‘Each Person Tortured, Killed Represents Failure of Mankind’


Kochi: As Raúl Zurita wades barefoot through the knee-deep stretch of seawater that covers his installation space at Aspinwall House, it is only his steps that are uncertain. Not his intent. That much is plain from his ‘Sea of Pain’.

“I am not his father, but Galip Kurdi is my son,” reads Zurita’s poignant eulogy to the five-year-old brother of Alan Kurdi, the toddler whose prone body found set against the Mediterranean Sea in September 2015 remains the definitive image of the Syrian refugee crisis.

For Zurita, Galip is the victim the world overlooked – “There are no photographs of Galip Kurdi, he can’t hear, he can’t see, he can’t feel” – and representative of the other faceless forgotten in other crises and conflicts around the world. His tribute – a haunting poem composed of a series of disjointed queries that line the walls of the enclosure – is as much for them as for Galip.

“Every person made to disappear, tortured, or killed represents the failure of all mankind. We don’t have great democratic values. You can’t be a democracy if you don’t care for the young, the vulnerable, minorities, the marginalised,” said the 66-year-old Chilean firebrand poet, who nevertheless doesn’t “believe that it is the responsibility of poets or artists to change this”.

“The realm of art is the realm of freedom and you can’t dictate what that realm should or should not be. For me, art is part of the world, but you can’t impose it on other people,” he said.

That would be akin to “fascism”: something Zurita – the first artist selected to participate in the ongoing third edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale – is all too familiar with. When Chile’s democratically elected government was ousted in a military coup in September 1973, Zurita was arrested, tortured and imprisoned along with nearly 1,000 people in the hold of a ship.

Compounding the traumatic experience for the then 22-year-old was the loss of his works in progress – which he would later recollect and publish as Purgatorio, the first in a seminal trilogy of poetry collections – after the military officer who confiscated the writings as suspected coded messages had them declared subversive and thrown into the Chilean Sea.

Reconciling the two September events – separated by over four decades – is the ‘Sea’ as Zurita sees it: a gulf between peoples, a site of suffering, death and disappearance. Through verse and water, he asks visitors to become both audience and witness to this body of pain.

“Don’t you listen? Don’t you look? Don’t you hear me? Don’t you see me? Don’t you feel me? In the Sea of Pain,” Zurita asks rhetorically, making repeated calls to action. He had acted by forming the artists action group Colectivo de Acción de Arte (CADA) to protest against Augusto Pinochet’s junta. Driven to despair by its brutality, he acted again by burning his eyes with acid.

‘Sea of Pain’ is in keeping with Zurita’s history of art interventions. In 1982, the completion of the second part of his trilogy, Anteparaiso, saw 15 verses of the poem written in the New York sky. In 1993, his poem Ni pena ni misdo was printed in the sands of the Atacama Desert in Chile.

“There is nothing special about artists, but the entire gamut of humanity is captured in the act of making art. The only thing that matters is the agency behind it. Art expresses the artist’s self. For me, this is poetry. It is beautiful and painful, but the act itself is exultation,” Zurita said.