Gallery: Arts House
Exhibition: Okkoota ಒಕ್ಕೂಟ
What I am struck by when I enter Okkoota ಒಕ್ಕೂಟ at Arts House is the darkness.1 I mistake black curtains for exits and entry points, stumble into dark corners that lead nowhere. Darkness blankets vision, so that colour is renewed, broken, so that sound becomes sight. This is no coincidence. Curator Vishal Kumaraswamy writes that Okkoota ಒಕ್ಕೂಟ ‘think(s) through what sonic signatures can be ascribed upon the surfaces of the building by the meeting of minds, bodies, rituals, languages and histories’. This is a show structured by sound. Sounds through which the atrocities of caste-based discrimination speak — of loss, presence, visibility and invisibility — sounds that are leaky and un-vesselled.2 In Phuong Ngo’s Loss in the Aftermath, empty hammocks swing as a testament to the boat people that fled after the fall of Saigon. This becomes a constant, dull ache that spreads throughout Arts House. Hammocks are tucked in corners and hallways, leaking out the same motorised, mechanical swinging. There is something to be said of these autonomous objects, struggling to create the presence of bodies. Moonis Ahmad’s Almost Entirely Sisyphus also grants autonomy to an object: a typewriter that records the names of those that have disappeared. Each key and letter is connected to an individual motor, which is fed an archive of names of disappeared people. The typewriter is paperless and inkless, but the brute noise of its twenty-nine motors creates an archive of disappearance that I can’t read. In my notes, I wrote ‘Dentist’, ‘nails on board’. The typewriter’s noise is overwhelmingly grating, there is relief to its ending, when it pauses, searching for more data. But then, it begins again. In those moments of silence, I am waiting for the sounds of the disappeared to disappear. I do not want the names to go on. I would rather read them in a long list and forget about them. But the noise is buzzing, never-ending; I can close my eyes at a gallery, but I can’t close my ears.
Anne Carson writes that ‘Every sound we make is a bit of autobiography’. Something is betrayed in sound that language otherwise seeks to control. Sound in ritualistic Greek practices were dedicated to moments of intense pleasure or pain. Sound can purify as it can pollute.3 ‘I am sometimes drawn to sound’ Shareeka Helaluddin writes ‘because there is infinite time in a particular instance’.4 In this way, Helaluddin’s soundwork portability of ritual ii appears in Okkoota ಒಕ್ಕೂಟ as a distillation of the infinite.
Tucked in the stairwell of the Arts House clocktower, portability of ritual ii waits. What you hear first is music muffled, a moan like a whale song, swelling behind a closed door. What you see is a liminal hallway, an arrow pointing you on. This act of stumbling upon something to be discovered, something that feels almost secret, is important for intimacy to occur. Intimacy is the word that comes to mind because sound is intimate: it enters you. Whereas previous sounds in Okkoota ಒಕ್ಕೂಟ bleed into the public forum and transform spaces into reminders of state violence and loss, the sounds of portability of ritual ii enact the privacy of a moment; a dimly lit hallway leading to a door, a door you can choose to open. The intimacy of this space is where the signifiers of the art space are extinguished. There is no lighting and no attendant watching me. I open the door, and I ascend. In the dark and narrow stairwell, ordinary sunlight hits the corners of landings, speakers emit layered sound. As I ascend, it feels like I am breaking through roofs of sound. This is sound whose source is difficult to locate; sometimes, it feels like I am underwater. There are crescendoing bells, field recordings of cars beeping and people murmuring; but also, a cinematic swelling, a motif that rises out of its surface. It is a searching, meandering repetition; a loop that is slowly altered, but with no clear narrative, no ending. Out of the chorus of voices, I strain to hear a single human voice, reciting. I catch a snippet: ‘the existence without sound’, the rest is incomprehensible, washed away. Perhaps the language of the sacred is couched in secrecy, or rather, in the noises of the everyday. There is a strange feeling of frustration when I try to articulate the grammar of sound, I find myself repeating the same words that are all too vague. In ‘recitations in four dimensions, ways of attuning’, Shareeka Helaluddin creates descriptions of her sonic works, in a similar way to how image descriptions function. They are poetic and precise, and they shed something of her ability to expand. She describes one of her pieces, nighttime, bats flying across darkening sky as ‘searching for clarity but remain[ing] unresolved’.5 In my notes of portability of ritual ii I had written ‘restless, like it couldn’t find a home’.
