Shilpa Gupta’s New Barbican Exhibition Proposes Timely Questions Through Words of Poetry

Installation view, “Shilpa Gupta: Sun at Night” at The Curve, Barbican Centre, 2021. © Tim Whitby / Getty Images. Image courtesy of Barbican Centre.
Installation view, “Shilpa Gupta: Sun at Night” at The Curve, Barbican Centre, 2021. © Tim Whitby / Getty Images. Image courtesy of Barbican Centre.
Installation view, “Shilpa Gupta: Sun at Night” at The Curve, Barbican Centre, 2021. © Tim Whitby / Getty Images. Image courtesy of Barbican Centre.
Shilpa Gupta, For, In Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit, 2017–18, sound installation with 100 speakers, microphones, printed text and metal. Commissioned by YARAT Contemporary Art Space and Edinburgh Art Festival. Photo by Pat Verbruggen. Image courtesy of Barbican Centre.
Installation view, “Shilpa Gupta: Sun at Night” at The Curve, Barbican Centre, 2021. © Tim Whitby / Getty Images. Image courtesy of Barbican Centre.
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On view at the Barbican Centre in London is the first major London solo show of Mumbai-based artist Shilpa Gupta. Highlights of this free entry exhibition include a dramatic new configuration of her multimedia installation For, In Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit (2017–18) and a hypnotic dialogue between two motion flapboards, seemingly transplanted from a 1970s airport.

TEXT: Nicholas Stephens
IMAGES: Courtesy of Barbican Centre

 

Shilpa Gupta’s exhibition at Barbican Centre—her first major solo show in London—of poets fighting against political injustice is timely, opening on the same week as the Nobel Peace Prize winners were announced. Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, journalists campaigning for press freedom in the Philippines and Russia respectively, are sharing the 2021 award. Titled “Sun at Night”, Gupta’s exhibition champions the written and spoken word above all, acknowledging its power to hold governments accountable. The walls of the exhibition are decorated with simple black and white poems by global dissidents punished for speaking out. One of the most moving poems on the wall is by Liu Xia, poet and wife of 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo: “My dear, I’ll never give up the struggle for freedom from the oppressors’ jail, but I’ll be your willing prisoner for life.” The pathos of those who gave their freedom in support of a cause, the humiliations, personal tragedies and self-sacrifice is palpable in the exhibition.

 

Installation view, “Shilpa Gupta: Sun at Night” at The Curve, Barbican Centre, 2021. © Tim Whitby / Getty Images. Image courtesy of Barbican Centre.
Installation view, “Shilpa Gupta: Sun at Night” at The Curve, Barbican Centre, 2021. © Tim Whitby / Getty Images. Image courtesy of Barbican Centre.

 

“The charges are like pieces of clothing. They brought me these clothes and forced me to wear them, from my toes to my head,” reads another poem by Palestinian Dareen Tatour. Without challenge or context, it could be argued that this exhibition presents an unnuanced, and rather simplistic view of the right to free speech. The sober arrangement of printed matter, the hushed, reverential dénouement all make for an atmosphere of mourning. Are vulnerable, individual poets to be supported unequivocally in all cases against faceless, monolithic, all powerful governments? Perhaps so, but further research outside of the exhibition might bring some visitors to different conclusions. Without going into the details of Ms Tatour’s case, for example, this poem on the wall, a whimsical rumination on an unequal justice system, was not the one she was imprisoned for.

The exhibition is deliberately muted, terse and analogue (pencil drawings, type-written notes, lead from pencils stacked high in a precarious Tower of Babel) with two dazzling exceptions. The first comes at the entrance to the exhibition, where two motion flapboards thunder out messages in a philosophical dialogue with each other. The hanging board on the left remarks: “More Power.” The one on the left thinks for a moment and responds: “More Fear.” The whirring and clacking of the boards are calming, and the slow, patient dialogue, with its misunderstandings, non-sequiturs and flashes of wisdom are spell-binding. A bench is arranged in front of it, which was always occupied during my visit.

