British artist crafts poetry on light at Kochi biennale

Kochi: Leading British light artist and poet Robert Montgomery has crafted a poetry installation in light on the wall of a heritage spice trading house facing the sea. The word installation in LED light, which is the core of Montgomery`s art, speaks of the mingling of cultures and memories at the ancient port town of Kochi-Muziris, a cauldron of eastern and western cultures for over 2,000 years.

The poetry, one of the highlights of the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale, is a sailor`s song of Scottish origin that explores nostalgia and the loss of seamen to mercurial weather in the high seas.

"The strange new music of crying songs/Of the people we left behind/Mixing as your boat touches shoreline/ Touches my bones..." reads the poem written on the facade of the Aspinwall House in Fort Kochi.

"These specific lines (quoted above) are from the songs of a Scottish sailor about people you love and those you leave behind, and about those who have gone to the sea. In the old port city of Muziris, sailors from all over the world would trade stories -- and one would meet new people, find new languages and discover a new self. These were the cities where civilisations were born," Montgomery told IANS in an interview here.

Montgomery - who paints politically-loaded poetry on billboards in white on black, crafts illuminated electronic calligraphy and writes on the streets - fuses text with art to address the horrors of war, conflict and change.

He harks back to Marxism and what came to be called `Situationism`, a current of psychology that started in 1968, holding that people are influenced more by external and situational factors than inborn traits.

The 40-year-old artist of Scottish origin, one of the leaders of a new wave of artists in Britain, says he started working on billboards in 2004.

"I began with writing poetry on the streets and then started doing poetry on billboards. I was replacing advertising with poetry, as a kind of backlash against consumerist culture. I was using poetry to question the person on the street," Montgomery said.

A graphic textual description of the horrors of war was the theme of Montgomery`s first series of billboards in London in 2004.

"It was a response to the 2003 Iraq war. What the US and the UK did in Iraq was very wrong. I composed verse about the idea that if we allow a war to be conducted in a faraway country, it will rub off on our consciousness, get into our dreams and affect the subconscious," Montgomery said.

The project, `When We Were Sleeping`, described the trauma of war through the drones flying over the city.

"When we are sleeping/Aeroplanes carry memories/Of the horrors we have given silent consent to/Into the night skies of our cities/And then leave them there to gather like clouds/And condense into our dreams before morning...", Montgomery recited.

"My billboards are always in black with white text. And they are always very simple. They connect to conceptual art with texts," he said.

For the last six years, Montgomery has been working on `Words in the City at Night` - a text-based installation series for which he often hijacked billboards illegally.

Last summer, Montgomery worked on a lot of 23 billboards off Berlin`s Tempelhof Airport that dates back to 1923 but ceased operations in 2008 and is now used for hosting a variety of events and fairs.

The project, `Echoes of Voices in High Towers`, is about the end of capitalism. "Here comes the cabriolet edition of capitalism and the end of an empire you were too conceited to even protect," the poet said.

"I feel connected with the tradition of 20th century art," the artist said.

Montgomery says text is being increasingly used around modern art, as an extension of the early 20th century wave of Dadaism, a reaction, in art, to the horrors of World War I.

The Kochi Biennale that began Dec 12 will end March 13.



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