The Body and What It Wears

The Body and What It Wears

Zeenat Nagree responds to Udita Upadhyaya’s challenging performance.

Two elements of Udita Upadhyaya’s performance, which found their way into its title, were water and salt. The water was in a clear jug. There were glasses on the table and some plates. At some point, salt was stirred into the water. The principal material, or the focal event, of the performance involved the artist’s underwear. Upadhyaya arrived in the room in a black dress, stood in front of the table where the water was placed, and then carefully took her underwear off. After that action was completed, we did not see Upadhyaya’s body any more unclothed than before. She seemed to be dressed just as she was when she had arrived. Yet, her action created an awareness of nudity without involving visibility or exposure. The opacity of the gesture evoked the female body at large – not an idealised body, but a range of particular ones, the bodies in the room and in our minds.

Upadhyaya then dipped the underwear into the jug of water, scrubbed it with some vigour, causing the water to splash off the table and into her shoes. She removed the underwear out of the jug and placed it on a plate, and filled the glasses with water from the jug used to wash the underwear. Upadhyaya thus made us aware not only of the naked body but also of the contact the body has with everything external to it. The traces of this contact were now dissolved in the water, invisible yet present. The sexual and the quotidian were interlinked, as Upadhyaya furiously tried to get rid of whatever may have been left behind, bringing us into the realm of shame and veiling. Some women may never have the space to leave their used underwear without getting rid of evidence of its use. In the absence of adequate space for the private, the self may always need to be effaced for its presentation to the public. Or, the space for the private may be so limited as to be nearly impossible to experience without the corrosive effects of shame.

Picking up the glasses, Upadhyaya offered them to members of the audience. All accepted but none drank from them. The artist was performing a social ritual and the recipients of this interaction were responding in a manner they were conditioned to – by following the codes of politeness. The decorum of these encounters alluded to the gentleness with which patriarchy can function, and that its violence is much less effective than its insidious workings. We could also think of this exchange as the audience accepting ephemeral tokens of Upadhyaya’s performance, and even her body. As the glasses were dispersed across the room, all held very carefully, they seemed to be growing heavy in the hands of their recipients. Upadhyaya left, leaving the audience with nothing that seemed to be quite there but palpable in its absence.

The Body and What It Wears
The Body and What It Wears

Udita Upadhyaya. Water and Salt 1. Performance, Chicago. 2014. Images courtesy of the artist.