Friday, 30 December 2011

An Exercise in Trust [Interview with Tejal Shah re performance at Vadehra Art Gallery, Delh]

As part of a group show at Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, Tejal Shah invited participants to take her blind-folded on an hour long walk through the city, as an exercise in Trust. Narrowing the boundaries between art and life, she became the medium, colour and texture; her experience the canvas. ‘Feelings’ became the ‘colours’ of a life-like experience for both artist and participant.


GN: It has been said that ‘Life’ is not something we discover but create in each moment. Is life the ultimate canvas for you?

TS: In some sense, life is the ultimate canvas, but for me nothing is the ultimate medium.

I engage with performance and its potentiality, exploring life-like art. Inspired by Allan Kaprow and John Cage - their thinking about life-like art and art-like art, I began exploring live performance in life-like art – what this means to the viewer and relevance of the viewer to the art, how not to de-contextualize it from life, but to engage in the process of life.

GN: Why do you work through live performance and not painting or installation?

TS: I am interested in it and living in India, the context in which one can make and produce art is limited, largely determined by commerce.

I come from a socially engaged and activist background engaging with issues of marginalization of class, religion, sexuality and gender and I wanted break down the false wall, the invisible curtain that exists between the artist and viewer - to bring myself to the viewer.

GN: Trust is intangible, yet fundamental for harmonious living. What did you hope to achieve by bringing the notion of trust as an ‘aesthetic’ into the gallery space?

TS: Trust is very loaded word. How can I explore some aspect of this through strangers? Contact was the key feature, leading to intimacy and touch, questioning the artists’ relationship with the audience.

I also wanted to work with the duality of trust and mistrust. It is relevant at this point of transition as a human society - of politics, war, colonization and technology.

GN: What does trust signify for you?

TS: There is a kind of fundamental handing over to someone else.

GN: What are the parameters by which you ascertain trust?

TS: I was sound recording the conversations which implied surveillance. Participants were not always aware of this.  I was surprised that people assumed I had completely surrendered.

Sometimes personal things were exchanged - life story experiences, where trust defined how one formed a relationship.

GN: If exploited, the exercise could have been traumatic. Was there any particular participant that tested the threshold of trust?
Tejal with Asim
TS: With Asim on the motor-bike and then also with Mary- with the kind of sharing - such openness, made me feel that there actually was great potentiality for trust between people. I also had sense of care which is related to trust.  

GN: Did anyone display a tendency to exploit the trust?

 TS: There was an artist in Beijing [where I have done this earlier]. San Juan gave me 3 choices and asked me to pick one. He wouldn’t disclose the choices. I really had to just trust, that this person is going to respect – not hurt me.

GN: What was the threshold of tolerance, beyond which you would call for help?

TS: So far I have not come across a situation where I needed to call for help. Dialogue helped as I was always in communication with the participant and could always say ‘yes’ to this and ‘no’ to that. The Gallery had the phone number of each participant and could hear us talk. The only control that I had was to choose to go along or not.

GN: You have done this exercise earlier in Beijing; what was the essential difference between that performance/interaction and this?

TS: In [Beijing] I chose no: 2. San Juan took me to an amusement part with crazy rides. Later, when we’d finished the exercise I asked what choice no: 1 would have been. He said that he would have taken me to the top of a sky skyscraper, made me stand on a parapet for 10 minutes, go down, take a photo and then come collect me.

He had decided that no: 1 would be a very dangerous thing, No: 2 – would feel very dangerous, but still safe [amusement park] and No: 3 –would be something that was not dangerous.

GN: Did this experience change your outlook in any way?

TS: I still think, ‘what if something happened’? Today if someone asks me to do something without telling me what’s happening, even in everyday things like  ‘are you free on this and this day’ my response is: ‘why are you asking, what do you want’?

GN: Your trust has become conditional?

TS: My worry is that someone is putting me in a precarious position where moving by a millimetre could be a question of life and death.

