YARAT Contemporary Art Space presents Shilpa Gupta’s orchestrated ‘hysteria’ in “For, in your tongue I cannot fit”.
Gupta’s eerie sound installation, on view until 30 September 2018, re-enlivens the voices of history’s deceased and incarcerated poets.
There is a fizz, a crackle, a static hovering over the space. Then, a sudden burst of noise shatters the stillness: a voice, uttering “without revolution, there can be no proper peace”. As the voice fades, a temperate murmur begins, like the hushed conversation on a nighttime train or the distant swishing of bird’s wings. It resolves into full and geometric orchestra of whispers. They seem to be coming from everywhere.
Though quiet in their performance, the voices maintain an urgent resolve to speak, to have their words uttered somehow, somewhere. The internationally renowned Indian artist Shilpa Gupta is their conductor, and by way of woven sound design configurations, each voice is not only given the space to speak, but is assigned an echo. Baku’s YARAT Contemporary Art Space houses this momentous chorus in a solo exhibition titled “For, in your tongue I cannot fit”, on display until 30 September 2018.
The exhibition, curated by Björn Geldhof, departs from its central piece: a newly commissioned, large-scale multi-channel sound installation which re-enlivens the voices of 100 poets who have been jailed or executed for their writing or political alignments. Here 100 microphones are suspended above 100 metal spikes, each piercing a page inscribed with a fragmented verse of poetry. Each microphone, acting more as a loudspeaker than input device, plays these verses, echoed by a chorus of its 99 counterparts. Lasting over an hour, the composition alternates between English, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Azeri and Hindi, amongst other languages. A chorus of voices shift across the space, forming an ongoing sequence of haunting recitals.
The title of the installation, For, in your tongue I cannot fit – 100 Jailed Poets, is based on a poem by 14th century Azerbaijani poet Seyid İmadeddin Nesimi. However, the poetic references reach farther and wider, the oldest hailing from the eighth century. The youngest is the Burmese writer Maung Saungkha, who was arrested by the authorities in 2016 for writing a poem in which he facetiously claimed to have a tattoo of Myanmar’s president on his penis.
“For, in your tongue I cannot fit” gives voice to poets who have been rendered abruptly voiceless. “My heart is now in my blouse / my blue blouse is now covered with blood,” reads one text by the poet Mohammad Reza Haj Rostam Begloo, who has been repeatedly incarcerated by the Iranian regime. “Give us back our Bahrain,” demands another by Ayat al-Qurmezi. While the ‘lyrics’ are fragmented fossils of history’s writers, their voices have been transformed into a piece of immersive, memorialising sound art.
Speaking about her work during the recent Edinburgh Arts Festival, for which the piece was jointly commissioned, Gupta denotes an orchestrated “state of hysteria” that she wishes to conjure within the installation. Rather than the individual microphones acting as amplifiers or recording devices, they act as loud speakers; “what’s meant to record has started speaking to you”.
When viewers wade in to the piece – as one does not simply listen – the flood of voices is drowning, deafening and, most certainly, mystifying. What is more is the minefield of spikes that viewers have to navigate through: while they hold the punctured poetry, the textual key that unlocks Gupta’s conceptual work, they are also violent interruptions in a space that is otherwise seamless and fluid.
To think of hysteria does not come without its historical milieus and unsavoury memories. And while Gupta deems her work inherently “unpolitical” – or of the everyday – it nonetheless conjures the authoritatively-diagnosed psychological ‘illnesses’ that were largely assigned to women as early as 1900 BC.
Though audiences may make this association, Gupta, perhaps, evades it, referring to hysteria as a substantial change in self-awareness, much like entering into a fugue state or experiencing selective amnesia. For the artist, the installation and the emotions, allusions and mind-altering states that it may summon, is more a multimedia experience than work of art. And like her 2016 Shadow Works exhibited at the Venice Biennale, it is participatory: the lives of the poets are reimagined and given a new community of interaction, moving and shifting and changing based on where audience members stand and what they take with them when they leave.
