Duration : 36 hours
Costume design: Loise Braganza,
Photography: Zan Wimberley.
In 2012 interdisciplinary artist Nikhil Chopra became the inaugural recipient of Asialink’s ‘Roving Residency’ which unfolded across three Australian locations: Carriageworks, Sydney; Asialink, Melbourne; and the Fremantle Arts Centre, Western Australia. Chopra’s Roving Residency launched Asialink’s new ‘Arts Residency Laboratory’, a platform through which new, more sustainable and engaged models of arts residencies can be trialled in the context of The Asian Century.
As Chopra ‘roved’ between locations and was introduced to new networks and diverse settings, each leg of his journey resulted in different outcomes. In Sydney the artist delivered a commissioned three-day endurance performance at Carriageworks using the architecture and history o the site as an old rail yard, where he transformed the space, himself and his audience. In Melbourne Chopra delivered a performance lecture at the Victorian College of the Arts and participated in the forum Lemuria: Cultural Entanglements between Australia and India, hosted by Utopia@Asialink and the Ian Potter Museum of Art and included in the Melbourne Festival. In Western Australia, time was taken to reflect on the residency, on connections made and how the experience might influence future projects. Chopra spent time cycling and sketching and finished his time in Australia with a reflective performance lecture held at the Fremantle Arts Centre.
In 2012 Chopra was commissioned to make new work responding to the history and architecture of Carriageworks. Located in the inner-city Sydney suburb of Redfern, Carriageworks is a multi-disciplinary arts institution that occupies Sydney’s former Rail Yards. The Carriageworks buildings (built between 1880-89) comprise the largest surviving workshop site from the steam-era in Australia. For over a century, the workshops employed thousands of people, building and maintaining the locomotive fleet for New South Wales and beyond. They were also one of the major employers of migrants in Australia, many of whom lived in the surrounding suburbs and shaped the diverse neighbourhoods of Sydney’s inner west. Over his two week residency at Carriageworks, Chopra worked with his wife and collaborator Madhavi Gore to develop BLACKENING IV: BAY 19, a threeday, thirty-six hour endurance performance presented in the Carriageworks public space. A continuum of works made in Berlin in 2011 and 2012 the transformation that occurs in the blackening series poses the corporeal, metaphysical and political connotations of black as a colour. During the performance, Chopra colours his skin and clothes black. Working in silence, he engages the audience with his gaze, connecting with them, staring straight through them, or lowering his gaze as if to acknowledge their presence while drawing ever deeper into himself. At Carriageworks the artist’s silence is compounded by the distant rattle and rhythm of trains passing, moving people around the vast urban sprawl of Sydney.
Chopra begins the thirty-six hour transformation of himself and the Carriageworks space. At the centre of the room one tonne of coal is positioned. A symbol of the blackening, it is a representation of Carriageworks’ industrial history, a medium to create drawings, and a substance to blacken the body. For twelve hours Chopra shovels and sculpts the coal, manoeuvres and makes drawings on the six white walls, connects them, splits them apart, and at times encloses himself within them, creating a barrier from the audience. Episodes of frenetic drawing are contrasted with periods of rest, and over a number of hours the densely structured and enormous compositions begin to resemble train tracks, road plans, or an urban landscape seen from an aerial perspective. At the base of each wall a thick line of black charcoal dust develops, this residue becoming visible when Chopra pushes the wall to another location. These marks form a map of the artist’s movement, his diversions and desire lines suggesting the labour of the day. Chopra also brings the outside world in, projecting images from a surveillance camera located behind Carriageworks, facing the Redfern tracks. This footage reminds us that this work is evolving in real time and at this place. At 9pm that evening, covered in dust, grime and sweat, Chopra sits, slumped into the mound of coal, camouflaged with the walls behind him and inseparable from the work.He is the work.
Chopra begins the second morning of BLACKENING IV shopping for food at the popular Eveleigh Markets, held onsite at Carriageworks every Saturday.
Dressed in fresh white work overalls and maintaining complete silence, he scours the market purchasing food for the public dinner he will spend the day preparing. Inside the Carriageworks space Chopra’s blackened costume from the previous day lies slumped on a chair and attention is diverted to a temporary kitchen and single long dining table with eighteen seats. Throughout the day curious visitors come to watch this silent man undertake the preparation of hosting a meal - chopping, slicing, frying, simmering, setting the table and finally dressing himself. Chopra’s transformation from a man in work overalls to an androgynous character in a Victorian-era inspired hoop skirt fashioned from wire, lace and tarpaulin all takes place in the space. This is the performativity of life. Standing before his guests he shaves his head, applies make up and jewellery, undresses and dresses, revealing himself as a person as exposed or layered as any at the table. Such a flattening of hierarchy is what makes Chopra’s work accessible. By heightening an experience and drawing attention to our differences, he affirms the fact that we are all human, flawed and vulnerable. Sunday morning and the space is littered with the detritus of the night before. Crockery, cutlery, glasses, bottles, candles, and bones – the signs of a shared meal and a long evening. Chopra drags a table over to one of his walls and begins a day of meditative drawing. The existing marks take a more representational form. Lines become the roads and structures of the Carriageworks buildings, shapes become the portraits of guests at last night’s table. These could be faces we see in the city or people whose paths cross everyday via their routines or habits. The light changes. A train passes by. Twilight arrives and the night falls. Architecture and landscape, the weather, the chaos and the commotion of contemporary life come together in Chopra’s work. The costuming, selection and installation of props may provide us with clues to the world conjured up by his character but it remains uncertain and unfixed.
In BLACKENING IV, BAY 19, the audience has become part of the exercise of locating the performance within Carriageworks. And in turn, they have located themselves. Chopra allows this to unfold, exploring the histories of a site, highlighting our need for regularity and predictability, and reminding us that our connections to this fragile and uncertain world are through the people we share it with.