My Body My Place

Gabrielle Obrist


Nesa Gschwend uses her own body awareness as a lens focalising on the unknown. In 2009, during a residency of several months in Varanasi—a pilgrimage centre in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh—the artist immersed herself into the world of the Indian subcontinent, characterised by strong contrasts. Both irritated and fascinated continuously by the incomprehensible, she processed her emotions in creative work, developing performances, videos and drawings of immense density and intensity. She transferred her internalised encounters with a wide range of people and in varied circumstances into strong visual metaphors, as much as her observations and interpretations, and she confronted pedestrians in her temporary sphere of activity with forms of expression they were unaccustomed to. This way, the artist engaged in a dialogue with her host country, enabling her to express various aspects of her experience, such as admiration for Varanasi’s complex and multi-layered culture, or asking critical questions in a non-verbal manner about India’s societal hierarchy, and conveying her personal views through concise rituals.


In the present publication, Nesa Gschwend puts on show—for the first time—the entire range of her artistic expression of India as an interconnected «big picture», encompassing a period of six years, starting with her first studio residency in Bangalore in 2006. The individual exhibits resemble the varying and ever-changing facets of a kaleidoscope and offer a fresh view at each turn. It is Nesa Gschwend’s own body that represents the pivotal point of all her artistic and creative work; she uses it as an acting force and silently witnessing projection screen, as a source of irritation and highly sensitive antenna.


Nesa Gschwend gave special attention to body casing in India. She recognised the use of saris as a possibility to confront specific social issues, since the quality and design of the fabric convey clear information about the living conditions and social status of their bearers. A sari is a cloth of five to six metres in length, with a differently coloured decorative border at one of its ends. Nesa Gschwend’s purchase of used and discarded saris reflected a milieu exploration that unveiled the mechanisms of poverty and gender discrimination. Thus, the unresolved entanglements of individual life patterns and the sheer impossibility of breaking free from social hierarchy or caste, are the topics woven into the tattered, interlaced, clustered sari relicts, that wind themselves through the exhibitions like cobwebs: The entire wealth of experience of the fabrics‘ former owners, and the artist’s inner conflict with experienced and observed circumstances, appear to be entwined with the textiles. The knotted sari ropes take on a special significance when Nesa Gschwend wraps her body with them and thus, motionless, presents herself to the curious eyes of pedestrians and drivers in the chaotic traffic of a chowk (roundabout). She—the foreigner—alienated the normality of everyday life by means of customary clothing used as ritual props, thereby removing herself from the activity surrounding the chowk. The fascination and admiration that this presence triggered amongst the public can be viewed in her video production «Red Strings Through My Hands», revealing—in addition—surprising side attractions.

A tent-like fabric structure represents a further complex work, its surface covered with layers of red script. Nesa Gschwend created a storage tent for contents that are difficult to interpret. Comparable to a palimpsest, layers of written words are superimposed on each other, or they wane into illegibility through layers of wax. The written words capture the artist’s half-conscious perceptions and meandering stream of thoughts during hours of simply being at Tulsi Ghat. She sat, uninvolved, on the flat roof of one of the shrines at the Ganges River, and she captured the actions taking place around her in words, including her own unintentional reflections.


This exercise, resembling a meditative ritual of noting down what comes to her from both the inside and the outside, can be viewed in synchronous video projections with excerpts from «My Body My Place», filmed in the early morning hours and during late afternoon. The uneventful occurrences on the banks of the sluggish River Ganges are coupled with the artist’s monotonous action. Occasionally, short episodes add flavour to the extended process of writing—interludes that are naturally woven into the continuum of secular and religious life taking place in and along the stream. The enormous fabric—covered in writing as a result of this process—may be read as a journal, as a souvenir of a single day spent on the banks of the Ganges, as an abandoned garment, or as a cocoon of ceaselessly metamorphosing creativity. Nesa Gschwend invites the viewer to enter into this space, and to immerse into the fabric‘s cryptic text.


The two installations are complemented by a series of drawings, successively produced by the artist, in parallel to the videos and performances. The «mala»—prayer beads used in Buddhism and Hinduism—represent the basis of her asymmetric lines. Nesa Gschwend directed her attention to the ephemeral adornments consisting of delicate roses and other flowers, worn by pilgrims around their necks, and expressing devotion to the deities. The fragrant tenderness of these garlands represents enchanting beauty, that in turn expresses emotional esteem of the religious as well as the interpersonal sphere. By abstracting the «mala» of its petals, the artist focuses on the vanity of life and—considering the difficult living conditions of those populating the banks of River Ganges—she declares the preciousness of intangible values to be her object of attention.