The Art From Elsewhere exhibition at Towner Art Gallery proved an incredibly rich resource for Drawn To The Page writers at this month’s workshop. The curation of this socially engaged artwork by international contemporary artists, challenged us to find the links and themes that united them, and dig below the surface of individual pieces to the processes and practices of the artists themselves.
We started by viewing the exhibition together – taking in the mix of painting, drawing, photography, film, sculpture and installation – and I asked writers to jot down their responses to the artworks, allowing their thinking process out of their heads and onto the page. As a way of starting to understand the exhibition as a whole, writers also chose 5 words that they felt brought all the works together, synthesising the many voices, ideas and approaches – and then shared them in our discussion.
Sitting in a corner of the gallery, with the blare of sound from video installations echoing out, we talked first about the discomfort some of us felt in the exhibition itself, and reflected on links between the way the space of the gallery had been curated and the socially and emotionally confrontational nature of some pieces on display. We began to share our words – a great range; sombre, depressing, dark, voices, confrontational, visceral, bleak, censorship, freedom, borders. There were very mixed reactions and feelings – but everyone agreed it was an exhibition that due to the great variety of works, ideas and mediums, really demanded viewers go deeper, try harder, in order to find links and common ground.
This was something I too had done when I visited the gallery preparing for the workshop. What interested me was the way that each artist had to get their message, their ideas across to us, their audience. All of them were, in some particular way, crossing a border or boundary, crossing from elsewhere to somewhere, from there to here in order for the work to be received. In some cases these borders were political, in some social, in some a matter of time or of geography, but borders was the thread through which I bound my experience of the exhibition as a whole. I was also particularly struck by Shilpa Gupta’s text installation – There Is No Border Here, and this made me wonder what kinds of borders words had?
So words and borders became our theme for the rest of our time in Art From Elsewhere. Taking some Jenny Holzer style questions and aphorisms as a starting point (Holzer is one of the artists featured in the exhibition), I invited writers to explore the question of words and borders both conceptually, imaginatively and through their own biographical experience. These were our questions:
Do words have borders?
Who do you tell your stories too?
Who are the words for?
How can words travel?
Where is the border over which words cross?
Is the border in time?
Is the border in space?
How can words cross the border?
How can words eliminate borders?
Is there a border here?
What are you trying to get across?
Where are you borderless?
Borders for words = censorship.
How do you censor yourself?
What words do you speak freely.
What words do you keep in the dark?
Set the words free.
What words have you never said?
What words have never been said to you?
Writers were then invited to write a list of types of borders – of any kind: Physical or metaphysical; internal or external; real or imagined; temporal or spatial; relational, social or cultural.
After thirty minutes of writing we all headed off for a well deserved cup of tea in the café, and writers read back over the unstructured free-writing they’d done and started to select those parts they wanted to compile together as a first draft of a poem.
During this time I also handed round samples of writing by international writers who are currently imprisoned or considered to be ‘at risk’ because of their writing by the organisation English PEN. PEN campaigns for the freedom to write and read. Writers were invited to include writing by Enoh Meyomesse (Cameroon), Raif Badawi (Saudi Arabia), Dr Abduljalil Al-Singace (Bahrain), Mahvash Sabet (Iran), and Gao Yu (China), into their own poems – so that our own writing resonated with the socially engaged practices of the artists in the gallery.
Finally – each writer chose two lines (one of their own and one by a PEN writer) to contribute to a text installation on the floor outside the exit from the exhibition. With Shilpa Gupta’s There Is No Border Here as inspiration (Gupta stuck tape on the gallery wall to form letters and a text) – we wrote our lines onto strips of masking tape which we placed on the floor, forming a complex series of word borders that visitors to the gallery could step over and move across freely. You can view a slideshow of this performative installation below.
My thanks to Towner Art Gallery for so actively encouraging our intervention in the gallery space during the workshop, and to English PEN for providing samples of writing by writers at such short notice.
If you would like to find out more about the work of English PEN and its on going campaign for the freedom to write and read – you can visit their website or become a member.