To ascend bears the trace of ascending the holiness of the mountaintop, but instead, I ascend to a small opening, where a wooden fork is left on an office table; an ad-hoc storage closet of sorts. I have the feeling I am not supposed to be here. When I come back the next day, there is a partition at the bottom of the stairwell. Now, visitors to the exhibition sense the mystery of the staircase leading to an unknown; where the sound is a hint, a foretaste of what is gathered above. Perhaps I’d find the piece more mysterious that way, but there was something in the act of climbing up the stairs, the sounds breaking through, the weak light that did something to me. I can’t get closer to this ‘something’. A priest once told me, ‘We need glimpses of the mountaintop, but we can’t live in it.’ He was talking about the Transfiguration of Jesus, when Peter, who like us all, wanted to settle down forever at the top. When I tell my father this, he tells me that Simone Weil believed that the foundation of transcending begins with the infinitely small. Here I am at the bottom, looking up at the time. The deeper I stay with it, the more I pay attention. Sounds are sifted through, a human breath is drawn out and crashes like a wave. While there are moments I yearn for silence, just as I longed for it with Almost Entirely Sisyphus, sound is what transforms portability of ritual ii into one of contemplation. It reminds me of the misplaced glove at the MoMA, where in ritual, meaning accumulates, transforms. portability of ritual ii is a proclamation to the ordinariness of holiness; that you can worship the mountaintop anywhere, as long as you direct your gaze, strain your ears. ‘On earth, Muslims can make any place “Islamic” enough for worship.’6 This is how the infinite is contained in a single, banal moment. John Berger wrote, ‘When I say the first line of the Lord’s Prayer “Our father who art in heaven…” I imagine this heaven as invisible, unenterable, but intimately close.’7 This paradox of nearness and farness — this reaching that is both fleeting and eternal — is what portability of ritual ii creeps close to.
What we define as ritual can be nebulous. Choreographer and dancer Yumi Umiumare brings the Japanese tea ceremony to Butoh, inviting audiences to think about the rituals they could create. NC Qin’s Glass Armour, also at Okkoota ಒಕ್ಕೂಟ, invokes a ritual for me — one of dressing and preparing for the public, where all that endures is a breath drawn out and heaving. Ritual is a precise order in which things unfold and where you give that order meaning and power through its repetition. We have rituals to grieve, to mourn the dead; for cleaning and for devotion. In what we hear, what we say and what we do, the ritual combines and confers the power of the symbolic onto the somatic and vice versa. What feels unresolved is the power of ritual as something we can enter on our own. For me, ritual is powerful precisely because it is something we do with other people; at the border of public and private, we reach one another through seeking the sublime. Ritual is directional: when we are looking at something else, we are part of a greater whole. Perhaps it is enough that I can imagine others before me and after me entering portability of ritual ii; that we are all hearing echoes of the same piece. Perhaps the ritual is not for us. I have often found that I feel the closest to strangers in libraries because we are alone, joined by directing our gazes at the same thing. This reminds me of a comic by Rachel Ang, where everyone is tenderly stroking their phone screens on public transport.8 Often, in public spaces, our attention is multi-varied, disseminated, beholden. Religious and sacred rituals collapse this distance of public and private by seeking divinity. Their direction is one that points to the Other from that of an individual and collective body — as opposed to a ritual that points solely back to me. Hoa Nguyen called CAConrad’s poetics a ‘form of presencing’.9 This is what portability of ritual ii enacts; a space, a presencing, and like nighttime, bats flying across darkening sky, the sound of presencing — of what lies within it — remains open, for form to flood in.
1. This review primarily examines Shareeka Helaluddin's sonic work portability of ritual ii, which featured in Okkoota ಒಕ್ಕೂಟ at Arts House, curated by Vishal Kumaraswamy. Described as an 'alliance, gathering, assembly,' Okkoota ಒಕ್ಕೂಟ gathered twelve artists and their works, inspired by the anti-caste movement.2. Cher Tan, 'Working Towards a Politics of Borderlessness', Hyperallergic, 26 April 2023. https://hyperallergic.com/817473/working-toward-a-politics-of-borderlessness-okkoota/ (Accessed 27 April 2023)3. Anne Carson, ‘Gender of Sound’ in Glass, Irony & God, New Directions Books, New York, 1995, pp. 119–1364. Shareeka Helaluddin, ‘recitation in four dimensions, ways of attuning’, Firstdraft, 2022. https://firstdraft.org.au/conductive-site-artist-pages/recitation-in-four-dimensions-ways-of-attuning (accessed 1 May 2023)5. Ibid.6. Alicia Izharuddin, ‘Islamic Astropolitik’, The New Inquiry, 29 January 2015. https://thenewinquiry.com/islamic-astropolitik/ (accessed on 26 April 2023)7. John Berger, ‘Steps Towards a Small Theory of the Visible’, in Steps Towards a Small Theory of the Visible, Penguin Random House, London, 2020, pp. 76–778. Rachel Ang, ‘Train’ in Let Me Be Honest With You, January–February 20179. Hoa Nguyen, ‘On CAConrad: Pan-Dimensional Change Agent in Vibratory Communion’, Poetry Foundation, 3 April 2023. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/159821/on-caconrad-pan-dimensional-change-agent-in-vibratory-communion (accessed on 1 May 2023)
Wen-Juenn writes poetry on unceded Wurundjeri land. In her writing, she is interested in gaps, leaks and spillage, which often take the form of place, memory and divinity. Her work has been published in Meanjin, Cordite Poetry Review, Going Down Swinging, among others. She was a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow for 2022, and has been awarded the Tina Kane Emergent Writer Award for 2023. https://wen-juenn.github.io/
This text was commissioned through the Emerging Writers’ Program. An annual collaborative project, from KINGS and un Projects, that supports critical arts writing, fiction, poetry, experimental, cross-genre and digital text forms. The Emerging Writers’ Program provides professional publishing opportunities and fosters dialogue between artists and arts writers. Each emerging writer in the program receives critical feedback and editorial assistance from KINGS and un Projects personnel.
Supported by Creative Victoria, City of Melbourne and City of Yarra.