian music, the distant city streets, the clicking of a slide projector and people speaking over the game playing quietly on a living room television. A figure, elegant and awkward, came out of the kitchen, paused, surveying the dining and living rooms, then passed through and disappeared again into the back of the apartment to finish cooking.

What transpired over the next hour and a half were a series of slow, generous, and carefully calculated actions that brought the viewer into and also distanced them from the theatrical atmosphere. Nikhil Chopra’s piece “Yog Raj Chitrakar: Eating”, unlike his recent works, was an ephemeral event that left little mark on the actual space of the exhibition. Instead, elements of conversation, silence, and food were used to draw an engaging and haunting personal narrative.

Visitors were invited to share a meal in the carefully crafted atmosphere of the home. Embodying a persona fashioned after the artist’s grandfather, Chopra wore a Victorian costume resembling white long underwear that masked his head, complete with top hat and pointy leather shoes with leather spats. His striking presence was accompanied by several different images. A video projected over the dining room table portrayed Chopra’s character actively moving though the richly colored city streets of India, scenes densely populated and modern. On another wall a slide projector displayed mostly rural scenes of open spaces in India, many of which were out of focus and grainy, or drawn upon with a black sharpie. Clashing subtly with the video, these images felt of a completely different era, existing between something out of an old photo album and what you would see in a traveler’s guidebook. The football game remained on, flickering in the background. Eventually, Chopra settled down to work the projector and effectively positioned himself in the middle of these disparate spaces.

We ate rice pulao, raita, and korma. The artist’s mother came in and introduced herself to all of us with a handshake. People met each other, spoke among themselves, chewed, digested, and absorbed. Chopra kept at the periphery; staring, as one eyehole in his mask eventually became two, which at some point gained a mouth so he could drink a beer. At first glance, it seemed like an odd caricature reminiscent of 30’s era Max Fleischer cartoon characters but quickly developed into a fully enigmatic persona embodying a rich and complicated post-colonial world.

The density of Chopra’s work involved questioning the level of engagement with the performer. It was hard not to stare at him. Sometimes he stared back and other times he looked like he was about to cry. We were gathered for him, but he remained alone. Invited to know him we could not really get to know him. Chopra was an other in a world of his own creation, a world where in reality none of us quite fit. And so while on the one hand the meal was quite lovely, warm, and comfortable, it was hard not to be embarrassed. Was he an object? He was on display and somehow we all were drawn into his story by the acts of waiting and of watching these versions of him. The object of our collected attentions, we were guests at his meal, we were eating his food, as he provided these histories, these narratives to us. Were we the captivated audience, or was he being held captive by our stares?

In this way the figure of Chopra held power over all of us. I did not once see anyone attempt to engage with him to break his silence: we all submitted to his unspoken rules. An hour had passed by and he was just beginning to take his mask off. Watching him melancholically watch himself on his laptop was the saddest thing that I have seen in a long time. Having only recently been introduced to Nikhil Chopra’s work, I was quickly taken by it.