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Portals leading to Inca love songs

Krieger_Dianeby Diane Krieger
“In everything there is the trace” by Susan Silton, one of the installations at the USC Fisher exhibition Drawn to Language (Photo/Brian Forrest)
“In everything there is the trace” by Susan Silton, one of the installations at the USC Fisher exhibition Drawn to Language (Photo/Brian Forrest)

A long-standing love affair between words and the visual arts at USC Fisher Museum heated up when poet David St. John read six new love poems at a special event on Oct. 23.

Modeled on the traditional Quechua folk songs of the Andes, the poems appear in Peruvian Portals, A Cross Cultural Hymn. St. John, an English professor at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, composed the handset, unbound artist book in collaboration with printmaker Holly Downing, whose shadowy mezzotints were his visual inspiration.

St. John’s spare, intense verse lays bare a pulsing human heart: “Star-walker please / Come home / I have left my window / Open for you / & the bed is warm,” pleads the desperate lover of “Doorway Song,” who continues “Now a single island of / Honey burns / The single open / Aperture of the day.”

St. John underscored the importance of “apertures.”

“The poems I value,” he said, before the reading, “are ones where there is a moment in the language that the writer makes a gesture — where the fabric of the poem opens up and makes a space for the reader.”

Downing’s soft-edged engravings evoke archways, windows and heavy portals of Peruvian stonework, figuratively carrying the viewer “from one side of an experience looking through toward another,” according to St. John.

Historian Marjorie Becker, a USC Dorsife associate professor of history, expert on Latin America and herself a poet, provided further insight into Inca culture — such as the fact that stone is considered sacred.

St. John closed with a lighthearted Quechua folktale about a jug of contaminated corn-beer. Visitors interested in the percussive sound of the indigenous language could listen through headsets to Quechua translations of St. John’s poems.

The event coincided with USC Fisher’s current exhibition, Drawn to Language, which runs through Dec. 7. Comprised of five dynamic installations, the show is a reminder, said museum director Selma Holo, that “we [the Fisher] are connected to the mission of the university, which is, at its heart, always about words.”

Elements of Drawn to Language — including Peruvian Portals — are new acquisitions joining the museum’s permanent collection. Among them is “Pecados y Milagros,” a collaborative project by artist Demián Flores, singer-songwriter Lila Downs and saxophonist Paul Cohen. Downs’ Latin Grammy-winning album of the same name celebrates the Mexican tradition of milagros — healing charms offered up to saints.

An avid collector of this folk art medium, Downs and her collaborators commissioned 15 contemporary Mexican artists to create their own milagros.

USC Fisher has acquired one of the resulting limited-series artist books and folios. The current exhibition displays these framed votivos alongside video and audio from Downs’ performances.

No less intriguing is Susan Silton’s “in everything there is the trace.” Composed of multiple word-driven artworks, the installation is dominated by a “typing circle” of 10 interlocking desks, each with its own refurbished manual typewriter.

Commissioned by the Fisher Museum, this performance-based project depends on volunteers coming together to “collectively retype” Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The resulting manuscript, once completed, will be invisible because Silton has removed the typewriter ribbons.

To view the exhibition catalogue, go here. A few slots are still open for Silton’s typing collective. To sign up, go here.

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