Sharmistha Mohanty offers her take on the commingling of art and poetry
DURING the opening week of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016, I was repeatedly asked, as was curator Sudarshan Shetty, “Why so many poets?” This was a lesson in perception because out of ninety six artists, the poets were all of six. Possibly, it means that the presence of these poets is unusual and significant in the minds of everyone who came through.
Sudarshan had said when we were curating the poets, “I don’t want text on a wall.” It was a very perceptive curatorial stance, but I wondered about how poets would meet this challenge.
Chilean poet Raul Zurita’s monumental installation, The Sea of Pain is born of his poem, it is the poem which releases itself into the immense space, that charges the still water. Ales Steger, from Slovenia, created the Pyramid of Exiled Poets, which mourns the throttling of language. Argentinian writer Sergio Chejfec’s installation is made of words, sections of his novel written on walls. Chinese poet Ouyang Jinaghe’s work is a wave of calligraphy on paper, hanging in space—his long poem written in his own hand. And in my own work, the spine that fades in and out is the poem itself. In our own ways, we all created something especially for the Biennale space, we moved out of our own world, took our risks, but we did not move away from our core.
The beauty of language is its immateriality. It leaves no fossils. It melts into the air. And we, who create in language, came to a world of material art, in a way our precise opposite. That makes for an unusual dialogue. All of us poets feel privileged to have been given the opportunity for that conversation and for being given a central place in it.
This is one element in the Biennale that shows the unusual choices that Sudarshan has made. In this choice as in many others, what marks his curatorial role is his courage in fore-fronting the imagination, which is always less graspable than “ideas” but includes them, in not declaring a frame, in not being afraid to deny a certain kind of prevalent over-articulation.
The result is a Biennale which does not impose a meaning or meanings, but lets multiple imaginations emerge in different ways. Artists don’t only reflect the way our age thinks—that may be a lesser achievement—they create new ways of thinking. They do not necessarily coincide with their times, but may place themselves before or after.
I myself have had some significant exchanges within this Biennale. The long scroll by Chinese artist Dai Xian, which refers to a classical landscape scroll from long ago, disrupting its deep calm with the upheavals of our times, is a work that teaches me about how tradition travels along with the contemporary. Lantian Xie an artist with Chinese ancestry, from Dubai, spoke his thoughts about my work and showed me the many ways that it can be received.
His own work was at an opposite aesthetic end from mine, yet the conversation between us was rich and deep. GR Iranna spoke to me about the repeated presence of ash in my poetry at the evening reading and what ash has meant to him while creating his own installation. These encounters point perhaps to an unspoken, subterranean kindredness in much of the art being shown at the Biennale.
“Ah, the world of art, the world of images, billions of images. The words of a poem are cleaner, more pure.” Zurita’s poem at Kochi ends with these lines. He disrupts things with these words, saying something that he has earned the right to say. He throws an essential question into the physical centre of the Biennale. It is a question and a disruption that this Biennale has made possible!
Author, poet and artist Sharmistha Mohanty’s 2016 installation of video and sound, titled I make new the song born of the old, is on display at Aspinwall House until March 29.