Monday, February 11, 2019

Body as a Mediating Element - Murali Cheeroth on Performance Art (Part 1)

A well-known name in the national art scene and internationally as well, Murali Cheeroth has become almost synonymous with Performance art in India. Currently working with major architectural institutions across the country, Cheeroth completed his BFA and MFA from Kalabhavan, Santiniketan. He started with painting and later diversified into video and performance art. He has exhibited both in solo and group shows across the globe and has won several awards and scholarships. An eminent artist with theatre background he immerses himself in ‘space’ entering a trance-like state engaging with his audience and the urban landscape. His paintings too depict an urban landscape that reminds us of photo-realism and yet is more of a graphic representation with the elements of cinema, architecture and predominantly characteristic neon colour codes. Murali Cheeroth’s works are a visual imprint of what lies around him which is perceivable and yet sometimes which is hidden in plain sight and needs the insight to formulate it; they are overlapped realities. There is an underlying streak of violence lurking all along which keeps the viewer/audience on edge. His works are not just about city life but an exploration of the physical and psychological impact of the immediate environment as well. Cheeroth’s ideals and his true humanitarian spirit to engage with the soul of the mass and the essence of the land makes his art much more than just an entertaining practice. It calls for engagement, involvement, participation, dialogue and connection in every form possible. The honesty and genuineness in his voice speak for itself. He is here to propagate ideas, to disturb the comfortable, to stir the viewer into action rather than just be a bystander of an event.

Here, my emphasis is on Murali Cheeroth’s performance art and the interview is devised accordingly to know more about the genre of art that is becoming the fast-focus of many of our current exhibitions.

Murali Cheeroth

Deepa: Let us begin from the beginning, can you give us a brief about yourself – education, family, work etc.

M.Cheeroth: I was born and brought up in an agrarian family, in Mullassery, Thrissur district. Temple rituals and Ayurvedic practices were part of our daily lives and childhood learning.

My art education includes a Diploma in Fine Arts from Government College of Fine Arts, Thrissur, BFA and MFA from Santiniketan, West Bengal and advanced computer diploma in digital media. I am currently based out of Bangalore.

I have exhibited my works in over 100 significant shows across the globe in the last two decades. Among my collectors are corporate institutions, museums and private art collectors. In the past I have worked extensively with printmaking and theatre, now I primarily work on painting, video and performance. My visual works refer to a wide variety of sources in the cultural sphere and contain within them a deep conversation with the history of representation in visual media, fine art, cinema, music and architecture. Within the context of the history of visual representation, my current explorations include the architecture of the city, urbanization and urban cultures. They look closely at the ideas of re-construction, infrastructure, technology, speed and change, intersections of local and the global, multiple layers of urban identities and so on. I situate each work within larger thematic explorations in humanities, social sciences and in visual art media.

Deepa: How would you describe your art?

M.Cheeroth: As a creative practitioner, my mind is always occupied with constant research and reading that I am engaged in, and my work is a natural progression of these thinking processes. So, when I begin a painting I have great clarity about what I want to do and I don’t face any challenge.

Live art completely negates studio practice. It’s challenging to simultaneously run studio practice and performance art.

It also makes a lot of impact on the artist as a social activist. It also brings a lot of new tools for your practice. As Gramsci mentioned, it’s a question of the human encounter - the encounter of body and space.

Terrestrial verses I/4 x 4 feet/acrylic on canvas/2019--Murali-Cheeroth-HuesnShades
Terrestrial verses I/4 x 4 feet/acrylic on canvas/2019

Deepa: Since you mention Gramsci, body and space, do you think art is a passive revolution or how effective is its intervention? The body serving as a political arena in itself, does it resonate with dominant political ideologies and structures?

M.Cheeroth: It’s said more as a resonance. If we look at that aspect ‘Body’ is like a cliché. We still continue exploring the possibilities of body and space. I was just pointing out a basic analogy and the feel that it provides. It’s more about a strong standpoint. But it doesn’t stop there – in the thinking or conversing or the ideas that we conceive. It goes beyond that; the day-to-day experiences or challenges are entirely different from the earlier ones. The current time calls for a more research-oriented approach. Body is not just a tool, it is a mediating element too. Body and mind has its nuances like the psychological aspect, body as a mediator that sparks the interaction or dialogue with the audience, identifying the spaces and the different aspects of these spaces like the communication, movement, continuity, the functionality, body as a measurement, body as a user – all these are in function during a performance. From 50s-60s, Body is the strong element of performance art and it has reached its maximum richness, the peak now. Many artists like Patty Chang, Joseph Beuys and so many others have used the body in a way that it has become a reference point for the later artists. That is how I see it.

