Presented in the context of Edinburgh College of Art’s Engine House, set within the Fire Station, darkness is what initially greets the viewer as they enter Indian artist Shilpa Gupta’s installation. The heavy doors to the old fire station creak loudly upon entry, suggesting that by entering one is intruding into this mysteriously darkened space. Yet as the eyes adjust, the viewer becomes aware of the multi-channel sounds that echo and bounce from the walls. Voices whisper soft words and people sing in a cascade of languages, transporting the viewer across to alternative cultures; to markets and bazaars abroad in hot climates, where sweat and spices can be smelled.
Yet as the eyes slowly adjust to the dim light, the installation comes into view. Countless microphones hang from the ceiling, like skinny stalactites in a cave. Rising from the floor are spiked metal rods, each piercing sharply through a piece of A4 paper. By squinting through the dim light, fragments of poetry can be read on the pages.
Mother is that word truly
Is related to all other words
Mother, the sole provider of happiness
Our Motherland and our Mother tongue
Dull lightbulbs hang at various intervals, cautiously inviting the viewer to certain sheets. At the bottom of each poem, a name is stated alongside an incarceration date. A sensation of darkness and foreboding subsequently seeps into the work. The viewer tumbles into an awareness of the juxtaposition between the beauty of the words and the repression of its authors.
Shilpa Gupta is an artist who through a multi-media practice explores the powers of language; powers of the written word, freedom of speech, human rights, censorship and politics in a globalised world. Within this installation, English, Spanish, Hindi, Russian and Chinese are among the many languages sounding through the space. The darkness and otherwise silence of the environment creates an air of sanctity, giving the poems a sense of presence and life through the typed pages and sounding audio. Despite the fragility of the A4 sheets, the metal-spiked piercing feels violent, brutal, as if the language on the page is being silenced. This presence of violence, of breakage and wounding recalls the conflicts that come with language. Security, surveillance and censorship tiptoe around the space, licking the edge of pages and collapsing the freedom of the poetry writers. By creating this participatory environment and inviting the viewer to navigate through this room of pierced pages, Gupta is encouraging the viewer to enter a space of reflection and contemplation. Through her presentation of the work of one hundred jailed poets, Gupta invites the viewer to consider marginalised voices and question the meaning of freedom of expression in the world today.