With her latest exhibition, For, In Your Tongue, I Can Not Fit on view at YARAT Contemporary Art Space in Baku, Sophie Breitsameter talks to contemporary Indian artist, Shilpa Gupta, about breaking the silence of 100 jailed poets, incorporating an array of media into her work (including items confiscated from airports), and the role of identity and place in her work
The title of the installation, For, In Your Tongue, I Can Not Fit, is based on a poem by the 14th century Azerbaijani poet Nesimi. How did this poem inspire your work?
When the project was nearly finished, I had a long list of possible titles from different poems. It was getting very difficult to select one. In fact, at first, Nesimi’s poem was not even on my radar as I was looking at material in English and his poetry is mostly available in Azerbaijani. Then one day, I remembered him, his story and his way of living and thinking. That made me look at the English translation of this very powerful poem and the work instantly found a title!
Alongside a series of drawings and sculptures, you will unveil a large-scale multi-channel sound installation which gives voice to 100 poets who have been jailed over the centuries. How do the different elements of the exhibition work together?
Following a work I made in 2011, entitled Someone Else – a library of one hundred books written anonymously or under pseudonyms, I became interested in the strength and power of the written (and spoken) word, and how those in power feared them. All of the works in the exhibition – including the installation, my drawings and sculptures – share a common thread in their exploration of the political and societal restrictions placed on poets throughout history. The sound installation in particular enables these poems to be heard, and provides these poets with a voice.
You work across several different media. What is your favourite one to work in?
I’m interested in inter-subjectivity and the relational and highly mediated facets of the act of seeing, retrieving and remembering. There is no one favorite medium, per se, and instead I work with a variety of materials, from brass labels and stamps to objects confiscated at airports, motion flapboards, or even illegal material that traverses physiological and geographical chasms. These allow me to create works through which the viewer can take away parts from the gallery, for example soaps with the word “Threat” inscribed on them or bags that say “There is No Explosive in this”.
Tell us about the overall message that you would like to send with this exhibition…
The exhibition brings attention to the fragility and vulnerability of our right to freedom of expression today. Throughout history, poets from across geographies have been incarcerated for their work, and there are still many unsettling instances of this taking place today.
What do you have planned for the rest of 2018?
The central work here, which is the sound installation, For, in your tongue, I cannot hide, will be shown at the Edinburgh Art Festival over the summer and the Asia Pacific Triennale in Brisbane in November. I’m showing photographs from Altered Inheritances (a project based on people who have changed their last names) at MoMA, New York and will also show work at the Gwangju and Kochi biennials later this year.
What would you say has been your career highlight so far?
While I have shown in different venues around the world, the most meaningful to me have been the projects I have completed in my own neighborhood. Recently, I showed We Change Each Other – an animated light installation on the Carter Road promenade in Mumbai.
It was a very memorable experience, after a few months of the usual, rather frustrating, chase for permissions from three different government departments. As there are hardly any functional institutional spaces in India where art can be shared with a wider audience, I have often found myself in a situation where a space to do so has to be created by oneself. The work, in turn, emerges from this place: in this case, walking through the many winding lanes in my neighbourhood has shaped my sensibility and understanding of this city as always being in a state of flux. I live and work in a place which has such a rich and varied mix of people from different backgrounds and faiths. To place the work here, against the backdrop of the sea, is very close to my heart: water is a symbol of movement, migration and such great vastness which dwarfs every turmoil. The heart-warming and very perceptive reception by the general audience on Carter Road made all the efforts worthwhile!
How does Mumbai continue to inspire your work?
I grew up with the dream of cosmopolitanism, which only this megapolis can give: a city of migrants in which, walking down the street, almost everyone who crosses your path is from somewhere else. And the loss of this dream – hopefully a momentary nightmare – amidst the hope it might return one day, continues to shape my practise.
Who are your favourite living artists?
When you are in need of inspiration, what do you turn to?
Ah, such a moment has not yet come as there are always piles of books with sketches and notes of works I’d like to make!