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How artist Shilpa Gupta is giving the word back its freedom

In her first major solo exhibition in London, the multidisciplinary artist gives a voice to poets, whose words have been silenced over time

Shilpa Gupta: ‘Sun at Night’, installation view, The Curve, Barbican Centre. © Tim Whitby / Getty Images
Shilpa Gupta: ‘Sun at Night’, installation view, The Curve, Barbican Centre. © Tim Whitby / Getty Images

The power of the word has resonated through history. Now For, In Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit, an immersive multi-channel installation on show within the cavernous space of the Barbican’s  Curve, London, brings it up front and centre stage. It features 100 microphones suspended above a 100 metal spikes, each piercing a page inscribed with a fragmented verse of poetry by a poet incarcerated for their work, writings, or beliefs. In this soundscape, first created between 2017-18, multidisciplinary artist Shilpa Gupta has included work by poets such as Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Irina Ratushinskaya and Nesimi, who were imprisoned or worse for their ideas. Her picks cover a range of languages, from Arabic, Azeri, English and Chinese to Hindi and Spanish.

“Each microphone utters verses of poetry echoed by a chorus of its ninety-nine counterparts, as if standing together in solidarity… . Gupta’s haunting installation highlights the fragility and vulnerability of one’s right to personal expression whilst raising urgent questions of free expression, censorship, confinement and resistance,” mentions the gallery note. This powerful work is part of Gupta’s first major solo exhibition in London, titled Sun At Night, which will be on view till 6 February.

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For, In Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit particular work was shown at the last edition of the Kochi Biennale in 2018, and before that at the Edinburgh Art Festival and at the Yarat Contemporary Art Space in Baku. The soundscape has gone on to acquire a life of its own. So much so that Mumbai-based Gupta is now working on a book with writer Salil Tripathi based on this project. “This work comes from a couple of different places. For one, it emerged from a project called Someone Else—One Hundred Books Written Anonymously And Under Pseudonyms, which was shown at Chemould Prescott Road a decade ago. Through that, one discovered new stories about old favourites, such as Premchand, who had been booked for sedition,” she says. 

In 2011, when a collection of metal-etched books was shown as part of Someone Else, the idea that some of the authors had once been booked for sedition for critiquing a regime felt shocking; today, strangely, it’s commonplace. “It seemed almost even absurd then. But now, it’s surprising how events have turned so quickly,” Gupta adds. 

Gupta has created a small tower of broken pencil points, inspired by stories of how pencil points become such precious objects when you are imprisoned. An installation view of ‘Sun at Night’. © Tim Whitby / Getty Images
Gupta has created a small tower of broken pencil points, inspired by stories of how pencil points become such precious objects when you are imprisoned. An installation view of ‘Sun at Night’. © Tim Whitby / Getty Images

Other writers and other words have seeped into her consciousness over time—Voltaire is one, and the other is Turkish writer Aziz Nesin. In 1993, the latter was part of the host of writers, who were attending a cultural festival in the Anatolian city of Sivas. A mob organised by fundamentalists gathered around their hotel and set it on fire. Nesin and some others managed to escape. This event, known as the Sivas Massacre, was seen as an attack on the free word. “How is it that words can trigger a reaction so violent that you would want to curb the mobility of a writer,” wonders Gupta.

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For the work being shown at the Barbican, she looked at a broad spectrum of poets, starting from the eighth century, such as classical Arabic poet Abu Nuwas, who was celebrated for his poetry on wine, and the mystical poet Nesimi, from 14th century Azerbaijan, who was skinned alive after being accused of heresy. 

For, In Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit shares space with objects and drawings that also hero the free word. So, Gupta has created a small tower of broken pencil points, inspired by stories of how pencil points become such precious objects when you are imprisoned. There are bottles, lined up together, with fragments of poetry in them. One can also see a sculpture—a mouthcast—or a metal cast of the inside of the human mouth, in which the tongue is missing. It becomes a rather powerful expression for the silencing of free speech. Also on showcase is a new double flapboard, featuring phrases such as: “When I disagree—I am ridiculed”. “These are related to the understanding of truth and power—how the truth becomes so malleable in the hands of those who like to manipulate it,” she adds.

The form that Gupta’s work takes is not just informed by what the poets have written, but also by the struggle to get those words out. One can see words by Irina Rtushinskaya, all typed out, in the exhibition, “whose poetry got her sentenced to seven years in a Soviet hard labour camp in 1983. At the foot of her typed message, Gupta explains how it got out of the camp: “Scratched on soap, memorised, washed away. Then written on cigarette papers, smuggled outside the prison,” mentions an article in The Guardian, dated 7 October 2021.

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The artist also refers to the Korean poet, Kim Chi-ha, whose verses were smuggled out through prison guards. “We think that every representative of the state thinks like the state, but that may not necessarily the case," she adds. “The 10 drawings in the show reflect on stories of persistence and porosity alongside those of absence, and more are in the book which we hope to release later this year.”

It will have translations of poems from the sound installation, first person accounts by poets Dareeen Tatour, Saw Wai and contributions by Kurdish writer Burhan Sonmez, Varavara Rao and other writers and activists who have spoken truth to power. "In fact book starts with a moving essay by Salil himself, who was the Chairperson of Writers in Prison Committee at PEN, and has been a light and much more for this entire project, which continues to have a life of its own,” says Gupta. 

Sun At Night can be viewed at The Curve, Barbican, London, till 6 February, 2022

  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    17.10.2021 | 09:00 AM IST

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