x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

With all the world as his stage, the mathematician takes his cue

Meet Abhishek Hazra, the man who uses a megaphone and a cardboard box to push the boundaries of performance art.

Abhishek Hazra, 33 of Bangalore, India, leads an unusual tour of the exhibitions for art enthusiasts at Art Dubai in Madinat Jumeirah. Amy Leang / The National
Abhishek Hazra, 33 of Bangalore, India, leads an unusual tour of the exhibitions for art enthusiasts at Art Dubai in Madinat Jumeirah. Amy Leang / The National

There are those who like to think outside the box. Abhishek Hazra prefers to wear it.

Blinking through huge black-framed specs, an enormous rucksack dwarfing his small frame, it is easy to imagine that he has somehow got lost on his way to a technology conference and wandered into Art Dubai by mistake, then decided on a whim to sign up for one of the artists' tours. And yet, as a group of stragglers waits for the first tour to begin, Hazra among them, it slowly dawns on them: he is the tour.

Perhaps it is the moment when he clears his throat and, with some ceremony, takes a battered cardboard box from the hands of his eager 17-year-old assistant Raunak Datt.

Perhaps it is when, with a flourish, Hazra produces a loudspeaker from inside the box. Or perhaps it's when he upends the box and puts it on his head.

"Welcome," says a muffled voice through a hole cut in the front of the cardboard, "to the Cantor Dust Touring Machine."

And there it is. There had to be a maths nerd in there somewhere.

Cantor Dust, to the uninitiated, is a multi-dimensional fractal figure. Picture a black square. Divide it into nine smaller squares and paint all the squares that aren't on a corner white. Then repeat the process for each of those corner squares. Keep doing that and you'll create a pattern of infinite detail, a pattern which is incidentally found in the rings of Saturn.

And the touring machine? Besides being a mathematician, Hazra is a comedian too: "It's a play on words on the Turing machine," he explains proudly.

The Turing machine, in case you didn't know, is a design for one of the simplest computers possible. Invented in the 1930s by Alan Turing, it consists of a reading head that can manipulate symbols on a strip of paper. Despite its simplicity, in theory the Turing Machine can be made to emulate any computer programme there is.

Hazra, 33, a graduate of the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in his native Bangalore, sees it as his job to marry technology and art through animated short films and performance pieces.

In Cantor Dust Man, a 2009 avant- garde musical which never quite made it onto the big screen, a long-forgotten scent leads its protaganist to "an overwhelming sense of the plurality of his being". By reincarnating Cantor Dust Man as an Alan T[o]uring machine, Hazra is pushing the boundaries of his world to take art to new limits.

In other words, he walks around galleries with a box on his head giving memorised descriptions of the artworks on display. As he ploughs through Art Dubai's exhibition halls, Datt places a guiding hand on his arm and a female helper named Yuvika Gupta barks: "Left! Right! Ten steps forward!" with the ferocity of a drill sergeant.

The best kind of performance art depends on its audience's reactions. After each gallery Hazra urges his ragtag entourage to suggest the next destination. The exercise quickly devolves into a comedy of errors as he and his helpers try to navigate a path, followed by their shuffling disciples; it's certainly a new spin on the blind leading the blind.

"That bearded German ... didn't write: 'The state will wither away' but rather that 'the state will float away into temporary autonomous zones and into mobile mini-states powered only by coloured aerosols," he says by Galerie Chantal Crousel.

Bearded German? Isn't this supposed to be a Parisien gallery? And what on earth is he on about? The members of the party exchange startled looks, which quickly morph into knowing nods and wry smiles, each reluctant to appear ignorant. It was, after all, this or a lecture on The Social Dimensions of Men's Hairstyling in Kuwait and Beyond.

"My mortifying gaze renders all process into artefacts, into products," he declares by Dubai's The Third Line gallery.

Serra Pradhan from New York's Marianne Boesky gallery looks alarmed as Hazra blunders toward her. She defensively steps in front of the showpiece Cenotaph for Two, a giant $65,000 Diana al Hadid sculpture taking pride of place in the middle of her stand.

"People tripping over the artwork is a constant worry," she frets, "and that's even the ones without boxes on their heads."

It's an occupational hazard for Hazra, though; this being a contemporary fair, there are numerous objets d'art scattered on the floor, huge Alexander Calder-style mobiles swinging from the beams and obstacles at every turn.

Which could explain what happens next. Hazra becomes the Pied Piper of the fair and his entourage suddenly mushrooms from a handful of followers to a small crowd.

Whether they are trailing him out of curiosity or in gleeful anticipation of him stumbling and taking down a Shezad Dawood, is not clear, but there is a sizeable gathering photographing, tweeting and filming his progress as he fumbles his way, arms outstretched.

The tour soon becomes an Allan Kaprow-style happening. Hazra's patter is scripted but his audience's reaction isn't, and the bemused expressions of his onlookers becomes part of the spectacle. As Kaprow wrote in his essay Happenings in the New York Scene: "Visitors to a happening are now and then not sure what has taken place, when it has ended, even when things have gone 'wrong'. For when something goes wrong, something far more right, more revelatory, has many times emerged."

By now Yasmeen Abuamer has given up listening to Hazra and is convulsed with laughter as she watches the crowd's baffled reactions. Lana Nahawi, 33, seems determined not to let on that she is none the wiser and maintains an air of studied interest.

Hazra gets to put the theory into practice at the Mario Mauroner Contemporary Art gallery from Salzburg: "The cosmic dust that has settled on the black surface has been painstakingly collected from the apartment of that man in Moscow who flew into outer space from his single bed," he says of a Jan Fabre Bic-art piece on show.

"No, it hasn't," the gallery's Judith Radlegger says crossly. "It was actually the artist scribbling on a photo with a ballpoint pen."

Hazra is unfazed and insists that his spiel was never meant to be an accurate representation of the artworks. "This is a send-up of the notion of artists' tours," he says. "Does the artist know more than the next person? It is something I personally don't believe in."

He takes the Turing analogy through to its conclusion. "There are some galleries where I say nothing at all," he explains, "and that is where there is an error in my computer."