Colour me a tree

Colour me a tree

Artist Neha Choksi explores philosophical ideas of absence and presence through the physical, messy experience of touch and texture.

Artist Neha Choksi during her performance, In Leaf (Primary Time)

Neha Choksi begins, like any painter, with a brush and a can of paint. Her choice of canvas, however, is rather unusual — a ficus tree. Dipping her brush into the paint, she proceeds to colour the tree, leaf by leaf, a vivid red. At some point, she dispenses with the brush, and we see her daub and rub the vivid hue onto the leaves and the stems of the ficus. Over the course of 22 minutes and 51 seconds, we see her cover two more ficus trees in paint — one yellow and one blue.

The video of this work, In Leaf (Primary Time), performed last April at the Hayward Gallery Project Space in London, is part of Choksi’s ongoing solo exhibition, “Save the Translation for Later” at Project 88 in Mumbai. It’s a meditative, almost ritualistic piece, in which the artist proceeds step by step, trying to make a “live landscape painting”. The work, partly a homage to a 1974 work by conceptual performance artist Bas Jan Ader, is about how art deals with landscapes. As Choksi touches the plant and applies paint on it, we wonder, what happens if the barrier of the canvas is removed? Can one access the plant’s “plantness” wholly? What tools does an artist have at her disposal to capture the truth of what she sees, without anything being lost in translation?

The works in “Save the Translation for Later” are Choksi’s attempts to grapple with these questions. As she explains in the text accompanying the show, she will not “examine, uncover, expose, reveal, reflect, illustrate, comment”. Rather, she writes, “I want directness of experience.”

Choksi’s desire for “directness of experience” might seem to be at odds with the enigmatic nature of her art. The works of the 42-year-old, who splits her time between Mumbai and Los Angeles, are complex and often years in the making, not merely because they are difficult to execute, but because the ideas that she explores have been brewing for a very long time.


As Sree Goswami, owner of Project 88 which has represented Choksi since 2007, says, “Neha’s works are conceptually strong, with a knowledge of art history, and distilled over time. They are pared down to very simple but powerful ideas and emotions which are basic to the human condition and yet they are intriguing because they are put forward in Neha’s very particular imagination.”

For example, Choksi’s desire to get to the “plantness” of a plant can be traced all the way back to her 1995 work, Paint on Plant (Variegated Ficus), in which she took a group of ficus plants and painted them, until they were all covered in a layer of paint that mimicked their actual appearance. For the artist herself, this work is the most seminal of her oeuvre, and one can see why. As the actual plant gradually vanishes, a new painted plant takes its place. One could say that the real plant is both present and absent, but one could also question how much of the actual plant remains in the painted version, especially as the layer of paint now starts to stifle the leaves underneath and the plant begins to defoliate.

Choksi’s long engagement with specific ideas is most famously embodied in Trilogy of Absenting, a series of video works hatched over a decade, that examine the nature of absence. This is not always a consciously considered path, she clarifies. “I haven’t set out to investigate any such theme as much as that keynote is struck and then recognised as integral or significant to me. It is but easy to isolate one element in what I trust is a more complex understanding of the cycles of life, the material basis of our quicksilver existence,” she says.

In the 14-minute video Leaf Fall (2007-08), which forms the first part of the trilogy, Choksi got a group of people to strip a fully grown tree of all its leaves, save for one sprig. The idea is further explored in subsequent videos, Petting Zoo/Minds to Lose (2008-11) and Iceboat (2012-13). After exploring physical absence in Leaf Fall, in the second video, Choksi looked at what happens when the mind becomes ‘absent’; her chosen method was to anesthetise herself and two goats, a donkey and a sheep, drawing parallels between what losing consciousness means for her — a rational human being with free will — and for domesticated animals, whose lives are controlled by the humans. It is the last part, Iceboat, that is the most ambitious of her works, both in terms of the drama of its execution and in how far it pushes the idea of absence into the realm of loss. In this performance, the artist is dressed in a white gown, akin to a renunciate, rowing a boat made of ice on Lake Pawna near Lonavala. The boat slowly melts into the water, as does her gown, which is made of cellulose, until Choksi is completely submerged. It’s a meditation not only on the inevitability of loss, failure and collapse, but also on the  human attachment to things we know we are going to lose.

These ideas about absence and presence, about attachment and liberation perhaps come from Choksi’s childhood connection to Jainism. In fact, one of the most fruitful lens with which to view Choksi’s works is through that of Anekantavada, the Jain philosophy of “many-sidedness”, which postulates that reality is perceived differently from different points of view and that while no single point of view is the complete truth in itself, taken together, they comprise the complete truth.

“I am an anti-religious person, and I would not want to belabour any connection between my work and my upbringing, but naturally the teachings around non-attachment have affected my emotional life and desires, which in turn exerts some influence upon my life and work as an artist. The ethos of active inertia that I feel Jainism aspires to, and which is how I interpret the attempt to do the least harm, is a source of productive internal friction for me as a sculptor and artist. I don’t want to feel or be liberated from my body but want to more fully and consciously inhabit it. Maybe it is all one and the same,” says Choksi.