Deepa: What according to you is performance art? Is your performance spontaneous or scripted, at times?

M.Cheeroth: Performance Art is live, it’s spontaneous, and it reveals itself in the present, in front of the audience. It also engages in the act of creation as I perform. Where I engage my body, space and other cognitive articulations. I work on a human scale and its manifestation and outcome cannot be known in advance.

I don’t do much planning for my performance. I will have a very simple idea or a seed in my mind. Once I am familiar with the space where I am going to perform, I arrive at a broad concept that I want to touch upon in my performance. When I start performing I start exploring this concept and at times, it’s more of an evolution, wherein I spontaneously evolve many aspects/layers in the performance - as thoughts and space interventions unfold itself each and every moment. It’s spontaneous. Scripted ones become a theatrical activity.

Conversations -1/Morning Hills Performance Art Biennale/2018

Deepa: Do you think activism is an inevitable part of performance art - as it does question social reality, the politics of identity, the constraints-no constraints of space and physicality, the cause and effect of the world/situations around and much more - or is it activism itself that is performance art?

M.Cheeroth: Historically yes, it’s a commitment towards the art fraternity and its historicity. Many artists’ works reflect a historical conflict between activism and image making or visual simulacra. In contemporary art today there have been a number of artists engaging in works that attempt to collapse the relationship between art and activism, aiming to create a democratic and historically integrated motion of political practice.

Deepa: Do you think this visual simulacrum - since it is supposed to not have a base to cling on to - can be misleading? Do you think they misconstrue the facts/truth of shared existence that they project?

M.Cheeroth: We cannot stand aloof and make an existence. There is an aloofness as an artist in the query which is not possible. There’s a spontaneity while painting and that spontaneity comes from your political leaning and political consciousness. The commitment or responsibility of my earlier days is not appropriate today because the question of originality and organic spontaneity was broken there – the existential questions were all different then. When we say that we are ‘ecosophical’ - ecological and philosophical, our vision is made clear. It is clearer when you take into consideration the education scenario where when a teacher nurtures the student, the teacher ideally touches upon every aspect that the student needs. In today’s art world, everything from the boundary itself gets redefined and it’s probably the position that we take that makes the questions relevant and it’s that relevance that we impose or question in the contemporary and post-modern times. In today’s times, instead of becoming a part of any art movement it’s better to generate a local and global context to your work. That is what creates the peculiarity of your work and practice. It is because we’ve redefined the practice of our work, the practice of running our economical side that we are able to make a sustainable contribution. Unlike the social commitment some 20 or 50 years ago; it’s more gradual, spontaneous and organic. Each artist needs to practice it with more verve than ever. I am someone who likes to see it in that light.

Conversations -3/Morning Hills Performance Art Biennale/2018

Deepa: Do you think performance art is marginalized since it is non-traditional in the so-called-mainstream visual art world, specifically in India? What do you think is the scope and range of Performance art in India in the near future?

M.CheerothEarlier it was very much marginalized and part of alternative art practice. After the economic recession in 2008, many innovative art programmes, many artists’ collective or artists’ commune and individual artists started reinventing the gap between art and art practice. The popularity of performance was an offshoot of this and many artists transported performance art to a higher level.

On the other hand, the gallery sponsored performances started to take place. In a nutshell, we can say that performance art was scaled up outside the gallery, but, now it has become a part of the gallery activities also. The individual artists try to demark and reinvent the thin line between the market and the new audiences. The audience is a part of each of the performance. The happiness is always gained through a small gathering with flexible techniques introduced and performed so that the viewer could engage as much as they want to. However, the political performer always tries to negate and eradicate the conventional notion of the audience and viewership. 

That said, it has now become an integral part of the mainstream. Now even international art performance festivals take place in India and major galleries promote performance art, even the major platforms like India Art Fair, Kochi Biennale etc. have started to hold performances.

Deepa: You say that you are building “...a new visual experience that is clear and vivid.” Would you base it on reality or fantasy? Which one do you prefer? Or is it a mix of both? How much clarity would you like to offer to the audience? Would you like to comfort them or cause discomfort and stir them up into action?

