Whenever I go to a reading at a gallery – the most frequent setting for such events, it would seem of late – I recall a frustration expressed by the poet Holly Pester during a 2018 symposium at the Royal College of Art. It sometimes feels, she said, as if a writer is called upon to ‘bless’ an exhibition; to anoint it in passing, only to be dismissed once the chairs have been stacked away. I carry this anxiety with me to THE SKY IS A GENIUS, an evening of poetry set in Patrick Staff’s otherworldly, slime-yellow exhibition On Venus, at London’s Serpentine Sackler Gallery. This evening’s special ‘extraterrestrial’ guests are Bhanu Kapil, Precious Okoyomon and Nisha Ramayya, selected by Staff for their particular influence on the work. They are to share the stage with one of the rusted oil drums studded about the show, slowly collecting an acidic substance which drips from pipes crisscrossing the gallery ceiling.
As I sit down, it occurs to me that I have never been to a poetry reading with comfortable chairs. I understand – it is very important that we prove our sincere and unwavering appreciation of the linguistic arts. Venus, it turns out, has been furnished for the occasion with petite wooden stools, legs bound together by plastic cable ties so that when I try to shuffle backwards the whole row snakes and snags. I perch, nervously, elbows tucked to knees, coat half-off for lack of space, and listen as Ramayya gives us a lesson in conjugation: “I sacrifice, I have sacrificed, and I shall sacrifice”.
Precious Okoymon at THE SKY IS A GENIUS, an evening of poetry at Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London, 7 February 2020. Photo: Talie Rose Eigeland
She is reading from her debut collection States of the Body Produced by Love (2019). The third state, ‘Sleeplessness’, enacts a process of subjective disintegration, straining “the lengths between me and you me and you”; the lines spill from her. It is torrential. ‘The audience became lava during Nisha’s reading,’ Bhanu Kapil later writes on her blog, The Vortex of Formidable Sparkles. A geothermal energy courses through Precious Okoyomon’s ‘Sky Song’: she quotes the late African-American poet Henry Dumas’s ‘Kef 12’, in which he conspires with the sun to “take away the shape from the metal”, and turn “stone” people to molten rock. I sense the bodies around me softening. “Maybe u can’t separate,” Okoyomon continues, “It’s inside and outside and not externalizable”. The floor of the gallery is a warped mirror which sucks us under; we are liquified, implicated.
Kapil prefaces her reading with a question. “What happens to poetry when you find yourself in unsurvivable conditions?” On Venus, Staff explains in the exhibition’s central film work, “things are much the same as they are here”. The artist documents a planet where the atmosphere is toxic, inhospitable, acidic, volcanic. It is queasily familiar. Ban, of Kapil’s 2015 book Ban en Banlieue, exists in a weather of hostile scrutiny, a “black (brown) girl encountered in the earliest hour of a race riot”. Ban’s survival is lying down on the sidewalk, “Without resistance. Beneath the ivy. At night”. Kapil concludes her reading with another question:
“Can I touch your art, Patrick?”
I don’t see the book cross the space between hand and drum (there is a head in the way), but I hear it. An intake of breath followed by a sharp, swift thud. Kapil has dropped Ban in the art. I am well acquainted with the lilt of poet-voice in these settings, but the book’s ungraceful utterance surprises; a suggestive material collision of word and work. It is an ill-mannered sound, irruptive, blunt, pleasingly incongruous to the gallery space. A rude consecration.
I am grateful for the way that THE SKY IS A GENIUS withholds the act of shallow, perfunctory blessing, and moves beyond it into something more difficult, even sacrificial. There is a kind of vulnerability in these performances; an offering up of self that feels as much a challenge to the work as a gift. In Kapil’s words, “Performance and sacrifice: discuss”.
THE SKY IS A GENIUS, an evening of performance at Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London, 7 February 2020