Monday, June 8, 2009

Nihkil Chopra and the performing process

Chopra spent 48 hours in the old tower of the Arsenale. He ate, slept, and painted. The performance was focused on a process of transformation in which the artist became another person.

As a second performance in the bookstore in the Giardini's central pavilion, he began a separate act of self-transformation. First, he removed his normal clothes. Then the Indian artist applied make-up quietly and slowly in front of the small audience that watched him. He then donned a new outfit of native clothes. He stood in front of his viewers and played a little snare drumm, and then paraded through the bookstore with members of the audience following him.

The performance was followed by a conversation with Clementine Deliss, who runs the Future Academy at the Edinburgh College of Art, and she described the performance as melancholic, which he agreed with. Chopra turned the conversation to the subject of the importance of painting to his work. He explained that painting is a starting point for all of his performances, invoking both a romantic quality as well as a sense of nostalgia.

He went on to explain that the figure he inhabited in this performance, evoking his grandfather, represented that sense of nostalgia and the colonialist world in which he lived. Chopra cited other examples of his performance work in Mumbai and Kashmir.

Performance as part of a documentation process. As a transformation of the self. As the result of the act of painting. These are the remains of his works when he left the space: his objects, his drawings, and even his hair...

Jan Hafstrom about the cinema

“Movies are the greatest art of all… As a child, I had a sensation that the black room was protecting me from the world.”

Shadows of memory- Jan Hafstrom

It was a great choice to close this series of performances and conversations with a performance by the important Swedish artist Jan Hafstrom, in collaboration with the Swedish choreographer Lotta Melin. It was a wonderful and fulfilling experience for all those present. Ten figures entirely cloaked in black, with their heads in tall, pointed hats draped in black cloth that covered their faces, traipsed across the stage, walking, skipping, nearly falling. One dancer made her way across plates set out like stepping stones, sliding them across the stage, and then another dancer gathered them up, a game that increased in intensity between them. The stage itself was decorated with scores of simply drawn skulls on thick, stiff paper below which the performance took place, mixing images and actions rife with the quickness of life and the specter of death. But describing this, word for word, seems unnecessary in a way. It was a real performance experience--unrepeatable. Carried by the poetic sense of mortality, a viewer could almost fall in love with death, as absurd as that may seem. Through the elegant and gracious movements of the dancers, one could feel the vibrations of life's force bizarrely drawn from mortality itself. It seemed that mortality and beauty became two indivisible phenomena.

The conversation that followed continued this flow of the bizarre that was enchanting us. The usual questions were left out, instead Steven Henry Madoff, who curated the performance and conversation series for the Biennale and published a book about Hafstrom in 1986, evoked some rather interesting moments from his fictionalized account of his encounters with Hafstrom, seeking the real essence of his thought. We could only question ourselves whether their conversation was a pure fiction or the stories they shared truly existed--though it turns out that Madoff's questions for Hafstrom were based on two classic texts that have been central to the artist's work: Conrad's novella, Heart of Darkness, and the film version of Thomas Mann's great book, Death in Venice. The mixture of the performance itself and the ensuing conversation were more than intertwined. In the end, maybe we don’t need to make distinctions between fiction and reality in order to find the right balance of things. Thinking about the performance, it seems that the balance we all need is precisely in this connection of the present paradise and the absent or even lost one.

At one moment, Hafstrom said that he was just “trying to resolve the riddles we all have.” So maybe all this back and forth of our memory is the right way to find answers. When we think about his work installed in the Arsenale, we can see his attempt to organize his experience by putting together the various parts of his memory. As he said: “It’s chaos and order at the same time, and I want to keep them together.”

A document of performance

After Nikhil Chopra left his tower in the Arsenale, where he had spent 48 hours performing, one could still have the sensation of his presence as well as the gradual evolution of performance. The drawings left behind in the tower will be used as documentation of his process. They are the memory of the performance, of course, but also a longtime souvenir of an era that has passed. A silent rhetoric was the core of Chopra’s performance, and the same silence will stay behind as its living testimony.

Nikhil Chopra's transformation

Chopra underlined the importance of the transformational act in his work. The act itself could be manifested in different ways. Disguising the body may just be one of the solutions, andthis implies the spontaneous mutation of the personality as well. He seeks to elevate this mutation to the highest level possible. If he starts the transformation as a very masculine and ascetic figure, the logical opposition would be a feminine and seductive presentation of the same figure. But this process of change is a rather complex situation. One must keep questioning oneself in which way it should proceed, how far to go with it, to what extent, etc.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Carlos Basualdo in conversation with Michelangelo Pistoletto

Mirrors represent the core of Michelangelo Pistoletto's work. Since the 1960s, he has used mirrors as surfaces that propose the idea of infinity and unreality. In the Arsenale for this current Biennale, Pistoletto did a performance in which he smashed all but two of his "intangible" mirrors filling a large gallery as a huge crowd watched adoringly and applauded. But the philosophical question remained of what these shattered mirrors signified.

In the Conversation series, Pistoletto spoke with Carlos Basualdo, the curator of modern and contemporary art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He began with the work at the Biennale, but quickly moved on to cover the whole range of his career. "Everything is calculated," Pistoletto noted. A mirror in itself can represent anything at all, so it's the equivalent of a zero--it is the ground zero of the world's reality. And given this idea, Pistoletto thought early in his career to offer the mirror something to reflect. He divided the mirror in two, reflecting each part mutually, and so he obtained an infinite multiplication, a mise en abime. He considered this duplication a way of sharing the world infinitely, or as he put it in Italian, "dividere per condividere."

Pistoletto focused on a second chapter of his career during which he printed his self-portrait on his mirrors' surfaces. This was not simply suggesting the multiplication and sharing he previously proposed in his work, but suggested a democratic spirit in that his image represented "everyman," each of us represented in the world by our images.

All this intense work made Pistoletto known internationally as one of the leading Italian artists, and one of the artists in the significant art movement of the 1960s in Italy, the Arte Povera group, which was born in part as a response to American Pop Art in the United States. While Pop Art was about material wealth, Art Povera was about starting from the reduction of materials to the essential). Pistoletto related this tendency to his own experience in Città dell'Arte, located in Biella.

His discussion of this essentialism made us think about the mirrors in the Biennale differently, marrying their philosophical character to their sheer physicality. And I wondered, "Can we ever reach the starting point of the infinite?"

Saturday, June 6, 2009

A good choice?

Keeping the words of Yoko Ono's curator, Nora Halpern, in mind that this is the first time that Ono is looking back at her life (for she is always looking forward), it is interesting to consider the performance she did for a packed house in the Teatro Piccolo was very much related to her concurrent exhibition in Venice at the Palazzetto Tito, "Anton's Memory." There she underlined the idea of the first moment in which our memory starts to generate itself and when we realize the presence of the other.

Yet couldn't this encounter at Teatro Piccolo be a place for a slightly different approach? For the memories on view in the film she projected, filled with images from her childhood and after, hardly seemed related to her art practice. As people began to leave during this extended home movie, it was obvious that they came to see and hear something related to Yoko Ono's art, which has supposedly been influential since her first performances in the 1960s and for which she came to Venice this year to receive the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement.