First Look: Kuldeep Singh

View of Kuldeep Singh’s exhibition “Architectonics of Dispersion,” 2017, at Ortega y Gasset Projects, New York. Photo Zhiyuan Yang.

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New York-based Kuldeep Singh often begins with a piece of traditional Indian poetry or music, then extracts and stitches together passages to create new meanings. He then stages these works as performances, incorporating his own paintings, drawings, and textiles into the set design. Born in India in 1984, Singh trained and performed for a decade in Odissi, a classical dance form that combines movement, storytelling, and gesture.

“Architectonics of Dispersion,” Singh’s first New York solo exhibition, took place last year at Ortega y Gasset Projects in Brooklyn. The show included a selection of paintings, an earth-covered wall, and sculptures. Its centerpiece was a performance (also titled Architectonics of Dispersion) featuring Singh, three dancers, a sitar player, and a violinist. Singh took excerpts from the Nātyashāstra, an ancient Sanskrit treatise on the arts, and the Manasollāsa, a twelfth-century encyclopedia in verse, and set them to music. During the performance Singh and his company alternately interacted and posed languorously. In one sequence, Singh anointed the head and face of a man with oil while the other actors moved to the gentle music. In the first act, the performers rolled balls of compressed dirt between them in a sort of game that, while absurdist in spirit, was full of pathos.

The Asia Society’s “The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India,” on view through January 20, 2019, surveys the work of a group of radical painters who came together in a newly independent country. Last month, in conjunction with the exhibition, the museum presented “Reimaginining Indian Dance: Moving Forward,” a program featuring Singh and three other dancer/choregraphers, each reworking a traditional form. Singh’s treatment of Odissi for his contribution to the evening inflected the dance form with a queer sensibility by way of his own mannered, androgynous expressivity, and highlighted similarities between the complex codes of Odissi’s gestural language and the nonverbal courtship strategies of street cruising, where eye contact and movement become charged with preternatural intensity. India, though controlled by a conservative government, recently lifted antiquated legislation that criminalized gay sex acts. Singh’s work felt like an ode to this stride toward social progress.