There is no one way of looking at this work. Ostensibly about silence, it is made up of words. Language is employed, and masterfully, to strike its own death knell, to render itself redundant. You are confronted with carefully crafted algorithms and equations that probe consciousness with a bit of poetry. You also hold in your hands a small, mysterious manual bearing a soliloquy, an explanation, a philosophy on its translucent pages. The ink the words are typed in flickers from an irrefutable black to a protean grey to an elusive silver. The pages fall diaphanously over each other, their text overlapping. On each page are words and ghosts of words, echoes, shadows, traces. Or, more in accord with the ambivalence that characterises the work, it can be remarked that on each page are words and promises of words, warnings and foreshadows of them. Language is present, lingering, or absent. It is offered, plainly, but also evoked. Its authority is acknowledged but also revoked.
There is no one way of looking at Madyha Leghari’s new work for her first solo exhibition, ‘Notes Towards Silence’, held recently at Rohtas 2 Gallery, Lahore. What it communicates to you or what you make of it can change the more you think about it. It is not easy to think about either, for all its introspective content. It can be, at turns, occluded, encumbered, anxious. But introspection is hardly ever a simple matter, and to put it into words is even less so. The fact that Leghari is able to not only articulate thought but chart its quicksilver proceedings is testimony, above all, to the poet’s agility that she possesses. In a 1962 essay comparing the art of the novelist to that of the poet, Sylvia Plath wrote of a poem – ‘a door opens, a door shuts. In between you have had a glimpse: a garden, a person, a rainstorm, a dragonfly, a heart, a city.’ Leghari, too, traps into words, into truncated phrases, the bogged-down and stretched-out affair of sentient living. One set of existential choices on a wall asks you to pause and decide between disappearing ‘in a thousand furnished rooms’ and ‘into your own mirrored reflection’. Another set of instructions aligns the possibility of intrusion – ‘break into a stranger’s home’ – with that of introversion – ‘fall into your own arms’ – exemplifying the acute disquiet that runs through the entire work and Leghari’s distrust of definition and demarcation (for introversion can be seen as a kind of intrusion, the stranger’s home can be your own, and the other can nestle within the self).
Planning and language are both treacherous, Leghari seems to be saying. Any form of structure or method is tenuous, systems manifest from and are forever prone to dizzying chaos, and syntax limits instead of liberating. ‘We use language as if it has any concrete relationship to the things it refers to,’ she writes in one of the essays accompanying the work, ‘but despite the two being inextricable, language is firstly concerned with itself i.e. the relation of one word to another and thus, the creation of a syntax that wears the appearance of meaning rather than being meaningful.’ In the second essay, she goes on to propose ways to ‘destroy the formalised regimen of language’. These recall Jorge Luis Borges’ legendary forays into linguistic territories, and one of the measures Leghari suggests in particular is reminiscent of Borges’ enigmatic story, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’.
Leghari posits – ‘AVOID THE USE OF NOUNS, VERBS, ADJECTIVES, ADVERBS AND PREPOSITIONS IN THEIR ANOINTED PLACES. CONFLATE ONE WITH THE OTHER: IMAGINE A TABLE AS TABLED, TO PEN AS THE PEN, THE STRANGELY AS THE STRANGE AND SO ON.’ Through the paracosmic Tlön, Borges imagines a similar dysfunction. There are no nouns in the languages of Tlön’s southern hemisphere, he states. Instead, there are ‘impersonal verbs’ – ‘For example: there is no word corresponding to the word “moon”, but there is a verb which in English would be “to moon” or “to moonate”. “The moon rose above the river” is…literally: “upward behind the onstreaming it mooned.”’ Meanwhile, in the languages of the northern hemisphere of Tlön, ‘the prime unit is not the verb but the monosyllabic adjective. The noun is formed by an accumulation of adjectives. They do not say “moon” but rather “round airy-light on dark” or “pale-orange-of-the-sky” or any other such combination.’
In much the same way as Borges awakens the reader to the vertigo of infinity, Leghari opens up a heady world of variables and decisions for the viewer/reader. But beneath the scrupulously theoretical approach to weighty concerns such as the nature of time and how it can truly be measured, lies a trembling, feverish, poetic inquiry into mortality. ‘All your hours churn inside a collective calendar and your biology is taught in public schools,’ she writes, in what are some of the most vulnerable words from her treatise. And this is what is interesting but also problematic about the work – it is fed by emotion, undoubtedly, as much as it is by logic, but it comes across as so formidably cerebral that one has to be rather dogged to get to the visceral sediment of it, the emotion beneath the cool scientific tabletop.
Is that emotion ever allowed to run rampant? No. And that is perhaps why the work is not very accessible to the viewer, who we must remember is not looking to be schooled in philosophy or schooled enough in it to be able to get at Leghari’s work. Yes, the form and content of Leghari’s work are one. The components of her work and display reinforce and illustrate one another. The tables and graphs painted neatly on the wall represent the conundrum explored in the essays from the artist’s book. The format of the two-sided book itself and the material used in its making reflect Leghari’s tense confrontation with language and silence. But the question remains: should art – whatever progress it has made in refuting canons and labels – make a viewer feel at sea? Should it intimidate a viewer and discourage engagement with the work? Should it be convoluted to the point of appearing esoteric – a wonder kept safe in a beautiful ivory tower that no one can reach?