Blog / Exhibition

Word. Sound. Power : From Tate to Khoj

Word. Sound. Power. is an ongoing conversation between two curators, two institutions and two nations.  In London and New Delhi, respectively, Tate Modern and Khoj are pioneers and leaders in their fields, bringing interrogative contemporary art to two vibrant and fast changing cities. Manifesting as an exhibition at both locations (first Tate and now Khoj) it is a conversation that transgresses borders – geographical, cultural, social and political – bringing with it a central concern: the human capacity to legitimize or challenge one’s position within the world through the act of voicing. Featuring works in a variety of mediums (including film, sound and installation) Word. Sound. Power. harnesses resonant statements made through speech, text, music, song and poetry. We focus on the voices of seven artists, the stories they tell and the silences they break.

Having worked on the exhibition in London, I have followed this conversation to New Delhi as part of my first visit to India– a trip that has admittedly involved some verbal challenges and barriers to communication. I have witnessed the difficulties and sense of alienation thrown up by being outside of one’s usual linguistic comfort zone. These exclusive capacities of language are explored in the show by Mithu Sen’s new work I am a Poet 2013. As a respected poet in her native language Bengali, the piece speaks to the sense of estrangement she felt after moving to a heavily anglicised Delhi. Inviting viewers to read from her book of ascetic nonsense text, she creates a zone of unity through a sense of mutual exclusion from concrete meaning.

I have been constantly drawn to Delhi’s  ability to move constantly between two dominant languages, evidenced everywhere from food packaging to road signs, and of course the speech of its residents. Featured artist Caroline Bergvall is interested in taking the spaces between languages as potential sites for creating new meanings. Her piece Crop 2010 plays a myriad of voices of different mother tongues, posing questions about the power we have over both language and our bodies, and the potential parallels between these.

Entrance to central courtyard of Khoj where Caroline Bergvall's Voice 2007 is played.

Entrance to central courtyard of Khoj where Caroline Bergvall’s Voice 2007 is played.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan's  'The Whole Truth 012 and Conflicted Phonemes 2012

Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s The Whole Truth 2012 and Conflicted Phonemes 2012

When seeing the show move between two vastly different spaces, it has been interesting to consider what effect this migration has on the way that we interact with the works. Has the show’s ‘voice’ changed at all? I would argue that each space has given offered something unique, each with an inherent advantage.  At Tate, the use of a largely undivided space, coupled with incredible technological precision, allowed for the chorus of voices to co-exist in a powerful sensory harmony. At Khoj, the separation of pieces into smaller spaces has allowed for a more intimate encounter with each individual voice.

The ways in which voices transform across contexts (spaces, time, geography) is a concern held for many of the works featured. Laurence Abu Hamdan’s Conflicted Phonemes (2012) for example, asks us to question how regional accents can assign identity –  identities which may be used against individuals by greater power structures. He draws our attention to the use of accent analysis technologies which are used as legislation in the applications of Somali asylum seekers. Inevitably these technologies fail to take a sufficiently nuanced and human understanding of Somalia’s tumultuous modern history, which undermines the idea that phonetic idiosyncrasies can be geographically rooted. Lawrence’s maps offer a form of protest and a visual voice for those unable to contest these results.



The works in this exhibition assert a certain belief in the power of music, poetry, song  ( or more generally, art)  to overcome hegemonic structures that condition individual’s abilities to have a voice; that Art can create alternative spaces for generating meaning as well as conversations and forms of communication that transgress traditional structural borders.

A Night of Prophecy (2002), Amar Kanwar

A Night of Prophecy 2002, Amar Kanwar

I find these aims of the project to be well exemplified in two film works by Nicolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen, Arise 2013 and Kest (Keep Evans Safe Today), specially commissioned for the show. Filmed in the immediate localities neighboring both Tate Modern and Khoj, in these two films Larsen encounters young men who are united through their aspirations and ability to find expression hip hop culture.  Created continents apart these works are emblematic of the cultural exchange at Word. Sound. Power.‘s core. They highlight above all the use of sound and the voice to harness empowerment in the face of adversity. Having seen these stories from Khirkee whilst I was at Tate Modern, I have now come to hear firsthand the underground voices that breathe life into Delhi. Yet  – as is the nature of protest  – there exists a concurrent and heavy unease in many of the works. We cannot forget that they stand testament to the continued struggles which make  these profound utterances necessary.