Entering Let the Song Hold Us on the first floor, the viewer finds themselves in the middle of a ceramic chorus. Suspended from the ceiling around the edges of the gallery, richly glazed and characterful faces pour song into the room. Their meditative lament fills the small space, opening it as wide as the perfect ‘O’ of their mouths: these speculative ancestors bend time and space beyond the room’s four walls. This fluid and resonant world was constructed by Rae-Yen Song from the inherited memories of a distant maternal grandmother. The choir is joined by other drawn, painted and sewn figures housed in a blush vitrine in the centre of the gallery. From this we might read a dreamy auto-ethnography; Song cataloguing a family resemblance or describing recurring encounters with the same subconscious figure.
The gallery text describes these objects as a ‘blueprint for the ritual observation’ of the personal allegory that forms the installation’s psychic centre. On the far wall, between the ceramic heads, hangs a piece of stained glass depicting a violently sobbing flower. The meaning, or indeed the story, behind this allegorical image is unclear: Song has provided no language to explain it. The only elaboration of the work is through a digital supplement. This glass is also an AI ‘portal’: scanning the QR code on the wall and turning your phone to face the panel opens a window on your device where you can watch the stained glass come to life.
The AI bends the gallery’s time and space just like the wordless song. The two together work to produce an embodied and ineffable archive of memories and feelings, an archive that cannot be subsumed in worn narratives but must remain in the intimate opacity of experience. The task of archiving difficult material is also taken up by Ebun Sodipo’s installation in the adjoining room. Sodipo has created an interactive website that attempts to make heard Black trans voices by building an archive of their stories. The website was produced in collaboration with young LGBTQ+ people online, in a process led by a small group of Black trans people known within the work as ‘The Cartographer’s Committee’.
The archive is also a star map. The title, ‘Following the Gourd’ (2022), is taken from an African American spiritual in which the ‘drinking gourd’ appears as a coded message helping enslaved people to navigate to freedom using the North Star. The digital constellations also contain secret messages: clicking on different points of light open pop-ups with personal memories, artworks and other artefacts which form a collective cartography of the night sky. Sodipo has stated that her aim with the work was to enable trans people, particularly Black trans people, to access a history that can sooth rather than hurt. This necessitates a form of encryption, to protect the information (and people) inside from those with bad intentions. The language of the archive is that of the specific people who made it: the directions are for them not for us.
The labels seem inexplicable to the uninitiated viewer; what is the relationship of the name ‘salt and pepper tofu constellation’ to the audio recording it contains? However, these are not received as inside jokes but open-ended pointers from which a myriad of associations can be drawn. The ‘kare kare constellation’ opens up a twenty-two second clip of a person singing the first line of The Temper Traps 2008 hit Sweet Disposition. The song is a prism that refracts every listener’s personal experiences, which sit in varying degrees of closeness to the singer’s.
Tessa Norton’s ‘Dark Circles’ (2022) also considers how culture might allow or bar access to one’s identity. Norton has transformed the gallery into a parody of a colonial railway station, complete with cork-boards, a wooden bench and two old tv monitors, on which a multi-channel video plays. The viewer sees clips of a whirring ceiling fan and overlapping circles: abstract phrases suggesting complex and constantly changing positions within a matrix of mechanised visuality. This is underscored by archival material of three Anglo-Indian performers (Cuckoo Moray, Helen, and Merle Oberon) inserted between these intertitles. Merle Oberon takes a turn as Anne Boleyn, another dancer appears in a sailor costume; both undertaking ambiguous performances of whiteness, inserting themselves into its institutions of power and coloniality.
Anglo-Indian subjectivity was produced by, but marginalised within, the empire. The confusion inherent in occupying this identity is made explicit in the prose poem that accompanies the film. Norton casts the Empire as an unreliable narrator, a serial gaslighter of which her sense of self is both a product and victim. Her body is both a testament to the rigidity of the imperial poles of centre/margin, east/west, and their instability—an instability that England needs hidden. Hiding this is hiding her, or part of her, and other Anglo-Indians. But as Norton says, like ‘hiding a statue by throwing a sheet over it’, the statue is still there. Like the sailor girl and Merle Oberon’s Boleyn: from the West, their costumes and characters would not be out of place among contemporaneous Hollywood classics; they see the sheet but not the statue underneath.
