Text by Lauren Velvick
Over the first blistering weekend in July The Whitworth Art Gallery remained open to the public for 65 hours straight, as Nikhil Chopra undertook his epic performance Coal on Cotton, as part of Manchester International Festival. The performance, which began at sunrise on Friday the 5th, draws attention to the ubiquity of, and power invested in cotton. Chopra explores colonialism by evoking historical and modern chains of production, using costume, character and masses of cotton from both Mumbai and Manchester.
Not able to make it for the very beginning of Chopra’s performance, when I arrived a couple of hours in at 7am the artist was snuggled down after his first shift unbinding the cotton, with the fabric billowing around him in picturesque folds. For the first part of the performance, Chopra had to drag the material into the Whitworth’s unfinished landscape gallery, in character as an Indian cotton farmer – but I caught him at a down moment. The unfinished bones of the landscape gallery were eventually dressed in a cotton shirt-tent, creating a distinct and specialised space, inside of which Chopra began work on a cityscape drawn in coal, depicting modern buildings, but black smoke billowing from the chimneys. Chopra had developed three characters altogether, and once his stint as a cotton farmer had finished, he became a mill-worker, and finally a dapper businessman.
As this was a durational performance that visitors were invited to drop in and out of, I had wondered how necessary it was to be present, and for what amount of time. Having witnessed – almost – the beginning, I was planning on making it back for the end of the performance, and through the wonders of social media could vicariously follow the reactions of other visitors throughout. From the pictures and comments shared live, it was clear that those who were able to commit to spending a significant amount of time with the performance, or to returning repeatedly throughout had a deeper experience, as physicality and incremental transformation emerged as crucial aspects.
The final hours of Coal on Cotton were ceremonial, with visitors voluntarily forming processions behind the artist as he performed his final actions, and a sense of observance was intensified by the bound roll of fabric lying like a body in the Whitworth’s foyer, along with flowers and tins. In his final incarnation, Chopra, dressed in an emerald green suit looked on and directed workmen as they hoisted his intricate coal drawing up on to the side of the Whitworth. For the second time during this performance, swathes of cotton were used to dress the building, creating a poignant image as Chopra’s imagining of an industrial city in the thrall of cotton, was drawn over the grand red-brick exterior of a cultural institution that was built in memory of an industrialist.
Nikhil Chopra: Coal on Cotton took place at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester from 5 July to 7 July 2013.
Lauren Velvick is an artist, curator and writer based in Manchester.