My Indian Face

Sybille Omlin in conversation with Nesa Gschwend

Everyday contradictions that Indian artists consider perfectly natural can present a considerable challenge to artists from Switzerland. With the support of Pro Helvetia, performance artist Nesa Gschwend spent January to March 2006 as artist-in-residence in Bangalore. Here she describes her impressions of three months in a bustling city of eight million. 

Sibylle Omlin: How did the idea of your going to India as an artist come about?

Nesa Gschwend: I had wanted to go back to Asia for quite some time and India was right at the top on my list of destinations. I had spent a whole winter in Indonesia back in the 1980s, in Bali, learning about Indonesian forms of theatre and masked performance, since at that point I was still a member of the performance theatre group PanOptikum.

And why India this time?

In the meantime I have left the ensemble to become a solo performer. Through the “Gästeatelier Krone” cultural exchange programme in Aarau, I heard that there was a residency available in Bangalore and so I put in an application.

What kind of reception did you get in India?

A very good one. Right at the start of my stay I was asked whether I would like to stage a performance at the opening of the Artists Centre in Bangalore. I had spent most of the initial period locked up in my studio working on sing a song, a piece about an egg that I had been developing – on and off – over the past three years, but had not yet performed in public. And so I decided to get the work in shape and ready for presentation at the Artists Centre.

What were your impressions of India? We here in Europe tend to think of the Indian subcontinent as extremely colourful and teeming with contradictions – a mixture of Bollywood, Silicon City and the caste system?

You have to learn to take a different look at things. I was in Bangalore, a city in the south of India with a population of eight million. I lived on a housing estate in the old Malleswarem area in a fairly typical apartment. I had electricity, running water, lots of neighbours and any number of small streetside eateries where you could dine really cheaply. I hardly did any cooking myself because the smell of food coming from these outlets was always so tempting.The city as a whole struck me as a place where many different aspects overlap and interweave. Extreme opposites seem to exist side by side without any problem: the holy cows in the middle of the road, the simple mud-floored huts in the city centre nestling alongside modern highrise buildings and office blocks.

How much contact did you have with other artists in Bangalore?Was it easy to get to know them?

Thanks to the exchange programme organized by the “Gästeatelier Krone” in Aarau, the lines of contact with creative artists from India have been well established for a long time. The artists who run the studio in Bangalore and who have already spent time in Switzerland, at the studio in Aarau, were extremely helpful and very keen to exchange experiences. They invited me into their homes, introduced me to their families, showed me round the villages they grew up in, took me to exhibitions, the theatre and films. Christoph Storz, a Swiss artist who has lived in Bangalore for years and who was involved in establishing the studio there, also helped put me in touch with people.

How did you organize the material for your creative work?

Since the invitation to perform came right at the start of my residency, I very quickly found myself tackling a number of organizational issues in preparation for the performance. My colleagues helped me get hold of the electronic equipment I needed: a beamer, video, playback equipment. The Artists Centre is located on the edge of town, in an old furniture factory that is no longer fully used. A special bus was hired to bring people to the opening – just over a hundred in all. And we lost our electricity supply shortly before my performance was due to start (laughs). That’s something you come to expect in India.

Your performance “sing a song” is all about an egg: it starts out hidden in your clothing. You then take it out and start playing with it. Next, you let it fall to the ground and eat it. At the very end you produce yet another egg from your clothing. As already mentioned, you brought this piece with you from Switzerland. Did the focus of the performance change in any way in India?

Yes and no. I have been carrying the story of the egg around with me all over the place from Switzerland. I once had an amazing experience with a bird’s egg that had fallen out of a nest. The shell had split open and, through the hole, I could already make out the tiny bird’s head, its neck and legs and beating heart, while its body was still a jelly-like mass. I recorded three hours worth of video material. I took this with me to India because I wanted to work on it there. Looking back, I can now see that Bangalore and the Artists Centre in particular were the right place and time to premiere this work.

How did people there respond to your performance?

I talked a lot about my performance, especially with my fellow artists. They saw it as a philosophical inquiry into life. As one Indian artist told me, it was at once both familiar to them and yet also quite foreign. However, most Indians tend to take the contradictory for granted and don’t even perceive it as such. Another artist recognized a story from his own culture in my performance.
After that I visited a lot of different places throughout the city, partly to meet other artists, but mainly to present a slide show of my work at the university and various art schools, where I discussed it with the students afterwards. I found Indian students to be very open and interested in encountering something new.

Today India is considered to be very much up and coming and a centre of innovation. What form did your work with the students there take?

I taught performance at the Chitrakala Parishath art college for a week and developed short pieces with my students that we then performed. How we perceive ourselves in personal and cultural terms is the issue at the heart of my fascination with performance, and these workshops offered me great insight into the culture of India, especially into the struggle faced by young women and the role models and gender stereotypes in the different classes of society. The students found it quite alien having to integrate their own person – and above all their own bodies – into a visual work of art. But there was a genuine connection; the students even invited me to join them on a school trip. The art college also has its own exhibition space in which I was able to show
some of my works at the end of my residency in March.

And you came up with a whole new performance piece in India into the bargain. In “The Red” you play around with red, a colour you see a lot of in India. An Indian influence seems to have crept in. Or how do you see it?

It’s true you do see red all over the place in India. You see this red powder every day almost everywhere you go, not just as a dot on someone’s forehead or as a hair dye, but as a decoration on doors and statues of the gods. Kumkuma – as it’s known in India – is sold in many places, usually piled up into a great big mountain. But red has always been a central colour in my work. I started off by buying a bag each of three different shades of red powder that I then used in my video performance The Red. I put on white gloves and poured the red powder back and forth from one hand to the other. The gloves were sewn together, dipped in hot wax and left to dry as a pair of hands making a single gesture. The video performance ended with four hands, an image that is widespread among depictions of Indian gods. When the performance was over, the gestures remained as 3-D objects and are now part of an installation. Other women were involved in creating some of the objects in the exhibition at the art college in Bangalore – they made the gesture and I poured the kumkuma into their hands.

Which is also a gesture of passing something on others.What have you brought back with you as your happiest memory of India?

The twinkle in people’s eyes. I haven’t seen many beautiful faces in such a long time. I find faces interesting to draw; and during my three months in India I also managed to sketch my own face over and over again. It’s a piece of conceptual work that I started in Switzerland and will go developing after my return from Bangalore. In the face reflects the interplay between what person is experiencing on the outside and what that person is feeling on the inside, the crossover point between “self” and “the Other”. That’s
Why called this series My Indian Face. In my experience, India is a land of great variety, one which gave me a lot of inspiration, but which also forced me to strive for clarity. Otherwise would be easy to become baffled by all the diversity and contradictions. Maybe
that’s the reason why it became so important to capture my own expression on paper.

Translated from the German by bmp translations ag

Nesa Gschwend is a performance artist and lives in Niederlenz,

Sibylle Omlin is a freelance art critic and heads the Department
of Visual Art, Media Art, at the University of Art and Design in