What Cannot Otherwise Be Said, an exhibition on view at Shrine Empire, New Delhi departs from many preconceived notions of what curatorial action entails. The exhibition, which brings together 13 artists across different geographies, has been curated by Zeenat Nagree, a recipient of the Art Scribes Award 2020, an annual award and residency for art criticism presented by Prameya Art Foundation in partnership with Institut Français. Citing a tweet by poet Chen Chen, Nagree invokes the capacity of poetic form to give appearance and substance, however mystifying or capricious, to aspects of remembrance and being that prosaic language falters to convey. In the tweet, Chen contests the oft-quoted notion that poetry is unnecessarily complex or thwarts understanding. [1] He argues that what may appear as complexity is, rather, the attempt by poetry to bring into language aspects of reality that other modes of addressal preclude; an argument that is reminiscent of Heidegger’s understanding of poesis as the act of creation or making. As scholar Jennifer Gosetti-Ferencei writes, for Heidegger, within the ambit of poesis: “Poetry is not like ordinary language; it makes language strange, uncanny or unhomely (Unheimlich) so that we may become aware of its very familiarity, the nature of its nearness, and thus poetic language engages the limits of what can be said.” [2]

In occupying poetic time, we can realize and acknowledge a spectral existence, one that oscillates between the convergence and fraying of many pasts within and around us. In Home is a Foreign Place (2022), a two-channel video installation by Ali Asgar Tara, there is a defamiliarizing of dominant tropes in global fashion and entertainment through the use of the camera as a surveyor, a tracker, a lover and an intimate surveillor. In one video, shot by the sea, Tara moves with a sense of freedom and fluidity, their body unfolding with masterful spontaneity. In the other video, shot in a large hall which houses computer servers, Tara is tracked by the camera and is, at varying points, in control of this seduction. Yet at other moments, their gaze reflects the terror of being fixed into a place and of being ascribed a category by the lens. The title of the work recalls an earlier rumination on migration and belonging by Zarina Hashmi, and Tara’s own biography is one of crossings and passages over borderlands and seas spanning Dhaka, Maine and New York. In their work, the artist confronts the doubling of desire and violence in the binaried normativity accorded to bodies and sexuality; their intermittent discomfort is testament to the weight of challenging the dominant gaze.

If control is pervasive in Tara’s videoscapes, it is domesticated in the hands of Amol K. Patil and Ashfika Rahman. The blue line blur between the scar (2021) is a compilation of two videos, shot over the period of Covid-19 lockdowns in India and Bangladesh, where figures ambidextrously strive to measure and affix the world around them-be it the length of the walls or the width of a fish’s belly. The measuring tape-now a ubiquitous remnant of the early sciences of anthropometry and criminology as forms of imperial command over colonized subjects-is transformed into a symbol of ‘marking time’ under the confinement of an epidemic. Their voice declares the measurement with a stoic indifference that connects two incommensurable acts-of measuring a floor and a fish.

This strain of absurdism turns into a powerful flourish with the works which follow-performance projects of walking vegetables and fruits on a leash in the city, undertaken by Han Bing, Heba Y. Amin and Kashmiri Cabbage Walker in Beijing, Cairo and Srinagar respectively. Han Bing, who walked a cabbage in Tiananmen Square in 2000, took the project to various parts of the city, including a subway carriage (a video report on this is part of the exhibition), and subsequently, in other countries. Heba Y. Amin was inspired by Bing’s performance, and switched the cabbage-a staple vegetable in China-with the watermelon for her walk across Cairo in 2016. Bing described his project as a form of ‘protest’, a spirit embodied by both Amin and the Kashmiri Cabbage Walker. [3] For Amin, the reclamation of public spaces, especially the street, from the control of state and private technologies of capture, was essential to disrupting the metrics of surveillance that erupted after the Arab Spring. In Egypt, the censorship and persecution of activists has been on the rise, with a constant policing of uploads on social platforms. Aware of the capitulation of technology to the abuse of power, Amin keeps her back to the camera in every photograph as she crosses a packed market and walks across a bridge, dressed in black clothes and dragging a watermelon by a leash.