This is the crux of much of Gupta’s work. As in pieces like THREAT (2008-2009) where viewers were invited to deconstruct and take home the soap bricks from her installative wall, or the small crocheted boxes from Manchester City Gallery’s “New Indian Art: Home Street Shrine Bazaar Museum” (2002) that were available to take and re-distribute, there is an added intimacy in taking bits of the work out of the gallery. And while audiences of “For, in your tongue I cannot fit” may not take away physical objects, they leave in an altered state. They take away an experience, a memory of the eerie voices and how they were able to permeate through one’s psyche.
Transport and subversion
Alongside this major new work are a series of drawings and objects which reflect upon the lives of each of the poets, including a mouth cast in metal, a drawing made with thorns and elusive tracings of missing persons on paper. Telling stories that toe the line between “deep conflict and endearment”, the works explore the political and societal restrictions which seek to control and clamp both the imagination and the physical mobility of the writers.
Like much of Gupta’s art, this new project was born out of an earlier one: a 2011 work called Someone Else, which brought together books by authors who have written under pseudonyms. On this project she ponders:
Social space is becoming dominated by certain voices who speak the loudest, claiming to speak for others.
Gupta’s evocation of these voices and the contemporary reification of them is an exercise of cognitive dissonance: the ease with which one enters the gallery and digests the disjointed words, drawings and objects contradicts and simultaneously recalls the violent and unjust deaths and disappearances of those whose livelihoods were contingent on writing.
Another central piece in the YARAT show is a motion flapboard, reminiscent of those found in transit zones and transport hubs to communicate timings and schedules. As it hangs from the ceiling, it subverts its intended function, Gupta replacing its informational text with poetry and textual snapshots about the convoluted movement of people and ideas. As the split-flap display rotates, new words and prose appear, offering poignant and timely deliberations which, in turn, prompt questions about the construction (and deconstruction) of identity through time and place.
While the grand displays of Gupta’s microphones and flapboard are sure to capture viewer attention, the artist also attends YARAT with her archival photographic series, Don’t See Don’t Hear Don’t Speak (2006). Using the material as sculptural medium, Gupta builds the photographs into three identical characters encircling one another, each concealing the other’s eyes, ears or mouth. Based on a Japanese proverb made popular by Mahatma Gandhi, the work sits within the context of our current changing political landscape and recent wave of separatism – a present force in the artist’s own home country. In a time and place where agencies are often suppressed for their views, Gupta argues that creating a potent dialogue amongst neighbours, across borders, within homes and galleries and communities, will offer a powerful reflection on freedom of expression.
On this and her ongoing practice the artist mentions:
Time and again, like where we are at today, voices of truth cause discomfort and stand truncated, however the resonances stay and they continue to be heard.
Despite bearing differing modalities and being delivered through distinctive vehicles for communication, each of the pieces in “For, in your tongue I cannot fit” seem to say: we will not be silenced.
“For, in your tongue I cannot fit” by Shilpa Gupta is on view from 7 July to 30 September 2018 at YARAT Contemporary Art Space, Bayil District, Baku, Azerbaijan, AZ1003.
- Contemporary Indian artists ponder over the politics of labour at Experimenter in Kolkata – in conversation – July 2018 – Art Radar spoke to the artists in a sort of panel discussion to shed more light on their group exhibition and their intentions
- “Non-Imagined Perspectives”: Azerbaijani artist Aida Mahmudova at YARAT Contemporary Art Space, Baku – May 2018 – artist and Founder of Baku’s YARAT Contemporary Art Space, Aida Mahmudova, presents a solo exploration of material and identity
- “Drawing in the Dark”: Indian artist Shilpa Gupta at Bielefelder Kunstverein, Germany – June 2017 – Shilpa Gupta’s exhibition “Drawing in the Dark” examined the porous nature of borders and the material signifiers they produce
- “That Photo We Never Got”: Indian artist Shilpa Gupta’s meta-narratives at Asia Art Archive, Hong Kong – April 2016 – Asia Art Archive presents “That Photo We Never Got”, Shilpa Gupta’s meta-narrative on incomplete stories and connections in Indian art history
- My East is Your West: Rashid Rana and Shilpa Gupta in Venice – interview – June 2015 – Rashid Rana and Shilpa Gupta talk about their collaboration in the collateral exhibition “My East is Your West” at the 56th Venice Beinnale
Subscribe to Art Radar for more on acclaimed contemporary art from India