When Chinese dissident Liu Xia was under house arrest with state security guards stationed at her front door, she wrote a passionate poem to her husband, Liu Xiaobo: “I will never give up the fight to get out.” from the prison of the oppressors, but I will be your voluntary prisoner for life.
Shilpa Gupta typed these translated words on what appears to have been an old-fashioned typewriter. They are pinned to the wall next to his line drawing of the late Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel Prize for his outspoken defense of human rights, has been jailed multiple times for defying the authoritarian state of China. and died in custody in 2017. The following year, the Chinese state allowed Liu Xia to leave for medical treatment in Germany, possibly to avoid a second outcry. Liu Xia’s moving poem of protest and love pulls you to the top. What a story! Where are all the plays and movies about this amazing couple who spoke the truth to power and said they love each other?
Hollywood may be too keen to befriend China to do dissident biopics, but Gupta is drawn to such lives. Her moving exhibition at the Barbican speaks up for a cause that seems almost old-fashioned: free speech.
If you’re old enough to remember the Berlin Wall, you might also remember the days when dissident writers were revered and free speech was a noble cause. This started to change when Salman Rushdie, who like Gupta was born in Mumbai, faced death for his novel The Satanic Verses and was far from universally defended. Today, without a state like China needing to do anything, many people find reasons to censor the words of others. Books are withdrawn, authors ostracized, in what is still officially the democratic West.
There is therefore something discreetly heroic about Gupta’s art. It reminds us of the infinite preciousness of free expression. Poets and imprisoned writers fill his imagination. “. she was sentenced to seven years in a Soviet forced labor camp in 1983. At the bottom of his typed message, Gupta explains how he got out of the camp: “Scratched on soap, memorized, washed away. Then written on cigarette papers, smuggled out of the prison.
Gupta reminds you how shockingly recent all this is – Soviet camps didn’t exist only in Stalin’s time: poets went to jail for their words in communist Europe in the 1980s. On the other hand Next to the gallery is a sculpture that says it all, or rather does not say it: a metal cast of the inside of a human mouth in which one can clearly see the shape of the paddle and the teeth but not the tongue. It’s stopped. Quiet. This horrific piece of metal appears to be an instrument of torture specially designed for imprisoned writers.
Another sculpture consists of corked bottles lined up in a display case, each labeled with the title of a poem. The piece is called Untitled (Spoken Poem in a Bottle). He skillfully politicizes the famous 50 cc of Paris Air by Marcel Duchamp: instead of bottling the atmosphere jokingly, she sincerely insists that these bottles preserve the poetic voice.
Because words are sacred to Gupta. Didn’t she get the email that liberal humanism is dead? The larger work here, Gupta’s dimly lit, rhapsodically intoned sound installation titled For, In Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit, is almost nostalgic in its poetry of the human spirit.
About a hundred typewritten fragments are pierced through spikes at the waist in the prison-like darkness. Bare bulbs hang faintly above. There is an outdated microphone above each tip. First, there is silence. Then a woman or a man alone intones, declaims, whispers or sings a phrase. More voices repeat it, a chorus strengthens.
The same texts that Gupta prints elsewhere in the series are voiced here, among many others. Each was written by a writer imprisoned, now or long ago, in a conversation across time and space. Gupta takes these poems isolated from the confined and the brutalized, and lends them a chorus of solidarity. It’s like Wordsworth’s poem to Toussaint L’Ouverture imprisoned: “There is not a common wind breath / Who will forget you; you have great allies … “
Who does she think she is kidding? A supporting choir for lonely and courageous voices? It doesn’t seem likely. Today’s social media chorus is more likely to complain about the blood of an offending author. The Gupta project is therefore all the more important because of its rarity. All she needs is a little more bite: maybe to celebrate some provocative voices here and now. As it stands, its defense of liberty lacks the danger of liberty slightly. It is still true and timely.