My medium is life: Mithu Sen

Multi-faceted artist Mithu Sen on the contours of performance art and how her practice emerges from in-between spaces of human experience

Published - January 28, 2019 03:23 pm IST

Pushing the envelope: Mithu Sen;

Pushing the envelope: Mithu Sen;

Over the years, one has realised it is easier to experience Mithu Sen’s art than drawing meanings. The contemporary artist relentlessly challenges the obvious. Her artworks appeal to the senses and once you comprehend them, you don’t need crutches of catalogue. She often cuts through outer layers to find a common meeting ground for stark metaphor and poetic reality. It could be a skeleton or a denture, which seem provocative at first sight, but the cartilage of her art remains compassion. Market and mediums don’t limit her. Mithu writes poetry in Bengali but in her performances, she often talks gibberish or as she would say she un-languages herself. The audience look frustrated but once the preconceived structures and institutions melt, the edifice of a two-way conversation with the other is laid. Once during a residency, she opened the doors of her apartment to strangers. The ensuing interactions and leftovers resulted in pieces of art and the connoisseurs got a taste of Mithu’s radical hospitality. That was in New York. Perhaps, we are in for a similar surprise this Wednesday in Delhi as Mithu is preparing for a performative intervention for the Shalini Passi Foundation ahead of the upcoming India Art Fair.

Mithu Sen in performance at Tate Modern in London

Mithu Sen in performance at Tate Modern in London

Edited excerpts:

Give us a sense of your upcoming performative intervention, “Lunch is Cancelled”. How is it going to be different from your previous pieces like the path-breaking “Aphasia”?

‘Aphasia’ was to challenge the given conduct of things that conveniently pass as normal. I used the invite-guideline (social conducts/constructs) as a metaphor for a larger framework of society. A crucial element of ‘Aphasia’, as the title itself suggests, was a critique of the institutionalised and communicative function of language, by using what could be received as an absurd or nonsensical form of verbal expression.

The purpose of such an intervention, in the fashion of what I call ‘lingual anarchy’ , is to expose and destabilise how language (often the colonial remnant of English language) functions as a hierarchical institution, in its mediation between (and within) different linguistic communities. I delivered my entire presentation in non-language, a language that empowers the speaker and disempowers the listeners. Non/un - language in my practice has evolved as a tool to resist the hierarchy of an institutional etiquette; distorting and (un)making contexts, a force to change my relationship with the others and render a space empty from the elements of oppression, humiliation, and violation.

I put my audience in a situation of being humiliated, as they would be frustrated by their inability to understand and respond to my language. Pushed to the extremes, they will meet the limits of their liberal and conventional notions of hospitality, entering a zone of what I call ‘radical hospitality’. In this zone, one is forced to find new ways to be with the other who is absolutely alien and undomesticated.

The performance ‘Lunch is Cancelled’ further elaborates upon these themes. The title is a pun on the event of my performance, my artistic intervention in a highly prestigious and exclusive banquet organised by the Shalini Passi Art Foundation. Scheduled on the day before the commencement of the India Art Fair, the lunch party will host numerous personalities from the Indian and the international art worlds. I find this occasion to be an opportunity for exploring the dynamics of radical hospitality between hospitality and tolerance, patronage and avant-garde subversion.

You are conversant with different media. What pulled you to performance art and where do you place it in your oeuvre?

My medium is life – human experiences. In my practice, the cognitive and sensory projections in the form of life and human experiences are the actual material that produces my art. The output in the format of drawing, poetry, sculpture, installation, and performance is what I call by-products of art making. I use the word by-product to term the tactile manifestations of my art. The intention is to relocate the focus on the conceptual – the mind, emotions, and senses, that produce the art practice, and the by-products are just a remnant of this process.

I see all other questions – be it about political power or individual freedom – as consequences of grappling with this fundamental and common question of life. It is for this reason that whichever media I have used, the main trope and object of my artistic investigation has always been the meaning and power of life in its utmost intimate and conceptual sense. This also means that I have always seen my art, be it drawing, poetry, sculpture or video installation, as ‘performance’. Hence what I do now as a ‘performance artist’ according to the categorisations of art institutions is only a logical and natural outcome of what I have always been doing. To me, performing within a fine art context, ( interdisciplinary, scripted, unscripted, spontaneous, random or carefully orchestrated) with or without audience participation is most challenging and risk-taking.