M.CheerothSocial and historical layers are very important in my work, intangibility which comes out of the mixture of all these things create new visual reality for my spectator or audience. Art becomes part of their ownership. It’s a question of freedom, wisdom and liberated spectator comes in a very dialogical way, which is more or less, like Barthes said: “Author is dead or author is absent”. Who is the author? Who creates that authorship in an artist? What is the intra relationship that he built up with his inspiration and subjectiveness? Or, how he extracts the authorship from the process of creating artwork from the sociological issues? What are the values we give to an authoritative object maker? And since an object is re-interpreted, re-oriented and replaced, from the history of contemporary art, the question of collectibles comes to the picture. Where does the question of the audience or the spectator become the participator in your practice? A matter of democratic viewership and non-democratic elite viewership comes in. Why it’s important to give value to an art practitioner? Who said everyone is an artist? Everyone is an artist. Artistic activity is a game, game without object and toys and without memories, the moment of shared communication is the realization of the artwork (Rikrit Trivanija). What happens between the people and the so-called ideologue in that case?  If the public is not there, the piece of artwork doesn’t exist.

Notes from Other Side of the River /Crimson Art Gallery/Bangalore/2016

Deepa: How do you think your art impacts the audience? What are the varied reactions that you receive during and after your performance since it would be more questions that you would raise? Sometimes the performance gets extreme causing anxiety, discomfort even pain and probably depressive environment by risking one’s own body making it the medium. What’s your take on that since you have done performances like “Frequency (Hz)” and “Unmarked” (video series) etc.? Any memorable recollection?

M.Cheeroth: Performance art is always a risk because you try to overcome body dynamics and articulation, even space and objects are very challenging. Once you start to do a performance, you visualize and enter into a very imaginative and intangible world. However you think and articulate, certain things will happen and certain things can’t…so you start getting into your own norms of the world, and you become a practitioner of those norms.

I have gone through various experiences in my performance. As part of Colombo Biennale, I was performing on the floor, where I have been using different tools like books, broken pot, fabric, knife etc. In the middle of the performance, I was negating my body using different situations and objects, the challenge was object-body-space co-ordinations. In action, as I was pulling out my skin layers, one of the audience interfered and handed over a very sharp knife to me. It was a challenge as a performer to perform with a sharp material like that. Your immediate impulse is not to withdraw from the situation but continue your action. I continued. I cut a part of my body, it started bleeding slightly. I took the challenge and I achieved perfection, I believe. 

Deepa: Causing harm to oneself – do you think that’s essential to art? Does that validate the act? The viewer giving you the knife to see whether you would get realistic, is that act on the part of the viewer permissible or acceptable since he’s trying to intensify the pain that is REAL? So where is the line drawn in performance art or is there a line at all?

M.Cheeroth: See, these are accidental matters. When we start a performance somewhere, it is time-based interventions that we conduct and the challenges there are real and to accept those challenges are essential. ‘Body’ and ‘life’ are different, the body is just a’s a continuously engaging and a mediating element. If you ask “Will it hurt?” The answer is “Yes, it will.

Chris Burden did it all the time. In one of his performances, he coaxed a friend and stood in the freeway where vehicles sped at 300-400 km/hr. It is a kind of self-infliction. When the body is on such challenging spaces, the way it’s used, converted, referenced and expressed is the engagement of body dynamics and performative time. I am not saying that the performance artists’ are to be celebrated for this reason, just stating the kind of intense involvement present in it. If I attack the audience in between my performance they can’t say anything to me.

During Pagan Festival in Kochi, there was an uproar saying I literally tried to ignite the space and was verbally attacked saying there were a lot of priceless works which could’ve been destroyed. But I just said one thing if lighting up space was part of my performance I would’ve done that.

I am reminded of Douglas’ work “You Killed Me”, a powerful one in that it was placed just outside during one of his solo shows in front of the gallery. Nobody dared to touch it. Art is a political dialogue, a political practice and whatever is right for it has to be done. That is why when a knife is handed over you just slip into a trance-like state. We don’t think anything else during that point in time.

(This is a two-part series.  The second part of the interview will be published next Monday ie. 18 Feb 2019)

Image courtesy: Murali Cheeroth
Profile Pic: Mathrubhumi Lit Fest @Dwijith

This interview was recorded from our phone conversations (in our native tongue, Malayalam and English) and later I translated-transcribed and edited it.

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Divya N said...

For me, Murali sir will always be my teacher. While I can recollect how he used theatre to teach design, I was not completely aware of his views on performance art. It felt good to read about him

dee Nambiar said...

That's interesting.
It was nice learning about performance art and how he combines it with the fine arts he is trained in.

Thank you for this insightful read, Deepa.

Hey, and I owe you a mail, alle? Will reply soon, tto.