Shilpa Gupta, WheredoIendandyoubegin, 2014. Installed at Royal High School, Edinburgh
The beauty of Shilpa Gupta’s text installations, particularly the ones she’s been making using light, is that they seem so darn simple. An uncomplicated sentence or phrase, written in neon — that’s all it is, on the face of it. Often, the complexity in these works appears to be in the logistics. Like, for instance, getting permission to install a work of public art in Mumbai. Or fabricating something with the split-flap display that we usually see in announcement boards in airports. For me though, I know the work is good when the phrase or sentence that she’s written out refuses to be forgotten. They settle in and suddenly, they seem relevant to a host of situations. You start finding they apply to all sorts of things, from mundane moments in your life to the news that’s reaching you about the world at large.
One of my favourites is Somewhere Else. The first time I saw “TRANSMITTING SECRET MESSAGES”, my heart stopped for a moment. Maybe it was the fact that it looks like an airport announcement (or maybe I really do have terrorist tendencies, as my mother has maintained for decades), but I thought 9/11. Then I thought of all the film that have that grand romantic finale in Grand Central (let us ignore the fact that my mind smoothly leapfrogs from terrorist attack to boy and girl snogging in reconciliation). Then I thought of John Le Carre’s George Smiley. It went on and on. “Transmitting secret messages” and the sound of the clattering split-flaps in Somewhere Else pops up at the most unexpected moments.
I don’t know if WheredoIendandyoubegin will prove to linger quite as persistently, but it looks rather beautiful, perched atop that ye olde building in Edinburgh. The neon makes it visually spectacular against a darkening sky. But it’s not just how striking this work is as an image. That line, flickering between statement and question, has stayed with me for the past two weeks. In a world that’s increasingly connected through networks that aren’t tangible but are nevertheless very strong, that sense of being woven into many lives is something that’s true for so many of us. Secrets are shared between strangers, information is shared between familiars you may not recognise if you bumped into them on the street. We carry so much of other people with us just because they’ve shared parts of themselves online. On a completely different note, I also remember reading about Gaza and Shilpa’s line flashing in my memory. Where indeed does one end and another begin in that part of the world, where violence and trauma are phoenixes that keep rising out of their ashes?
Shilpa told me that she’d come up with the line when she was pregnant, which I found sweet and intriguing because not for the life of me would I have connected it to pregnancy. Here’s the weird part though: I showed the photos that I’ve put up above to a colleague and the line immediately made her think of a mother and her child. When I told my colleague that it made me think of Gaza, she was shocked. “It’s such a pretty picture and such a beautiful line about togetherness!” my colleague wailed. “Why would you think of a war?” I pointed out that she hadn’t thought of a particularly happy-happy-joy-joy phenomenon. Pregnancy and childbirth are bloody, violent stuff.
My colleague has since concluded that I don’t possess a biological clock at all.
Whether or not that is true, it turns out that my description of pregnancy is actually pretty scientific. This fascinating article actually describes pregnancy as a “war in the womb”.
When scientists tried to gestate mice outside the womb, they expected the embryos to wither, deprived of the surface that had evolved to nurture them. To their shock they found instead that – implanted in the brain, testis or eye of a mouse – the embryo went wild. Placental cells rampaged through surrounding tissues, slaughtering everything in their path as they hunted for arteries to sate their thirst for nutrients. It’s no accident that many of the same genes active in embryonic development have been implicated in cancer. Pregnancy is a lot more like war than we might care to admit.
We don’t know enough about the workings of pregnancy, but from the little we do know, pregnancy seems a bit like Alien and Species all rolled into one.
Cells from the invading placenta digest their way through the endometrial surface, puncturing the mother’s arteries, swarming inside and remodelling them to suit the foetus. … These foetal cells are so invasive that colonies of them often persist in the mother for the rest of her life, having migrated to her liver, brain and other organs. There’s something they rarely tell you about motherhood: it turns women into genetic chimeras.
I’m not entirely sure what it means to be a “genetic chimera”, but it doesn’t sound like a good thing. The ancient Greek chimera was not a happy puppy. (Primarily because she wasn’t a puppy at all, but a creature with a lion’s head, a serpent’s tail and a goat’s body. That’s quite a menage a trois.)
According to the article, “about 800” women die of complications arising from pregnancy or childbirth every day. No wonder it takes most people a while to get pregnant. It’s just a woman’s body trying to protect itself.
That’s not all.
Genomic imprinting, and the maternal-fetal battle behind it, have been shown to account for gestational diabetes, Prader-Willi Syndrome, Angelman Syndrome, childhood obesity and several cancers. Researchers suspect that it may also underlie devastating psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and autism.
Good bloody grief.
Suddenly, “wheredoIendandyoubegin” starts sounding rather sinister, rather than sweet. The lack of gaps adds a certain ominous quality — the security of the no man’s lands between the words is gone. It’s all coming out in a rush. The line of light is a beacon in the darkness and with that article swirling in my head, it’s now as menacing as it is beautiful.
I need some chocolate now.