What can be read in the faces and bodies of these performers? Downstairs in gallery one, Larissa Sansour and Søren Lind present a recording of their Arabic-language opera, ‘As If No Misfortune Had Occurred in the Night’ (2022). The camera lingers in dramatic close-up on the sorrowful face of Palestinian soprano Nour Darwish; follows her as she walks through misty, colourless dreamscapes. Darwish’s cinematic presence, often repeated across the three screens, augments the emotion carried forth in her voice. In her body we see what lies on the other side of language, hidden behind the overt signs of aural communication but still known and felt.
‘As If No Misfortune…’ combines the traditional song Al Ouf Mash’al with an Arabic adaptation of Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, weaving together a reflection on Palestinian occupation and exodus with a grief-stricken lament in the musical tradition of the European coloniser. The brutal cycle of violence is transformed into a rending song cycle, where the trauma that rolls through successive generations is transmuted into the rise and fall of Darwish’s voice as she sings of the loss of a daughter and all those who would come after.
In the next room along, Korakrit Arunanondchai and Alex Gvojic also ask what transformation might be possible in lament. ‘Songs for living’ (2021) presents a post-apocalyptic America, populated by ancestral ghosts attempting to reconnect with the life that has been lost, frittered away through ecological destruction. The film has the production value and style of a big budget sci-fi or horror movie, but without the Hollywood narrative. A montage of obscure ritual scenes emerges before the viewer: black-winged angels glide through abandoned New York clutching bags of flesh; blue-jean wearing spirits drool black bile while they dance around a fire; the same figures push a skeletal boat across a body of water.
Alongside the poetic narration, these images—searingly visceral and opaque in meaning—produce a fantastical mood of anticipation, of preparation for a future already with us. In one frame black wings burn, suggesting a funereal rite and the heavy dark feathers of birds caught in oil spills. The voiceover suggests humanity has flown too close to the sun, that we will burn to ash, our bones become coral or charcoal: carbon fuel to carbon fuel.
Is there redemption in this eternal turning over of material? Zinzi Minott’s latest iteration of her ongoing series ‘Fi Dem’ (2018-present) holds this possibility at arms-length. The series is renewed annually as the artist produces a new work each year to mark the anniversary of HMT Empire Windrush’s arrival on English shores. Like rings on a tree, this time accretes, a process of ‘accounting’ that calls to mind what the writer Katherine McKittrick has called ‘plantation futures’: the violent repetition of the structures of slavery within the settler colonies and imperial motherland.
‘Fi Dem V – A Redemptive Song’ (2022) begins with Aretha Franklin singing Bridge Over Troubled Water. The music stutters and Aretha’s voice resounds, doubling over itself, as if to ask what echoes are held in this body, in these vocal cords? The song is accompanied by glitching images of running water. Here the glitch is both repetition and its break, leaving open and simultaneously foreclosing the possibility of pushing beyond the chronic loop identified by McKittrick. The work was produced in specific dialogue with Liverpool’s history as a slave port and the city’s current response to its Windrush community. Conversations about the uncertain future of The Merseyside Caribbean Centre are intercut with archival footage from the 1950s and 60s which highlights the ambivalent reception faced by the members, their parents and grandparents. Drawing lines between these two moments raises the question of what amount of hope is possible in continually perpetuated precarity?
In Patois, ‘fi dem’ means ‘for them’. Minott’s series tracks communal and personal feelings of loss and joy, each piece like an ocean flowing between these four shores. The waves, both sound and image, go out and come back, bringing the near beach to the far, connecting and separating each of us from everyone else. All of the works in Let The Song Hold Us approach listening in this way, as a mutual connection at once inherently generous and fundamentally opaque. In listening we are given intimate access to another’s body, but we are also held at a distance. Sound mediates and distorts the other’s communication, and our varying abilities to receive wavelengths and frequencies becomes a powerful metaphor for the different degrees of relation we have to each other. Songs can hold us close to another who is present, connect us to our ancestry and to future generations, but its overtures cannot be easily decoded. Let The Song Hold Us allows us to embrace the somatic mystery of human connection, while being embraced by the felt abstraction of sound.
Frances Whorrall-Campbell is a writer and artist from Chester, now based in Oxford.
Let The Song Hold Us, continues at FACT, Liverpool, 28 March – 19 June 2022