Mithu Sen’s concept-laden practice unearths the unseen meanings of body and home

The conceptually interactive art practice of the artist Mithu Sen is an unbroken attempt to undefine the conventionality attached to the inherited normative order of things.

by Dilpreet Bhullar Published on : Jun 04, 2020

As simplistically romantic it may sound ‘home is where the heart is’, the idea of home more often than not remains a step away from achieving an all-encompassing meaning of fulfilment. The essential desirability and implicit meaning around the home have occupied the creative energies of the artists across the genres. A slew of similarities runs between the fragility of the human body: an anchor of sensorial experience, and the timelessness of home: bespeak the inner mind. Irrevocably, an extension of the headspace of its member(s), the home and even the human body is not limited to a single stroke of black and white binaries, but like the viscosity of the paint with which the motif(s) of the artwork is made to bring to life, the home-body encapsulates a labyrinth of connotations. Discussing and deliberating upon these two metaphors is the illustrious career of the conceptual artist Mithu Sen, which stands as an epitome of the best of human tendencies to push the potential boundaries in an effort to achieve the unachievable while treading the tricky waters.

UnMYthU: UnKIND(s) Alternatives | Mithu Sen | STIRworld
UnMYthU: UnKIND(s) Alternatives Image Credit: Courtesy of Mithu Sen

The performance (Un)Mansplaining at the Venice Biennale (2019) counters the bias of male art critics that reduce the eastern school of thoughts to the impenetrable shroud of eroticism. Sen dressed as the goddess intersperse the recording of the lectures by the male figures on art and feminism with the incomprehensible gibberish words. The pre-recorded tracks from YouTube were selected sans a situational background, nonetheless, the series of lectures lend shape to the large narrative for the audience. The linearity of the western knowledge production system when encounters the non-conformist lingual terrain of Sen, the formal syntax of narrative at once collapses. The performance is a seamless emulation of what the feminist writer Helen Cixous in her work The Laugh of the Medusa claims a new order of narrative - écriture feminine or women’s writing. The realistically organic gibberish interjections subvert the logics of what is inherited to question its obvious acceptance. 

Sen for her performances does prepare the scripts, but refrains from devoting long hours to rehearsals, which gives impromptu insights to the movements of the body in front of the live audience. Sen declares, “I tread a fine line between method and instinct. The stages of ideation and execution in themselves are driven by high-octane energy, where I move through meticulous research and self-reflection. I think what is most important while building the project is how it relates to the projects, I have undertaken prior, my conceptual priorities, and the insights it brings to my practise at large.” When the discipline of art has regularly interrogated the body as a site for scripting the narrative of power, memory and even violence, how does Sen’s art practice re-engage the audience with the concept of the body, she responds, “In my work, the body finds articulation in many guises, but my intention is not primarily towards an aestheticised essentialisation of the body. The roles I carry through the bodies traipse through the playful, sexual, biographical, fantasist –– and are always charged towards a relationality with other bodies, refusing to be straight-jacketed by cultural conformity to an immediate identity: gender, race, caste, class, location….The absent presence of the body nevertheless looms over these fragments. In all these attempts, what I hope to do is lure the spectator in, only to carry out an estrangement, a moment of unease where the rigidity of bodily definition –– through the structure of powers of patriarchy, nationalism, caste, class, all become more visibilised.”

Performance with Alexa during the exhibition UnMYthU | Mithu Sen | STIRworld
Performance with Alexa during the exhibition UnMYthU Image Credit: Courtesy of Mithu Sen

Through the artistic career of close to two decades, laced with performances and conceptually interactive artworks that include drawing, installations, moving images, verses, Sen has successfully undone the preconceived notions that punctuate the definition of arts and walk the path of hitherto unseen art-making exercise. The museum exhibition UnMYthU: Byproducts of twenty years of performance (2018) at Chemould Prescott Road deconstructs the hierarchical order of the world to explore the liminal world that is persistently in the making. A play on her name (Un)-Mi(y)thU- the exhibition looked at the human experiences to unravel the layers that underlie the performances of unrealistic “value consumption”, “(un)taboo sexuality” and “(un)monolith identity”. As part of the performance, Sen refers to the refugee crisis that swept the shores of Europe and Asia. Through the automated response of Alexa, Sen initiated a dialogue to talk about the refugee plight. The gap between Sen’s inquiries and Alexa’s responses, when the former fails to comprehend the name of a three-year-old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi who drowned at the Mediterranean Sea, lays bare the robotic mechanism that would relentlessly fall short of emotional investment.

Nothing is lost in translation| Mithu Sen | STIRworld
Nothing is lost in translation Image Credit: Courtesy of Mithu Sen

In the current times of lockdown, when the idea of home is continually redefined, Sen gives an explicit account of what constitutes home for her and how it has altered in these days of self-isolation, “If home is a place one belongs in, the political urgency of the refugee crisis speaks to me because not only does it signal material dispossession of the people, but tears them away from all social, cultural, private artefacts of belongingness. This state of unbelonging and in-betweenness is something I have dealt with at levels both personal and political. It goes without saying that the coronavirus epidemic has created a new condition of dispossession. The abstractness of economic crises as is proclaimed in facts and figures is now amply palpable in the labouring bodies of migrant workers, marching long distances towards their homes. In this light, I have been thinking more of home as a fraught space, as not just a zone of access, comfort, and belongingness, and also of the struggle to reach home. Personally, I have a renewed curiosity for the mechanics of the closed space, the contraction of life within four walls, and its projection into the virtual - all of which mediated by the eerie calmness of self-isolation.”

Border Unseen | Mithu Sen | STIRworld
Border Unseen Image Credit: Courtesy of Mithu Sen

Border Unseen (2014) displayed at Eli and Edy the Broad Art Museum, the architectural structure designed by Zaha Hadid, is a long sculpture with false teeth and dental polymer, and runs 70 feet long moving from roof to the floor of the gallery. Before the politically official onset of the refugee crisis in the year 2017, Sen scrutinises the idea of the border that we have created within ourselves that withhold us from loving our neighbours. To lend physical manifestation to this cocooned life, Sen deployed a pertinent material - dental prostheses - of her art practice. The teeth perform both bodily function and emotional enactment, which for the artist becomes an interesting site to dwell upon the duality that defines the human self. The material in the hands of Sen is not a stand-alone product, but rightly extends the meaning attached to the art piece. For instance, with this installation Border Unseen, the walls are inconspicuously present in front of us as the body part teeth, it is a personal choice to either break or cement it.

Sen delves deeper into her art of selecting the material when she says, “The materiality of my work is marked by a conscious shapeshifting. I don’t define myself or my practice by the material I work with, and so, shifting between the material has been an important tangent of my relationship with matter. I am interested in metaphorical invocations through variegated material, which I delve into, and also expand their meanings. My work with dental polymers, for instance, bears a significance because of its intimacy and ubiquity. It is a recognisable form, one which comes with its direct citation of physiognomy, history, cultural values - myths, lore, superstitions, as well as indexes scales of emotion and affects: taste, pain, pleasure. Alphabet-like, my teeth-works then become codices carrying a multiplicity of referents, registers, and invocations of body, language, spatiality, and politics.”

When the hyperbolic excess of hyperreality and supernormative formula dominate the critical vocabulary of arts, Sen’s career strides to reverse the successive structures, by making the prefix “un–” ubiquitous with her name, that leaves the traces of a possibility of suture between the stark contrasts of our existence instead of a complete annihilation of the other.

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