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The (un) world of Mithu Sen

A major solo of Sen’s work, now on display in Australia, has been presented as an illuminated mind map

UnMYthU UnKIND(s) Alternatives’, 2018, installation view. Photo: courtesy the artist and Chemould Prescott Road
UnMYthU UnKIND(s) Alternatives’, 2018, installation view. Photo: courtesy the artist and Chemould Prescott Road

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Over the past 20 years, artist Mithu Sen has created a language of her own—the (un) vocabulary, through which she deconstructs, (un) defines, (un) taboos social constructs and questions pre-codified hierarchies that mark social roles and identities. She likes to call her works—light boxes, drawings, sculpture, media—tangible manifestations or by-products of two decades of performance.

Now one can see the range of Sen’s practice, and major new installations, as part of her ongoing solo, mOTHERTONGUE, at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (Acca) in Melbourne, Australia, presented in partnership with the Delhi-based Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. The show, which started on 22 April and will be on display till 18 June, is part of Acca’s international series of solo exhibitions by influential artists from across the world.

Curator Max Delany, in his note, says Mithu Sen’s practice occupies both intellectual and emotional registers: “ once sensual, intimate and bodily, whilst equally conceptual, critical and subversive, extending from conceptual art to glitch poetry and performative media interventions, and from daring, libidinous drawings to graphic works which condemn the prevalence of communal violence and marginalisation in Indian and wider global society.”

As a viewer, you end up sharing a very interesting relationship with the artist. You approach each work knowing it could shock you, provoke you, engage you. There is nothing conformist or conventional about Sen’s visual vocabulary. Each work in the past has offered a different glimpse of Sen’s mind and creative process—take, for instance, (Un)Mansplaining, presented during the opening week of the 2019 Venice Biennale. Using gibberish—or non-language—she created a satire on the “oppressive gaze of the male art critic through the triumphant, exultant privileging of female irrepressibility and the reclaiming of feminist agency”, as art critic Rosalyn D’Mello wrote at the time.

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Or Until You Unhome, which was shown at Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, in 2021. Described as “24 uncolored, uncontroversial, and virtuous happy-prick-drawings, (un)home is an (un)judgemental space which serves as a disclaimer and an exercise in perceiving what the images are and are not”, the set of works comes with a contract at the end that reads: “I, Mithu Sen, hereby declare that given the unprecedented climate, as an artist, I am socially-distancing myself from all unhappy, dark, negative images…”

In a few words, the artist evokes the oppressive events of boycotts related to anything that doesn’t conform to a majoritarian point of view, while also alluding to the socioeconomic disparities brought to the fore by the covid-19 lockdowns.

The show at Acca is no different. It has been presented as an illuminated mind map. “mOTHERTONGUE charts the ways in which language is channelled into forms as diverse as drawing, sculpture, media and performance to create complex artworks which elude definitional categories, institutional power structures and imposed identities related to race, gender, ethnicity and location,” states the curatorial note. By investigating relations between “I and we”, “me and you”, “us and them”, Sen creates dialogue and contractual agreements that test relationships between “guests and hosts, participants and performers, and ultimately, an artist and her audiences—thereby complicating notions of identity circulating around her as a woman artist located in the global south, navigating feminist and post-colonial discourses, framed within the art market”.

‘Museum Of  Unbelongings’, 2016
‘Museum Of Unbelongings’, 2016

In an interview with Lounge, Sen talks about how the show reflects on her long engagement with lingual anarchy and the themes she likes to (un) define. Edited excerpts:

How are you taking forth the idea of language anarchy and politics of identity in the solo at Acca?

I see my solo, mOTHERTONGUE, as a moment in the long arc of my engagement with lingual anarchy. The title itself alludes to the more primal and corporeal relationship we have with language—through our bodies. mOTHERTONGUE is an invitation and a provocation to abandon our known languages, and, instead, reflect on unintelligible and unknown languages to search for our common denominators. For me, language is a sign of imposed cultural differences, and English, a reminder of colonial dominance. This exhibition thinks about identity, cultural differences and global politics through the prism of language, and, in doing so, scrapes at language in all forms—not just textual, verbal and̦oral—but also language as motifs, performance and sound.

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Very much like the themes you seek to undefine—(un)taboo sexuality, (un)monolith identities—your visual language too defies categorisation. Could you talk about using glitches, sonic effects to create stories of the in-between?

I have used visual motifs of bodily ephemera like teeth and hair significantly in the past. As materials and motifs, they embedded a viscerality in my work, simultaneously referencing corporeality, ideas of beauty, and body horror, with evocations of “primitivism” and rituals. My relatively new incorporation of technologically-mediated forms like glitches, QR codes, emojis and sonic effects is a continuation of this, my interest in supplanting my “language” with multi-directional registers.

These multi-directional registers supplant to the surface of the body a grounding in historical and anthropological contexts. Through these, I reinscribe an anarchic lingual imagination, crafting its contours on dental polymers, looped-up hair and crawling metallic spines. These motifs appear and disappear in my work and have acquired myths of their own. By appropriating these images, which are so common to our daily digital lives, I hope to reflect on them as images and communicating devices. When encountering glitches and QR codes, we tend to think of them as disturbances and interruptions, not as visual motifs that could reveal some structure of thinking through their symbology, and so on. To me, the newness of these devices and our passive relationship with them is an opening, and in my work I consider them as part of our contemporary language system.

Could you talk about the process of ideation and execution and how you move between “meticulous research and self-reflection”?

In many ways, this exhibition is an externalisation of the process. The exhibition has been conceptualised using mind maps and is being produced as a mind map. It is a dialogue between internal states of instinct, feeling and sensation with zones of contact, where issues of language, identity, colonial domination and cultural loss come together. The mapping of these spheres was a laborious process. I wanted to elaborate and deepen my engagement with language, and, along the way, I could identify points of affinity that I shared with my early work, as well as with current discourses on language, culture and identity. After mapping this terrain, I worked to understand where I saw myself in the landscape.

It is through this form of research and introspection that I developed both the conceptual core for the exhibition as well as my new body of work.

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The body becomes the site of interrogation for you. It is both the medium and the message. How does it become the site for exploring ideas of polarisation, marginalisation and more? How did the pandemic change the way you perceived the relationship between the body and space?

I am framing this exhibition as a contact zone, which is an open social space where trans-cultural and trans-lingual possibilities are explored through the declarative, performative, contractual and instruction potential of language. It was important to think about space in relation to my work. A lot of this emerges from my work with language and performance, where I have always sought to exercise my agency as an artist and ask for more than passive engagement. Part of it is definitely inflected by the pandemic years, where so much of art was mediated through screen, clicks and views.

In my organisation of space, I have created a choreography of control so that the artwork’s context is more than just the gallery space. The context has been mapped in the form of a narrative, with a piercing line of light running through my works, splintering into nodes of thought that annotate the works of art on the walls that bear them.

How would you describe the materiality in your work?

From the onset of this exhibition, I have been thinking of the materiality of my work in terms of un-language. Language is one of the most significant modes of communication for us. But in this exhibition, I treat language with an eye towards examining the discomfort of difference in language among us.

Throughout my career, I have identified an uncodified subconscious language through visual and performative practices, which I call “un-language”. My intention is not to invent a new language but a counter to the language itself. In this exhibition, un-language stretches across mediums of poetry, video, performance, lecture, contracts, social medium and glitches. It is addressed through letters of the alphabet, punctuation, emojis, signs, guttural sounds, nonsensical phrases, and so on. It is the primary material around which everything revolves.

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