Are we free?
Un-freed you are from the
Physicality of your escape,
Bound I remain to the
Inertia of my immobility.
Are you free?
Am I free?
Freedom itself, is it free?
Freedom, is it freeing?
Entering the dimly-lit room in Aspinwall, Kochi, which houses contemporary Indian artist Shilpa Gupta’s installation For, in Your Tongue, I Can Not Hide - 100 Jailed Poets, these words forcibly spilled out of me. Perhaps it was my silent attempt at communicating with the poets, whose voices emanate from 100 microphones suspended from the ceiling, resounding through the room and each of those who was present within.
Spears emerging from the ground piercing through written verses of poems, in a space resembling a dungeon, leave one feeling perplexed, claustrophobic even. Ironically, the silence that the poets break free off leaves one silent but contemplative.
The work’s title is inspired by a fragment from a 14th century poem by Azerbaijani poet Nasimi, which talks about persistence and the impossibility to contain anything. On being asked what triggered her to create the work, Gupta responds, “There is no one specific trigger. It started seven years ago, when I was working on a work called Someone Else - a library of one hundred books written anonymously or under pseudonyms, based on writers who wrote under a fictitious name and sought freedom in being someone else - whether to conceal one’s gender, avoid personal or political persecution, write in another language, express multiple selves, or publish a rejected work.” Words, she came to realise, “Caused discomfort to those who sought to restrict imagination through the mobility of a writer.”
The changing atmosphere in India, which has increasingly become restrictive with censorship of arts and liberal thinking, was just one of the many triggers behind this work. An interest towards poetry, however, arose from an encounter with poet Sahil Tripathi whose writings she describes as, “Being like water between the floating islands I had been walking on in my head for many years.” Her work, she says, “Took a detour, and from looking at writers, I started following poets. Poetry, it seemed to me then, would be indirect, closer to one’s self.” What followed was the multimedia sound installation where voices emanate, one speaking, the other 99 following in chorus in a loop that lasts about an hour.
The work’s prowess, however, extends beyond its unshackling of voices that were silenced for their writings and political affiliations. The use of technology and sound has blurred the boundary between Gupta’s practice as a visual artist and a sound orchestrator. The speaker embedded into a microphone is a form that, Gupta says, “I have used since 2007 with a work called Tryst with Destiny (inspired from Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s speech with the same title in 1947) where, as in a state of anxiety, urgency, an object meant to record, has started speaking and singing to itself.” She has since used text and sound together. For the audio component, Gupta explains, “I started with the spoken word, made a small sample with different kinds of poems, invited listeners to my studio, recorded with one group, then another set of voices, another test, looking at form and movement of sound at every moment.”
The scale of the project, evidently presented a challenge wherein Gupta states, “Everything went by one 100, be it during research, sound production, recording or even during the setting up. There are several different languages, besides English - Arabic, Azeri, Chinese, Hindi, Urdu, Spanish, Turkish and Russian. It meant reaching out to people and working across different geographies. Friendships, solidarities and favours, all have been at play to achieve the recordings.” In addition, the sound installation is accompanied by drawings of poets, some outlining a missing person, others a missing sound, a lost voice; each one framed in a prison-of-sorts. Gupta’s work is an attempt to unlock their imprisoned voices.
"Most people want peace." These are words American philosopher Noam Chomsky spoke to Gupta in 2008. They continue to resonate through her practice and the work is her attempt at finding peace for those, some of whom are no longer here to do so for themselves. The others, she hopes to instigate to fight to keep their voices alive.
Shilpa Gupta is also showcasing her installation For, In Your Tongue I Cannot Hide - 100 Jailed Poets at the 58th edition of the Venice Biennale, which is on till November 2019.