Conceptualised as a curatorial collaboration between the Tate Modern and KHOJ, Word. Sound. Power. opened at Project Space Gallery at Tate Modern, London from July 12, 2013 till November 3, 2013 and travelled to KHOj Studios from January 2014 till February 2014. The exhibition, jointly curated by KHOJ’s resident curator Andi-Asmita Rangari and Tate’s Loren Hansi Momudu, brought together eight international artists, including new and specially commissioned works. The artists whose works were on view included Jordanian artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan, French-Norwegian artist Caroline Bergvall, Danish artist Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen and five Indian artists including Amar Kanwar, Mithu Sen, Anjali Monteiro & K. P. Jayasankar and Pallavi Paul.
From a single utterance, to the pronunciation of a name and the declaration of an idea, the voice is a tool through which we assert our presence in the world. The use of the voice as a means of protest and as a metaphor for self-representation is central to this exhibition. Word. Sound. Power. is about the poetics and politics of voice. It is about the formation of an utterance in relation to the norm, and how, in the process, a voice raised can also be understood as an act of poesis, a creative and aesthetic process that incorporates critique. “A particular concern that runs through its themes is to interrogate the inherent privilege in being allowed to voice dissent, reflected in cultural echoes—through art, music and poetry”, says KHOJ’s curator Andi-Asmita Rangari. By bringing together a range of artists working across different creative disciplines, including audio documentary, video, performance, text and sound, this exhibition takes a moment to listen to the harmony, and dissonance, of voices rising.
Developed through the continued curatorial exchange between places, artist Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen presented a newly commissioned work in two parts, Arise & KEST (Keep Evans Safe Today) (2013). United in their passion for hip-hop and hopes for a better future, the films subtly wove the aspirations of four youths across their geographical locations neighbouring Tate, London and KHOJ, New Delhi. In this gesture, there was a desire to hear the voices that surround us and to be attuned to a generation who, continents apart, negotiate their position and find ways to be heard.
Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s research project drew our attention to the legislation of the voice and the politics of listening. His audio documentary The Whole Truth (2012) and set of voice maps entitled Conflicted Phonemes (2012), acted to subtly undermine the complex analysis of the voices supporting current immigration policies and to question the possibility of spontaneity and uniqueness of voice.
Using both text and sound, Caroline Bergvall’s work often inhabits liminal spaces between the practices of visual art and poetry, amidst multiple languages, and as presented in this exhibition, at the threshold of physical spaces. Voice (2007) emanated directly through the Project Space Gallery’s atrium window that was transformed into a speaker, recalling varied and familiar experiences of the human voice and acting as an aural subtitle for the exhibition. In Crop (2010), the artist combined text and sound to focus on the relationship between language and the body, here she likened the power we have over the languages we speak to the power we hold over our own bodies. In this multilingual piece, languages were ‘disappeared’, as bodies are.
In her work I Am a Poet (2013), Mithu Sen reclaimed her ownership of language by levelling the playing field in a world dominated by the English language. Reading from a book of asemic text, Sen made public performances which invited visitors to record their own readings from the text, throwing into focus the void between utterance and meaning. An acclaimed poet in her native language of Bengali, Sen has experienced a sense of disconnection with language since relocating to the largely Anglophone city of Delhi. In this work, she invited us to share in a language that mutually excludes and therefore includes us all.
An early work by radical filmmaker Amar Kanwar, A Night of Prophecy (2002), allowed us to witness the momentum with which the turmoil of political oppression or injustice is articulated through the music, poetry and songs across India. Kanwar himself asked, “if different poetic narratives could merge together, allowing us to see a more universal language of symbols and meanings…would there be a moment of prophecy?”
Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayasankar’s work featured excerpts taken from their documentary film Saacha: The Loom (2001). The selected excerpts highlighted the poetry of the critically acclaimed Dalit poet Narayan Surve, as he recounted personal memories of the city of Mumbai, the birth place of the Indian textile industry and the industrial working class. Both political activist and poet, Surve was at the forefront of the left wing cultural movement in the city and his poetry provided an alternative mode of political representation.
Films titled Nayi Kheti (2013) and Shabdkosh (2013) by Pallavi Paul brought together poetry, notions of time travel, and the possibilities of metaphysical conversations between the ghosts of poets living throughout different epochs of history. Located as a witness to these exchanges were the poems of Vidrohi, a vagabond political poet, based in New Delhi. Paul created a lucid, dreamlike sequence of found, fictional and documentary images, positing words as keepers of legacy, record and knowledge production.
As a parallel event to the exhibition, Anand Patwardhan’s film Jai Bhim Comrade (2012) was also screened at the Tate Modern on July 15, 2013. The film was part of a larger retrospective – A Cinema of Songs and People: The Films of Anand Patwardhan – that was organised in collaboration with The Otolith Collective.