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An ode to Neruda

By March 12, 2019No Comments

Source : The Pioneer


Through six plates, artist Kristine Michael translates the verbal verses of the poet into a visual vocabulary, says U Nair

Among many other works, the city’s celebration of the women artists for Women’s Day was a set of ceramic plates by artist Kristine Michael, which were created as a tribute to Pablo Neruda’s An Ode to Salt. Through the six plates, created with decal overglaze, Kristine, a practitioner for four decades, has translated the verbal poetics of Neruda into a visual vocabulary.

Visual vocabulary

Neruda’s ode is taken as a form by Kristine and within the six stoneware plates, we can espie an inspirational anchor and an aesthetic starting point for her work. These monochromatic plates with subtle strokes including a sea shell, unravels many references, specifically of the Greek poets, notably Pindar, who began writing odes as a celebration to chariot races, but the ode eventually came into much wider use.

Neruda didn’t write his odes in praise of a rich person’s chariot, though. He wrote what he called the Elemental Odes — odes in praise of ordinary things used and enjoyed by ordinary people. For instance, Ode to the Watermelon, Ode to My Socks. One look at the plates, and the lines from these poems come rushing through one’s recollections.

‘And in its crevices/ rock salt, mountains/ of buried light/ a transparent cathedral/ sea crystals, forgotten/ by the waves.’

Kristine, in reality, presents us with the gaze of the poet through her Salt Song, a modernist mooring of instincts and intuitive reckoning. In many ways, Kristine compels us to think how Neruda  goes way beyond praise because the poem for him was not just a description of salt, but an act of imagination created as an ode.

Salt signatures

In poetic terms, Neruda starts with the basic building block of salt in line one, and then in the next two lines begins to permutate that word into ‘salt shaker’ and ‘salt flats.’ Scholars state that Neruda names this unusual landscape — the region of Antofagasta in his native Chile, which is part of the Atacama Desert, often called the driest place on earth. Interestingly, the great thinker and researcher of evolution, Charles Darwin, during the voyage of the Beagle, wrote of the desert, “It was almost a pity to see the sun shining over so useless a country.”

Kristine’s plates also make us think of the Atacama Desert. It is a place of hallucinatory strangeness, where rain sometimes doesn’t fall for decades at a time, and when it does, the air is so dry that the water sometimes evaporates before it could even touch the ground. Some of the lakes in this area are pink or silver-gray from the minerals in them, even when gathered in a clear bottle. In parts of the Atacama Desert, the salt forms strange sculptures. Kristine uses abstraction and the dynamics of alphabets as she includes text on the plates.

“The text is typed on my mother’s old Olivetti typewriter to give a vintage atmosphere,” states Kristine. “The images are black and white photographs of my early spiral series on shells converted into decal transfers… the patterns are all black and white in sync with the look and feel of salt. I wanted it to resonate with Neruda’s essence of life in his poem and this is why I called the series Salt Song,” she says.

Associations and allusions

Neruda’s lines speak of multiple associations and allusions. The plates by Kristine epitomise this in a remarkably minimalist yet striking manner, with the painterly, abstract splashes of black contrasting pleasingly against the ground of white transfer decal glaze. The striking patterns highlight the plates’ undulating profile, exemplifying the swelling forms and dynamic contours and the intonations of salt that were created as a work of praise by Neruda. Scholars have said that often a work of praise is created out of a deep sense of responsibility.

In Neruda’s poem, he makes the salt flats take on an other worldly beauty — mountains/ of buried light — a transparent cathedral.  These images of fantasy transform this desolate, impoverished area into a place of splendour. Neruda makes this forsaken region the most holy place because of the dignity of the human sweat that goes into it, suggesting medieval cathedrals that were an accumulation of decades and even centuries of work. His words bring us back to the reality of the everyday idiom.

‘And you’re on every table/ on this earth/ salt/ your eager/ sustenance/ scattering/ vital light/ over/ our food.’

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