GN: Give some examples of what you and the participants in Delhi did?

TS: At the opening night someone kept asking me to guess what she looked like. She was interested in how people would perceive someone, without knowing what they looked like.
Tejal with Suruchi and Ankit
Suruchi took me to the work of Desire Machine Collective asking me to describe it. We then talked about my performance, whether it is art, not art.

A journalist took me onto the gallery terrace and asked round about questions. I am not sure whether they were meant to be metaphorical or poetic. She said: “there is an arch on a hill, like an old stone arch, its part of a ruin; [pointing me in that direction] what does it signify for me?’ I have been on that terrace many times but did not know if the arch was really there. I had no sense of what was reality and what was not. I just went with the flow.

I was also taken to Tughlaq’s tomb, Qutab minar, Greater Kailash II market [with Mary, where we went to a coffee shop and had coffee]
Tejal with Mary
GN: Were passers-by curious about your being blind-folded?

TS: I kept asking the participants ‘are people looking, how they are looking’? A foreign tourist interacted with us outside Tughlaq’s tomb. And when I was with Amber, some guy asked us in Hindi “What are you doing, what is the meaning of this?”

GN: Were your other senses heightened because you were blindfolded?

TS: Being cut off from the visual world created a dark space – a visual emptiness. It was amazing to lose the visual world and see how calm I felt - no anxiety about being blind-folded; it felt very natural. The sense of temperature was heightened. I could tell when we were going from shadow to sunlight, feel a change in temperature on my skin.

GN: In one recorded conversation you felt that the bike was titling to the left and said “I was scared, but obviously trusted him totally.” Could you elaborate?

TS: I have since re-questioned the idea. The bike felt it had titled, was almost touching the road. I felt desperate and needed to focus on one fixed point. I knew Asim a bit, but didn’t know if he was a safe rider. There was a lot of traffic, the sound was overwhelming. I lost my equilibrium. It was also getting dark and cold. It was not whether I trusted him or not, but a precarious situation.

GN: What specific nuances of trust did you discover through the interactions in Delhi?

Tejal with Mithu Sen
TS: I needed to keep talking. People are open and willing to engage and share, renewing my ability to trust. This is just the beginning.

Mithu was surprised her conversation was being recorded. She saw it as mistrust, making me question myself. The dialogue generated interest in the ethics of what is exchanged.

GN: The notion of trust is abstract, with no visual qualities. How does this come within the purview of the visual arts?

TS: There is something to hear and see and experience. I do not necessarily qualify this performance as visual art. Live art is more than even performance.

GN: We live in troubled times, trust is at a premium. Did the performance give insights that could help address this issue?

TS: Trust was built into the title of work. I am like an optimistic pessimist. I feel we can try and address these things. I have faith. People were willing to participate. It’s only when we engage that we can think about our limits.

GN: As a visual artist what do you experience when you become a performer?  

TS: I felt vulnerable. There was a sense of being exposed and of adventure too.

GN: What did the participants, your co-performers, experience?

TS: People lacked the experience of leading a non-sighted person. Some asked me to walk in front, to lead them and many walked really fast.

Some were vulnerable in the sharing they did.

GN: At the outset, who did you really trust - participants, the gallery, or some other element?

I started with a sense of complete trust in the participants. Ultimately, I do feel that it comes back to one’s self, as collaborative, sharing self.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating! As if this write/interview was waiting for me to say something!

I have known Tejal since she was a kid bouncing on our adult thighs - back in the late 90s when I was in Mumbai :)) I have a very special relationship with her and love her to bit! Alas! her extraordinary busy and creative life and mine too, keep us away from each other, also places and spaces!!
It is wonderful to read about her here with her far out ideas!!

gopika nath said...

Thanks for reading Julia. Am glad you enjoyed the interview. I particularly enjoyed this work By Tejal, as I found her working with a very abstract concept in such a real way, where the experience in itself became her canvas - such that life really is.