The final room of the exhibition is home to the latest iteration of Gupta’s For, In Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit (2017–18). Suspended above the 100 metal spikes are 100 microphones, each piercing a page inscribed with a fragmented verse of poetry by a poet incarcerated for their work, writings, or beliefs. There are quotations by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Samuel Bamford, Irina Ratushinskaya, Osip Mandelstam and 14th century Azerbaijani poet Nesimi. This exhibition space in the Barbican is known as The Curve. Its darkness, the lack of visual purchase offered by its corner-free walls, creates a silky gloom which is simultaneously conspiratorial and ominous. As the artist remarked: “When I first walked into the cavernous space of The Curve, it reminded me of a snaking back alley and perhaps even a spine of a curled-up creature.” Inside the belly of the beast, the pendulous lighting seems to obscure more than it illuminates. It’s an aural experience too, as the viewer leans in to read one of the skewered passages, he/she may receive a whispering blast of text in his/her ear. The quotation is first rendered by an individual and then repeated in unison by a crowd, as if at a funeral mass for fallen heroes.

 

Installation view, “Shilpa Gupta: Sun at Night” at The Curve, Barbican Centre, 2021. © Tim Whitby / Getty Images. Image courtesy of Barbican Centre.
Shilpa Gupta, For, In Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit, 2017–18, sound installation with 100 speakers, microphones, printed text and metal. Commissioned by YARAT Contemporary Art Space and Edinburgh Art Festival. Photo by Pat Verbruggen. Image courtesy of Barbican Centre.

 

A range of centuries and regimes come within Gupta’s sights, bookended by Abu Nuwas (an Arabic master of wine and hunting poetry) in the 8th century and Liu Xia in this. Although the prisoners are specific, the perpetrators of oppression remain in the shadows. They may be defined as “regimes”— countries which receive sacks filled with mail from Amnesty International. More intriguing questions, perhaps more relevant questions, to a London audience are left uninvestigated.

There is currently a German film screening in London titled Nebenan (Next Door). It’s a clash of cultures set in modern Berlin, in which Daniel Brühl plays himself (rich, successful, metropolitan elite), and comes up against an embittered nemesis (Peter Kurth) who spies on him and his family, setting out to destroy his happy life. This enemy is one who was trained by the East German state, clings to its beliefs, practices and its spycraft, but who now sets his own agenda rather than operating on behalf of a government. It’s a poor versus rich, internationalist versus local, artist versus blue collar, happy versus unhappy story. It’s an intriguing film with a screenplay by Daniel Kehlmann, Germany’s most famous living novelist. It struck a chord with me, as it asks the question which this exhibition doesn’t. If government exits the role of oppressor, who fills that void?

The answer is that we all do. Orwellian groupthink steps in perhaps, however well-intentioned. The day after this exhibition opened, The Financial Times published an interview with once trailblazing veteran artists Gilbert & George. They had this to say about the Tate Modern: “They have 23 [of our] pieces that they never show…All the museums now are woke.” Is inclusiveness really possible? Could we extend this argument further, and admit that some points of view will simply never be represented in museums or galleries? How would the European artistic community respond to iambic pentameter by an anti-abortion activist, installations by an artist who sees immigration as a threat, or watercolours in support of the second amendment? Have we come to accept that free speech as we defend it cannot mean a full heterogeneity of expression?

 

Installation view, “Shilpa Gupta: Sun at Night” at The Curve, Barbican Centre, 2021. © Tim Whitby / Getty Images. Image courtesy of Barbican Centre.

 

In an interview with Gene Swenson on art theory in the midst of the cold war, renowned pop artist Andy Warhol remarked: “Someone said that Brecht wanted everybody to think alike. I want everybody to think alike… Russia is doing it under government. It’s happening here all by itself without being under a strict government.” Self-censorship, the Twitter-verse, innovations in thought and expression are not always a function of the state, administered by corrupt officials. Can speech be considered free if not all speech is defended equally? It would be unfair to expect the artist to come up with all the answers to these very contemporary questions. However, I’d be interested in Shilpa Gupta addressing this debate in future exhibitions.

 

Shilpa Gupta: Sun at Night
7 October 2021–6 February 2022
The Curve, Barbican Centre, London

 

 

 
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