Shilpa Gupta’s jailed poets at biennale explore power of language and censorship

Kochi, Jan 18: In her sound installation at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Shilpa Gupta voices a set of verses and thoughts of suppressed or censored poets right from the 8th century to the present. The dimly-lit room adds to the poignancy of the expression at Aspinwall House, the main venue of the fourth edition of India’s only such contemporary art festival.

Particularly striking is the installation’s title: For, In Your Tongue I Cannot Fit — 100 Jailed Poets. It is based on a poem by the famed 14th-century Azerbaijani mystical poet Nesimi. The work then goes on to expand on Shilpa’s investigations on a range of related subjects.

“These primarily focus on political borderlines: on how they exist beyond maps to the invisible mechanisms of control and surveillance. Each pierce a page of poetry,” shares the Mumbai-based artist.

The black microphones, suspended from the ceiling, act more as a loudspeaker than an input device. They play these verses, echoed by a chorus of its 99 counterparts. Lasting over an hour going by a loop’s time, the verses are taken from poets across the world ranging from English, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Azeri and Hindi. A chorus of voices shifts across the space, forming an ongoing sequence of haunting recitals.

All of the writers represented—some lived a few decades ago; the other centuries ago—were imprisoned for their poetry or politics. “The installation gives voice to their forced silence,” explains the 43-year-old artist who is an alumnus of JJ School of Arts in her city. “The work brings attention to the fragility and vulnerability of our right to freedom of expression today. Throughout history, poets from across geographies have been incarcerated for their work. Such unsettling instances continue.”

The oldest poet in Shilpa’s work hails from the 8th century while the youngest is 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 genitals.

Shilpa points out that the sound installation in particular enables these poems to be heard, thus providing these poets with a voice. “I became interested in the strength and power of the written (and spoken) word, and how those in power feared them,” she says. “All of the works in the exhibition, including the installation, my drawings and sculptures, share a common thread in their exploration of the political and societal restrictions placed on poets throughout history.”

Alongside this work are a series of drawings and objects that reflect upon the lives of the poets. That includes a mouth cast in metal, a drawing made with thorns and tracings on paper around the body of the missing person. “Telling stories of deep conflict and endearment, the works explore the political and societal restrictions that seek to control and clamp both the imagination and the physical mobility of the poet,” Shilpa says.

The work is also very relevant to the present-day India amid a fast-changing political landscape. Shilpa’s installation offers a powerful reflection on the threat to freedom of expression from political forces. “Time and again, like where we are at today, voices of truth cause discomfort and stand truncated,” she notes. “However, the resonances stay and they continue to be heard.”

VISITING THE BIENNALE

“The fourth edition of Kochi-Muziris Biennale runs from 12 December, 2018 – 29 March, 2019.“
Venues are open every day from 10 AM – 6 PM.
Tickets are available for purchase for ₹100 at Aspinwall House.

Universal free entry every Monday.

GETTING TO FORT KOCHI

By Air: Fort Kochi is 45 km from Kochi International Airport, Nedumbassery.
By Train: Fort Kochi is 13 km from Ernakulam Junction (South) Station and 16 km from Ernakulam Town (North) Station.
By Boat: Fort Kochi is 20 mins from the Ernakulam Boat Jetty and 10 mins from both Willingdon Island and Vypin Boat Jetty.
By Bus: Fort Kochi is 15 km from the main bus station in Ernakulam.

Many of the locations of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale are walking distances from each other (most are around 10 minutes or so).

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