by Vatsala SethiDec 26, 2022
Polyphony: the act of simultaneously combining a number of parts, each forming an individual melody and harmonising with each other—the antithesis of a single story, the presence of a multitude that allows for layered meanings.
In conversation with Carlos Amorales about his solo exhibition Words of Mouth and Hands at Kurimanzutto in New York, the idea of polyphony is a recurring one. It is expressed in a multitude of ways. First in its literal sense—through a six-channel video installation of a musical score of polyphonic chanting and singing performed by musician and composer Sarmen Almond, and percussive elements by Diego Espinosa—and secondly, in the metaphorical sense, since the show acts as an exercise in bringing together a multimedia expanse of works, from graphic works to notations, to sound and poetry. When these layers come together in a chorus, we sense the tensions and harmonies between sound and symbol, text and translation, and words and voice.
Alexander Ferrando, director of kurimanzutto, New York, talks about how Words of Mouth and Hands, was one of the seminal shows planned for the storied Mexican gallery’s first year in its North American outpost: "The idea was that this is a gallery from Mexico City opening up in New York in Chelsea, so let's have the first year focus on showing Mexican artists. Carlos' show was a part of this statement the gallery wanted to make about contemporary Mexican art.”
Speaking about the genesis of the show, Amorales says, “It all started with the project I did in Holland for the last years where I wanted to collaborate with singers. I am not a musician, so I had to find the language to communicate my ideas with them and kind of understand what they were also trying to give me… I thought one of the best ways to start was to find a story. I had the chance to develop it further for this exhibition. And I just try to really understand how to work, with words, and how you make them into songs, and then how you can translate these songs or represent them visually. And when I met Sarmen, I got this idea of a sort of god that sculpts rocks with their voice."
Lately, we have become more into the image of the individual. It has become much more like a sort of narcissistic kind of representation.
It is this myth that animates the 'narrative,' so to speak, of the show. A serpent burrows through the warm earth, carving out rock and substrate with a song, its voice creating an underworld—which can be read as, both, a spiritual realm and a play on the idea of a cultural ‘underground.’
Contrasts such as this appear throughout. For one, it is a large show, one where the space is filled with large-scale banners of silhouettes that allude figuratively to an open-mouthed choir captured mid-song, as well as with the reverberation of sound from each corner of the art gallery. In spite of this spatial and sensorial saturation, the space also carries a sense of lightness and ephemerality—the banners are painted on translucent rice paper, and the manner in which pigment is “exhaled” in suspension from the spray paint cans used to paint the Silent Choir parallels how the voice is exhaled from the body.
This choir, Amorales says, was inspired by ‘singing revolutions’ in Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, in which voices rising up in song together sparked protest and revolution against the then USSR. "In the last years, the idea of a mass and the idea of the multitude, the crowd has become very important especially because of the pandemic. So in a way, I wanted to research how art represents the multitude, how art represents the crowd. For instance, in Mexican Muralism, you have very strong images of crowds and of demonstrations. And lately, we have become more and more into the image of the individual. It has become much more like a sort of narcissistic kind of representation. So I wanted to play a bit with that.”
Another contrast appears in the intermingling of Almond's ethereal voice and the primal percussive tactility of Diego’s beats. One speaks to the language of the church; the other alludes to indigeneity. Both invoke ideas of spiritual practice: if the chant mirrors a madrigal, Diego’s recurrent slapping of his own body to create a beat carries connotations of religious self-flagellation. The motif of the choir expressed in Amorales’ graphic works, too, carries a repetitive quality where, even as we see a fragmentation of the same form into parallel waves, we also experience a recurrence that is not unlike the counting of prayer beads or the writing and re-writing of a deity’s name in other religious practices.
Reflecting on these aspects, Amorales says, "I started to approach what I wanted in the first place, which was to touch a much more spiritual kind of feeling which is what fascinates me about singing and choirs, and this kind of polyphonic voice, which almost feels as though the voice becomes material and starts to have a presence, but at the same time it's completely intangible. So it creates something very sublime. That’s very much what I think this show was reaching and trying to represent.”
From the haunting soundtrack to the agape voices we discern from his graphic works, we hear what Amorales is trying to represent with Words of Mouth and Hands.. Tap the cover video for the conversation.