Sun at Night: A call for hope
My eyes wander over the hastily changing black squares, waiting to check the time. The mechanical ticking of the gears is comforting as if my boarding time is about to appear. I hold my breath in anticipation of the race to the platform. The spinning stops.
“Is there something”
Retorts the sign. “There surely is…,” I think.
My expectations are shattered, were I in a train station and not in The Barbican Centre, I would even be worried. StilltheyknowwhatIdream generates a three-way dialogue between the two plates and the viewer. At times one seems to respond to the other, at others the words are dropped into the void waiting to be picked up by someone. The viewer can choose which role they play in the conversation, even if neither plate knows someone is listening to them.
Shilpa Gupta makes us embark on a journey with no set time. The tempo is marked by dialogue, by silences, by words that someone once wished were forgotten. Sun at Night is an ode to the censored, a celebration of the voices of poets imprisoned by their beliefs and work.
After the boarding platform, we are taken through the curved corridor punctuated with diptychs of drawings and texts among other sculptures. The exhibition is located in The Curve, a space commissioned by the Barbican for contemporary art, usually free of charge. Characteristically experimental, it is a half-circle, with an entrance and exit on opposite sides, leading the visitor intuitively through a corridor with no beginning or end.
“Whether they’ll shoot me at that point
when chaos starts
And I’ll press with my trembling hands to
the hole that was my heart
And they’ll sew me a white legend,
One page reads.
“Scratched on soap, memorized, washed away. Then written on cigarette papers, smuggled outside the prison,” Gupta adds. Next to it, a fine line drawing incarcerated in a wooden frame. Irina Ratushinaskaya wrote these words while imprisoned by the Soviet government for circulating her verses in opposition to the regime. The irony of perseverance.
This story that seems so far removed from us today happened less than forty years ago, in 1983. This story, like all the others affixed on the walls, was or is still a reality that is perhaps not so far away. A tower of broken pencil tips, two books embedded in each other hanging from the ceiling, held together by a thread, barely, remind us of the fragility – of life, of physical freedom, and of freedom of expression – in a world where we take too much for granted.
The exhibition gains intensity between the departure, the journey, and the farewell.
In the last part, we are swept away by a chorus of a hundred voices of invisible poets. In the darkroom, the eyes take a while to make out the verses on paper pierced by iron spears that sprout from the floor like stalagmites and the microphones that fall from the ceiling above each one. Torn between the fallacy of mirror multiplication and reality, I quickly realize that in this exhibition there are no illusions, but exactly 100 of these specimens.
In a gesture of solidarity, the voices are stronger together, singing in several languages on a note of hope for all those who have been silenced. However, sometimes they sound like ecclesiastical chanting or cosmic cursing, making it uncomfortable to be in the room. But I am safe in the knowledge that the feeling will pass, outside there is light, there is air and I can now write whatever I want. If only it could be like this for everyone.
Shilpa Gupta’s exhibition Sun at Night can be visited at the Barbican Centre, London, until February 6, 2022.