‘If poetry ends, the dream is dead’

Chilean poet and artist Raúl Zurita, the first artist selected for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, on his art collective and a poem for his own death


Raúl Zurita and his installation ‘Sea Of Pain’. Courtesy Kochi-Muziris Biennale
Raúl Zurita and his installation ‘Sea Of Pain’. Courtesy Kochi-Muziris Biennale

The one question that everyone asks everyone else at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is, “Have you waded through the water yet?”

The work being referred to is by acclaimed Chilean poet Raúl Zurita, and it’s called The Sea Of Pain. It’s the highlight of the three-month-long Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which is exhibiting the work of 97 artists from 31 countries.

Zurita, 66, recipient of awards such as the Pericles Gold Award, 1994, Italy, Chile’s National Literature Prize in 2000, and Doctor Honoris Causa by the Universidad de Alicante, Spain, 2015, was the first artist selected by the biennale’s curator Sudarshan Shetty.

The Sea Of Pain invites people to walk through knee-deep water across a warehouse to read Zurita’s poem, dedicated to five-year-old Syrian refugee Galip Kurdi. The bodies of Kurdi, his mother and three-year-old brother Alan were washed ashore as they fled Syria last year.

Through his works, Zurita asks questions—“Don’t you listen? Don’t you look? Don’t you hear me? Don’t you see me? Don’t you feel me?”—engaging people physically and emotionally.

“Is there anyone who may not be concerned with the reality of refugees? Can someone say I do not care? Could an artist say that is not my subject? I do not think so. Even the most abstract painter is concerned and affected by the tragedies of the world,” says Zurita.

An engineer by education, Zurita has dedicated his life to poetry about those who suffer. For him, the arts should engage with humanity. “I doubt if a true artist can remain the same after watching the news on television. The refugees, now Syrians, show the horrors of the world, and a work of art is about the horrors of the world, not its beauty. The beauty of the world is the beauty of the world, it does no harm. But the horrors of the world kill people, build Auschwitz (concentration camps) and drown thousands of beings in the Mediterranean Sea.”

All his famous poetry, such as Purgatorio (1979), the first in a three-book sequence that includes Anteparaíso (1982), and La Vida Nueva (1994), and Love Of Chile (1987), translated and published in several languages across the globe, give a voice to victims of discrimination, war, slavery and abuse.

"I doubt if a true artist can remain the same after watching the news on television. The refugees, now Syrians, show the horrors of the world..."-

Zurita, who suffers from Parkinson’s, walks slowly, stoops while sitting and clutches his pants often. But poetry is part of every conversation. “Poetry was born with the human. Poetry is the first response to the awareness that we are mortal beings and that we will die, it’s the first response to the only unchangeable: that we are doomed to die. Poetry is the DNA of humanity, it is prior to writing, it is before the printing press, it is before the book, it is before the Internet, it will survive in different forms, and it will die when the last human being contemplates the last of the sunsets. Without poetry, there is no art; poetry is what is behind every masterpiece,” says Zurita.

Zurita the poet began his journey during the infamous military coup of 11 September 1973 in Chile. Augusto Pinochet, the then commander-in-chief of the Chilean army, marched out on the streets to overthrow the ruling democratic party and establish dictatorship until 1990, murdering and torturing people on a mass scale. On the day of the coup, 22-year-old Zurita was arrested with 800 others, for studying in a leftist university. For six weeks they were crammed in a dingy room meant only for 100.

“It was my descent into hell. But I realized that what happened to me is nothing compared to what happened to thousands of my compatriots. It’s nothing compared to those being massacred in a bombing right now,” says Zurita. “The end of the world is not something that will happen, it is something that happens in that minute when someone is killed or tortured. I decided that I would speak from there, from the horror of that world, not to stay in that horror, but to insist again and again that the human task is the construction of happiness, is the construction of beauty, and is the construction of the good.”

When he was released from jail, an official tossed his file of poems, the one that had kept him sane in those difficult days, into the sea. Young Zurita was shocked and couldn’t write poems for the next year and a half.

But then it all came back. A couple of soldiers threw Zurita out of a public bus and beat him up. “When I was humiliated, I remembered the phrase from the Bible that said that if they hit you on one cheek, you offer another. I took a knife, heated it and burnt my cheek until it became red.” In that moment, in a flash, Zurita remembered all the poems that had been thrown into the sea and published his first book of poetry, Purgatorio, in 1979.

Zurita is known for his extreme personal gestures, often masochistic. He once tried to throw acid in his eyes to stop seeing the torture and the suffering all around him.

In 1979, Zurita founded CADA (Colectivo de Acciones de Arte), an artists’ collective, along with visual artists Lotty Rosenfeld and Juan Castillo, sociologist Fernando Balcells and novelist Diamela Eltit. The collective uses visual, literary and performance arts as tools to protest dictatorship and its atrocities. It’s here that Zurita first merged different kinds of art to reach out to people.

CADA repainted 10 milk trucks to protest the food shortages suffered by a segment of the Chilean population. The collective also hired five planes to sky-write Zurita’s poem La Vida Nueva in Spanish over the New York sky. This poetry-action gesture, as it was called, was written using white smoke over the blue expanse, and was meant to express solidarity for minorities across the world. “We made art to reoccupy public space by bursting into the streets permanently guarded by the military forces and breaking the order. What followed were massive protests. The art of contempt once again raised the great dream of freedom,” says Zurita.

He believes that in the age of Facebook and Twitter, and as long as humans suffer, poetry will have the power to change the world. “Poetry is the hope of events and situations which have no hope. By itself it has no chance of changing the world, but without poetry no change or revolution is possible. If poetry ends, the dream is dead, and so is the last hope,” he says.

He wants to make a work of art with his death. “I have tried, as far as I could, to do a work with my life; it seems to me that I must try to do a work with my death too.”

For what he calls The Last Project, Zurita is determined to write a poem on the cliffs of his country, on a man’s journey on earth, which can only be seen from the sea.

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale is on till 29 March. For details, visit here

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