Art review: Nikhil Chopra unleashes a potent blend of art forms

Toss painting with video, performance and elements of theatre and you get the work Give Me Your Blood And I Will Give You Freedom. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE 
Toss painting with video, performance and elements of theatre and you get the work Give Me Your Blood And I Will Give You Freedom. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE 
Indian artist Nikhil Chopra in his 50-hour performance Give Me Your Blood And I Will Give You Freedom. -- PHOTO: SHIVANI GUPTA COURTESY OF NIKHIL CHOPRA
Indian artist Nikhil Chopra in his 50-hour performance Give Me Your Blood And I Will Give You Freedom. -- PHOTO: SHIVANI GUPTA COURTESY OF NIKHIL CHOPRA
Indian artist Nikhil Chopra in his 50-hour performance Give Me Your Blood And I Will Give You Freedom. -- PHOTO: SHIVANI GUPTA COURTESY OF NIKHIL CHOPRA
Indian artist Nikhil Chopra in his 50-hour performance Give Me Your Blood And I Will Give You Freedom. -- PHOTO: SHIVANI GUPTA COURTESY OF NIKHIL CHOPRA
Indian artist Nikhil Chopra in his 50-hour performance Give Me Your Blood And I Will Give You Freedom. -- PHOTO: SHIVANI GUPTA COURTESY OF NIKHIL CHOPRA
Indian artist Nikhil Chopra in his 50-hour performance Give Me Your Blood And I Will Give You Freedom. -- PHOTO: SHIVANI GUPTA COURTESY OF NIKHIL CHOPRA
Indian artist Nikhil Chopra in his 50-hour performance Give Me Your Blood And I Will Give You Freedom. -- PHOTO: SHIVANI GUPTA COURTESY OF NIKHIL CHOPRA
Indian artist Nikhil Chopra in his 50-hour performance Give Me Your Blood And I Will Give You Freedom. -- PHOTO: SHIVANI GUPTA COURTESY OF NIKHIL CHOPRA
Indian artist Nikhil Chopra in his 50-hour performance Give Me Your Blood And I Will Give You Freedom. -- PHOTO: SHIVANI GUPTA COURTESY OF NIKHIL CHOPRA
Indian artist Nikhil Chopra in his 50-hour performance Give Me Your Blood And I Will Give You Freedom. -- PHOTO: SHIVANI GUPTA COURTESY OF NIKHIL CHOPRA

Toss painting with video, performance and elements of theatre and you get the work Give Me Your Blood And I Will Give You Freedom.

A veritable rojak of the arts, the piece by Indian artist Nikhil Chopra makes for a fitting commission for the Singapore International Festival of Arts.

As with the pungent, sweet-savoury dish of the region, which is most satisfying when consumed as an appetiser rather than a dessert or entree (though no less important as a course in a meal), so too is the experience of Chopra's creation.

The 50-hour performance is many things in one and democratic in how the audience encounters it - one is free to come and go as one pleases throughout the show - but it is perhaps most tantalising when one considers how it liberates the visual arts, particularly painting, and avails it to new, exciting possibilities using elements of theatre and performance.

Chopra, who was trained in fine arts, draws upon notions of history, memory and the passage of time for his work. In this commission, the creative impetus stems from the life of the late Indian freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose and his links to Singapore.

Bose, who opposed British colonial rule, had come to Singapore in the early 1940s to recruit soldiers to fight for India's independence. Women responded to his rallying cry, from which the show draws its title, and formed an all-female army.

Against this backdrop of issues including gender, identity, colonial history and conflict, Chopra applies himself like a prism. He uses costumes and simple props to play no fewer than three personas, an upper class woman, a soldier and a demon, to flesh out complex ideas.

But he goes beyond mere performance in the white cube space and in doing so, he makes a difference. He performs painting. He turns an often private process and its attendant rituals done in secret into an event open to scrutiny by the public.

He also performs painting by assuming different personas when he paints. These personalities, in turn, imbue the monochromatic ink drawings with layers of meaning that are unseen yet palpable.

For example, the idyllic landscape painting by the genteel female persona, Michelle, which is drawn over a looped video of a sunny, windy field, becomes more than just a paradoxical indoor plein-air painting. It suggests the complexity of identity in relation to one's motherland, and questions if one's existence, as a colonial subject living in a time of peace and plenty, is vacuous.

Similarly, the abstract vortexes of swirls that rise from the floor up the walls, half-way through the show, are more than just frenetic, tangled webs. Painted by the persona of the soldier, Sipahi Seva Singh, after he filled the landscape painting with black clouds and bomber planes, the columns take on meaning as plumes of smoke from explosions decimating the land.

This act of adding layers to a painting is not unusual, but Chopra uses the gesture deliberately to tell a story, employing real time as a narrative agent in painting.

Besides painting over painting, he also paints over video, and with video.

In a scene where the projection on the wall shows a radiant red sun, war planes in flight and advancing military tanks, Chopra as the soldier wields his self-made paint brush (a pole with fabric wrapped around the tip) as a weapon, adding more planes and tanks to the procession by loosely tracing the video images on the wall. But it remains unclear if the painted planes fly with the planes in the video, or as stealth bombers, causing silent collisions when the moving video planes overlap with them.

The finale itself is a climactic display with performance, video, sound, painting and sculpture all entering the fray.

Transforming from soldier into a tongue-wagging demon, Chopra sheds the army fatigues, paints his body black and crawls under the paper on the floor that was earlier painted over with squiggles. As an invisible force, he sculpts the painting from within.

This macabre sight of an inanimate floor drawing becoming alive, crackling under tension as the large sheet of paper moves, heightens the sense of apocalypse in the space; a video of turbulent magma plays on walls thoroughly blackened, and discordant rumbles reverberate in the room.

Finally, the monster pokes its head out from under the painting, perches itself on top of a low standing ladder beneath the paper and wears the floor painting-sculpture as a robe.

This vision is more than just a jumble of art forms, it is a picture of its apotheosis.

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