How artist Shilpa Gupta gives freedom to speech

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The power of the word has resonated throughout history. Now ‘Cause in your language I can’t get in, an immersive multi-channel installation presented in the cavernous space of the Barbican’s Curve, in London, puts it center stage. It features 100 microphones suspended above 100 metal spikes, each piercing a page inscribed with a fragmented verse of poetry by a poet imprisoned for his work, his writings or his beliefs. In this soundscape, first created between 2017 and 2018, multidisciplinary artist Shilpa Gupta included works by poets such as Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Irina Ratushinskaya and Nesimi, who were imprisoned or worse for their ideas. Its choices span a range of languages, from Arabic, Azeri, English and Chinese to Hindi and Spanish.

“Each microphone pronounces verses of poetry taken up by a choir of its ninety-nine counterparts, as if they were in solidarity…. Gupta’s haunting installation highlights the fragility and vulnerability of his right to personal expression while raising urgent questions of freedom of expression, censorship, confinement and resistance, ”the note from the gallery. This powerful work is part of Gupta’s first major solo exhibition in London, titled Sun at night, which will be on view until February 6.

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‘Cause in your language I can’t get in particular work was shown at the last edition of the Kochi Biennale in 2018, and before that at the Edinburgh Art Festival and the Yarat Contemporary Art Space in Baku. The soundscape continued 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 two different places. On the one hand, 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. As a result, we discovered new stories about old favorites, such as Premchand, who had been booked for sedition, ”she says.

In 2011, when a collection of metal engraved books was presented as part of Someone elsethe idea that some of the perpetrators had already been convicted of sedition for criticizing a regime was shocking; today, strangely, it is commonplace. “It even seemed almost absurd then. But now it’s surprising how things have turned so quickly, ”Gupta adds.

Gupta created a tiny tower of broken pencil tips, inspired by stories of how pencil tips become such treasured items when you’re imprisoned. An installation view of ‘Sun at Night’. © Tim Whitby / Getty Images


Other writers and words have crept into his consciousness over time – Voltaire is one, and the other is Turkish writer Aziz Nesin. In 1993, the latter was part of the crowd of writers, who attended a cultural festival in the Anatolian town of Sivas. A crowd organized by fundamentalists gathered around their hotel and set it on fire. Nesin and a few others managed to escape. This event, known as the Sivas Massacre, was seen as an attack on free speech. “How is it that words can trigger such a violent reaction that one would want to curb a writer’s mobility,” Gupta wonders.

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For the work presented at the Barbican, she looked at a wide range of poets, from the 8th century on, such as the classical Arab poet Abu Nuwas, famous for his poetry on wine, and the mystical poet Nesimi, from the 14th century. century. Azerbaijan, who was skinned alive after being accused of heresy.

‘Cause in your language I can’t get in shares space with objects and drawings that are also the hero of free speech. So, Gupta created a small tower of broken pencil tips, inspired by stories of how pencil tips become such treasured items when you’re imprisoned. There are bottles, lined up together, with fragments of poetry in them. We can also see a sculpture – a mouth cast – or a metal cast of the inside of the human mouth, in which the tongue is missing. It becomes an expression powerful enough to silence free speech. Also on display is a new double flap panel, featuring phrases such as: “When I disagree, I am ridiculed”. “These relate to understanding truth and power – how truth becomes so malleable in the hands of those who like to manipulate it,” she adds.

The form Gupta’s work takes is not only influenced by what the poets have written, but also by the struggle to get those words out. Irina Rtushinskaya’s words, all typed, can be seen in the exhibit, “whose poetry sentenced her to seven years in a Soviet forced labor camp in 1983. At the foot of her typed message, Gupta explains how he left the camp: “Scratched on soap, memorized, carried away. Then wrote on cigarette papers, smuggled outside the prison, ”mentions an article by The Guardian, as of October 7, 2021.

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The artist also refers to Korean poet Kim Chi-ha, whose verses were smuggled by prison guards. “We think that every representative of the state thinks like the state, but that is not necessarily the case,” she adds. book that we hope to release later this year.

It will include translations of poems from the sound installation, first-person accounts by poets Dareeen Tatour, Saw Wai and contributions from Kurdish writer Burhan Sonmez, Varavara Rao and other writers and activists who have spoken the truth. in power. “In fact, the book begins with a touching essay by Salil himself, who was the chairman of the PEN Prison Writers Committee, and has been a light and much more to the whole project, which continues to grow. ‘have your own life,’ Gupta explains.

Sun At Night can be seen at The Curve, Barbican, London, until February 6, 2022

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