The Kashmiri Cabbage Walker too dons a dark pheran over their pants, and walks with a cabbage mounted on wheels. For each of the three artists the ‘landscape’ is not a passive, inert entity but a space for contestation and refutation; the spatial manoeuvres of the Situationists and literary techniques of Surrealists being only some points of reference. Landscape as the witness to the persistent occupation of Kashmir is evidenced by Ranjit Hoskote’s observation that “Concertina wire is the most widespread form of vegetation in Kashmir today. It grows everywhere, even in the mind.” [4] The Kashmiri Cabbage Walker refuses these symbols of dominance, and declares in an interview published after the walk that “I, as a Kashmiri, am willing to recognize walking the cabbage as part of the Kashmiri landscape but I will never accept the check posts, the bunkers, the army camps, the torture centres, the barbed wire, the curfews, the arrests, the toxic environment of conflict and war, as part of the same.” [5] Upon peering closely at images documenting the walk, one can see a range of expressions on the faces of bystanders: curiosity, perplexity, doubt. Nearly every pair of eyes is fixed on the Walker and their cabbage-in displacing a fixed symbol of the vegetable, the Walker is also performing an ‘unconcealment’ of a kind, a poetic gesture of refusing to let a militarized landscape settle in the eyes, rendering strange that which is altogether familiar.

Across the hall from where the works of the walkers are placed, is a small table bearing many objects-a book of poems, vials that hold oils, a clove of garlic, a playing card with a cat illustration. The viewer is encouraged to fill a logbook and pick up the objects, take in scents that are reminiscent of the artist Vicky Sabourin’s encounters with death and grief, presented in an assembled installation titled What the Fragrant Lilies are Trying to Cover Up (2021). The ‘cover-up’ is a heavy term, for Sabourin’s family was also among those affected by the period of protracted institutionalization and abuse of children by the churchandstate-which only came to light decades later, and the demand for justice is still ongoing. Sabourin’s uncle Robert was among these children, and his loss is recounted by her in a poem in The Lock of Hair and Flowers, written originally in French and translated to English:

Beyond the overwhelming

odour of the house and the essential oils,

I noticed a new smell. What the fragrant lilies

are trying to cover up in funeral homes. It’s

surprising because I didn’t know the smell of

death well yet, but I recognized it.

What emerges as poetic text in Sabourin’s installation, delves into marginalia and appendage in the work of Hussein Nassereddine, who presents two footnotes from an Arabic book of poetry titled How to see the pillars as palm trees (2020). The book is published by Kayfa ta, an initiative that devises ‘how-to’ manuals as texts that shift between genres, forms, and conventions. The absence of the main text in the exhibition necessitates that the viewer works with footnotes that refer to the figure of Abdallah the Killed, a poet who “was paralyzed by the desire to capture the infinite in finite language”. The footnotes provide a resting space to the viewer after their journey through the many terrains of resistance. Here we encounter again the idea of poetic time: “entering the poetic time is entering the unseen.” Abdallah, whose trade was metaphor, was initiated into poetic time when “the pillars appeared to him as palms”; he was trapped in the space of poetic time “where the poet sees the unseen, in contrast to regular time, where the poet has the time to utter what he sees.” The chasm between language and poetry rests on the divide between seeing and naming, as Heidegger writes “Language, by naming beings… first brings beings to word and to appearance.”[6] The poet refuses this act, constituting instead the mercurial texture of the world in metaphor and slippages of lyrics. In What Cannot Otherwise Be Said, on view till August 16, 2022, the curator imbibes the role of a poet.


[1] Chen Chen, @chenchenwrites “a poem inhabits its own clarity, which may be deeply mysterious but that's different from unclear. and at its best, it is an unparaphrasable clarity. it says what cannot otherwise be said-and it is an encounter with the unsayable (sometimes in the same line!)”. 3 December 2021; 1:42 AM.

[2] Jennifer Gosetti-Ferencei, "The world and image of poetic language: Heidegger and Blanchot." Continental Philosophy Review 45.2 (2012): 193.

[3] Heba Y. Amin, “Towards a Spatial Imaginary: Walking Cabbages and Watermelons”. Ibraaz. 5 July 2016. , accessed July 2022.

[4] Ranjit Hoskote, “Introduction” in I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded. New Delhi: Penguin Books, (2013).

[5] “Unidentified Kashmiri seen walking a cabbage on a leash in Srinagar.” Kashmir Reader (December 23, 2015).

[6] Martin Heidegger, Poetry, language, and thought (trans: Hofstadter, Albert). New York: Harper & Row (1971), 72.

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