In performance, it is my life which is the medium of expression as well as the object of investigation, and for this reason, I have always been a ‘performer’.

Give us an insight into the performance art scene in India and how important it is given the social and political environment we inhabit.

I see all art as a form of ‘happening’ art, an experience in a situation meant to be considered as art. A painter exhibiting his painting in a gallery is performing a specific social role to be recognised as a painter. From this perspective, one can see that the art always ‘act’ in a performative platform like any other, and the recent hype around ‘performance art’ only helps us to distract ourselves from the real questions pertaining to art.

At the same time, an opposite observation is also equally possible. Keeping today’s hostile and volatile political situation in mind, one may argue that artists are becoming increasingly reluctant to do performance art, given the risk of direct bodily exposure inherent in the act. As a result, many contemporary performance artworks are presented in the most exclusive and restricted gallery spaces, staged in front of a highly selective and chosen art world audience, betraying the very historical meaning and actual potentials of performance art.

The real challenge in front of me is to grapple with this paradox of performance art and push it further for making creative results. In doing so, my attempt is turning the exclusive spaces of art inside out, through self-critique and creative acts of subversion.

It seems impossible for a poet to shed the baggage of language. But you have managed to do that...

Just like the way I see myself as a performer, I also see myself as a poet, as someone who tries to poetically express the predicaments and pleasures of life.

My mother is a poet and I dreamt to be a poet since my early age… I started writing in Bengali but slowly moved away from the idea of one singular language, rather choose a path of “un-languaging”(un-mything) my practice; Language imposes a strange and alien logic that tells us not to smell poetry, hear shadows or taste lights. Escaping this rigid framework, this project sought to not only locate communication outside the narrow alleys of comprehension but also tried to envisage dialogue in a way that cannot be read, heard or understood. I like to write and speak in a language not to be documented in a way that could be codified. I started writing in computer glitches instead, in voids … I often break up words, challenge the aspiration and ambiguity within the vernacular language or a complete non-language…

So this is how I continue my writing. Poetry is a medium where you have a license – where you have my freedom – so I will always tell myself I am a poet. But what I call ‘lingual anarchy’ is not about the rejection of language, but a poetic attempt to communicate what language is all about, free from every function, expectation, prejudice and, most importantly, hierarchy.

However, my interest in the non-hierarchical or anarchic use of language, which is often seen as the source of poetic creativity, is slightly complex because of a parallel interest I have in something radically opposite yet complementary. What I have in mind here is the phrase ‘poetic license’. An artist may take poetic license to be anarchic, to disrupt the order. But the very presence of the word ‘license’ introduces a regime of legality, without which artistic anarchy cannot articulate itself. It is, for this reason, my ongoing performative act to extend my primary art practice is on creating legal, semi-legal artist- contracts , agreements and certifications, and presenting my artworks as mere by-products of those legal and semi-legal agreements.

Your art provokes and teases the audience. What pushes you to bring out the in-betweenness of everything in this world?

My practice emerges from those in-between spaces of human experience, which most of us overlook because of our conditioned preference for binary oppositions and easy categorisations. For example, my artworks, giving voice to all those moments that exist but are not realised or lived that amuses, entertains, yet subverts larger structures, when necessary, dedicated to the idea of radical hospitality are not about the simple equations or differentiations between the self and the other. Rather, it tries to delve into those dark recesses where every possible relationship between the self and the other is suspended, which can only be addressed through an absolute and unconditional openness towards whatever there is to come. Such a radical refashioning of ourselves is important because only thus one can look for new and unforeseen possibilities beyond the readymade binaries that shape social reality.

Tell us about “Conundrums”, the video art that you are showcasing at the India Art Fair.

It is an allegory of allegory. Depicting the sorrowful death of an embryonic bird, Conundrums allegories the tragic myth of Icarus, the young boy who died in his attempt to fly by gluing feathers to his arms. In the video, an additional layer meaning is provided by the army of ants gathered around the dead bird, desperately attempting to lift its body. In the process, the ants make the unformed wings of the bird move in a mock flap. As the image merges the beauty of nature’s life with the horror of its decay, Conundrums allegories the futility of dreams and inevitability of death. With these mythical allusions, the bird becomes a martyr of his dreams, at the hands of fate and misfortune.

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