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The un-making of Mithu Sen

Back with a solo exhibition in India after eight years, the artist speaks about the evolution of her practice and her urge to shatter conventions

Mithu Sen. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Mithu Sen. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Stepping inside Mithu Sen’s studio, which is really a converted apartment in a high-rise in Faridabad, near Delhi, is like entering the world of her art. Traces of her work in progress lie propped against the wall, scattered on various surfaces nonchalantly, amidst the trappings of everyday life. Sigmund Freud might have described the scenario as Das Unheimliche, commonly translated as “the uncanny", though, literally, the German phrase renders into English as “the un-homely".

The concept would appeal to Sen, a long-term champion of the prefix “un", which, as she takes care to explain, doesn’t indicate negation (“un is not non"). “It opens up layers within my work instead," she says, “and peels away meanings, while becoming part of my politics of language-making." “Un" has lent itself to major bodies of her work—the Unbelonging Series from the early 2000s, which “unmade" gender and sexuality, and currently, to an exhibition at the Chemould Prescott Road gallery in Mumbai, UnMYthU, her first solo in eight years in India. The portal to Sen’s website is called “Unhome", and leads the visitor on to a page where the monosyllable “un" is spectrally afloat, swimming whimsically against a backdrop of words like “unfriend", “unmiss", “unbody", “uncommunication", and so on. But the apotheosis of this process of “un-ing", as Sen playfully calls it, perhaps lies in the title of her ongoing show.

Installation images of the show UnMYthU, where Sen has installed six instructional museum pieces that “will be performed under legal contractual guidelines between the artist and each visitor during the period of the exhibition”. Photo: Mithu Sen/Chemould Prescott Raod Gallery

By deconstructing her name, UnMYthU celebrates the self-mythologizing potential of Sen’s work, but also draws the viewer—moving from “MY" to “U"—into a transactional matrix. Before you enter the gallery, you must agree to several contracts with the artist, who sets the terms for experiencing these “by-products" from 20 years of her practice. One of the ways in which Sen applies the concept of “un" to her work is by refusing to set a deadline for its completion. “I never finish anything," she says, admitting to a “romantic, even philosophical" aversion to the idea of a project having an end date. “My work has a compound identity and I request the viewer to bear in mind that it’s not the last surface they are looking at," she explains. Sen is perpetually “un-doing" the premises she lays down, modifying canvases (of her stunning painterly work in black, displayed at Chemould, for instance) over years, staging impromptu performances, and introducing a brand new critical vocabulary (“radical hospitality", “lingual anarchy", “(un)taboo sexuality", “(un)monolith identity", and so on) into contemporary art.

The story of Sen’s free-spirited association with art, which continues to baffle, amuse, arrest and elude even the most observant viewers, begins with her arrival at Kala Bhavana, at Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan, in the 1990s. She tells me a hilarious anecdote about passing the entrance examination almost by fluke, in spite of her meagre knowledge of art, meeting her “first and last boyfriend" (now husband and fellow artist Samit Das) there, and being set free by the ethos of the place. Although drawn to athletics (she was a sprinter in her youth) and literature (she wrote several volumes of poetry in Bengali), Sen wasn’t sure what a career as an artist would entail. “I can’t ever stand too much seriousness," she says. “I turn all giggly around it." The key that unlocks her practice is tucked away in that statement: a primal urge to shake up the stodgy corridors of art in theory and practice by a radically destabilizing lightness of touch and subversive humour.

Installation images of the show UnMYthU, where Sen has installed six instructional museum pieces that “will be performed under legal contractual guidelines between the artist and each visitor during the period of the exhibition”. Photo: Mithu Sen/Chemould Prescott Raod Gallery

In 2016, when asked to make a TED-like presentation at the prestigious Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York about her work, Sen took apart the letter of invitation—dictating the duration, format and style of her talk—in a bravura performance. By quoting passages from her original mandate on a projection screen, and splicing it with images of her work from across the years, Sen put together a spectacle, during which she raced up and down the stage with a baton in her hand, speaking gibberish, pretending to read aloud the messages that flashed behind her. Enacted in two instalments, which can be viewed on YouTube, Sen’s “presentation" raises fundamental questions about the conventions of language and the formal, often stifling, apparatus of communication that is foisted on those addressing an audience.

These fetters that bind us, even the creatively inclined, to age-old customs had begun to fall away from Sen’s life after her time in Santiniketan. “I remember a senior student coming up to me in my first few days there and telling me, ‘You’re so beautiful, you have a lovely complexion,’" she says. Until then, she wasn’t sure if her dark complexion could ever be seen as beautiful—or if she would stay on at art college. But that encounter changed her mind. “I told my parents I’ve found my place, and never looked back," she says. Moving to Delhi in the late 1990s, followed by a stint in Glasgow in 2000, “un-homed" her even further. Since then, Sen has been travelling restlessly, refusing to stay in one place for more than a few weeks. “Comfort is like a trap, it needs to be challenged frequently," she says, gesturing around her living room. “I’m the most disorganized person in an organized way. I know where to find a book or even a single piece of bead in this clutter."

Sen’s nomadic life, her belief that the very fact of being alive involves acknowledging a perpetual state of flux, dissolves the boundaries between self and world, male and female, animate and inanimate, art and life. Her own body parts—falling hair, blood and teeth—have entered her work. She has also stepped inside the virtual realm, throwing sporadic words and phrases, lexical or fictional, into the abyss that is social media. She continues to be stirred by the responses of her internet audiences. Such experiments, Sen says, are for her also ways of avoiding various traps, most notably, of the one laid by the business of art. “I constantly change my medium to avoid being trapped by the market," she says.

Some years ago, Sen launched an audacious project, Free Mithu, to address the staggering disparity between the prices of her work and the buying power of her friends and families back home in West Bengal. She decided to “gift" her art to people in exchange for a letter from them telling her what her work meant to them. It was yet another way of “un-ing" herself, one of the most intimate and invasive gestures an artist could possibly dream up, a way of letting her audience “un-layer" her identity inside out.

UnMythU is on till 3 March, 11am-7pm (Monday-Saturday), at the Chemould Prescott Road gallery. For more information, visit here.

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