Unline, 2017. Still image from performance.

Provocation and Insistence: A Conversation with Mithu Sen

Mithu Sen is a provocateur, a risk–taker in deceptively gentle guise. At the heart of her work is a compulsion to peel away received, overt notions of the self and probe beneath them. She typically turns the tables on viewers. Her early drawings of the body were mesmerizingly delicate, yet also incisively discomfiting and sexualized. Sen’s sculptures— whether altered domestic objects or room–size installations—have a similarly sharpened, uncanny physicality. She gives her array of diverse, suggestive materials (dental polymer, false teeth, human hair, leather, bones, and chiseled walls) an undercurrent of confrontation. When invited to speak at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in conjunction with Asia Contemporary Art Week in 2016, Sen did a performance piece that was part parody of an artist’s talk and part ironic interpretation of the organizer’s technical specifications for presenters— delivered in adamant but incomprehensible gibberish with accompanying video.

Sen pokes at the hierarchies of social identity—political, sexual, racial, regional, cultural, and linguistic— looking deeply, and generously, into human nature. In many ways, her work is a form of mediation between external conditions and our subjective interior lives. She invites us to self–examination through her own willingness to do the same. 

Susan Krane: You are known primarily for your drawings, sculptures, and installations—intimately visceral and tactile works, often intensely private in feel. What compelled you to move into the public realm of performance?

Mithu Sen: I think I was always performing. My idea of performance is about my constant idea of living life. Performance is when you enact something. I feel that whatever we are doing in life, we are performing. A microsecond before we do anything, our brain is planning for us to perform that part. Even now as you are posing questions and I am answering, we are preparing ourselves to deliver our words. In that way, everything we do is a form of performance—as a drawer, a sculptor, a singer, a poet; as a cook, a daughter, a driver, a cyclist, I am also playing roles. What is the need to separate everything so dramatically? Can it not be about being absorbed in a way of life?

Museum of Unbelongings, 2016. Plexiglas, steel, and various objects, 20 ft. diameter.

Defining things is a way of making meaning. But how much meaning can we really make out of things? I have more fun thinking about the meaning of the meaninglessness of things. 

I also realized that, since I did not yet have my own Web site, my “artist’s identity” on the Internet had been determined by the voices of others, via gallery Web sites, blog posts, articles, and catalogues that project various identities onto me. I wanted to speak in the first person. While I was building my Web site, I took advantage of being in a foreign land, where people might “know” me only from short homework on the Web, to explore doing something very “unexpected” in their minds. 

SK: It’s one thing to put surreal, often eerie images of the body out there—images that also seem to expose psychological innards, as in your drawings and sculptures. Yet you are toying with another level of vulnerability when you put yourself on a public stage. As you have said, you find yourself absorbing the energy of the people who are present.

MS: It is a practice in which everything happens simultaneously, and I am conscious of what is happening. It is an action together— art and life. When memories and timing are no longer separated, when they are marching with each other, when they are happening at one time and my consciousness is naming it at one point in time, this is art. The documentation is not the art.

SK: Your project for the 18th Street Arts Center residency in Santa Monica was part of “Radical Hospitality,” your loose, ongoing series of participatory performances. You staged UNhome in City IF Angels near the end of your stay. As you approached this iteration, did you intend to develop any particular aspect of the project?

MS: I always keep myself open. I resist planning much. The performance can happen at any time. Even after the event, I am not done with the performance. I am trying to experiment with the perspectives we usually have. If we can change those perspectives, it gives much more excitement to life. When we didn’t have a calendar, how did we think of time passing? With the experience of the flowers blooming, the seasons changing—with the experience of nature, when you don’t get everything defined and calculated. 

SK: Could you talk about your interest in the concept of hospitality, and the components of tolerance, expectation, and obligation? Your “Radical Hospitality” performances have largely occurred in locales where you are the guest, an artist–in–residence in another country or in another region of India. You turn the tables on your role as a guest, alluding to the intrinsic power relationships at play in the act of hospitality. 

MS: In guest/host relationships, there is always a power situation, and the power goes to the host. He or she has the power of inviting guests, greeting guests, deciding what we will do. There is the tension of how to impress each other. The nature of your hospitality is a show of how generous, how beautiful, how welcoming you are. Culture to culture, they are all different— Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Western. There is always a judgment as well. It is a very sensitive state, and if you try to change that equation— the relationship between guest and host—things can change. Much hospitality is a kind of pretension. It is not the true human psyche, not a place where we expose our trueness. It’s not that you let your guest enter your home, but rather that there is a space, just a living room or dining room, where you are hosting them, and it is a decorated space. There is a limit to the relationship. The guest is always a guest—not a stranger, but not family. You cannot make your guest into a host, cannot give him or her the power or control. 

It’s Good to be Queen, 2006. Queen’s durbar hall, installation in living room, site–specific residency project for Bose Pacia, New York.

SK: You make me think of the saying in India that you should treat your guest like a king, like a god in your home. 

MS: In Indian mythology, there are many examples of extreme hospitality. The host may even offer the guest his own wife to sleep with. That extreme hospitality is in our thinking: How much can you offer, to what extent can you give to your guest? Yet in giving, the host also loses—you are actually offering your wife to the guest. Did you get her permission? What role are you playing by taking the power to impress your guest? I travel extensively and am often hosted by institutions and galleries. I always try to dig down into the basics of who is the guest and who is the host, who has the power and who is manipulating.

SK: There is an interesting tension between what is freely offered and openly accepted and the duality of obligation. In this project, you ran up against the limit of tolerance in a way that was unanticipated and dramatic and anything but conceptual. Someone, whom you had met and befriended in Los Angeles, offered to let you use his sublet as the site for your performance; then at the 11th hour, he changed his mind and abruptly asked you to leave—45 minutes before your “guests” were going to arrive. That’s a radical rupture in the notion of hospitality—a harsh, sudden demarcation of personal boundaries.

MS: I was not entirely surprised, but it shook me and continues to do so. I thought it was an interesting power game. The moment he realized that he had hidden or suppressed expectations of the event, he exploded. You can think of it in many respects, but I don’t want to come up with any kind of explanation. I will not think about who is right and who is wrong. Even though I took the event forward at a nearby park, and it was successful, I ask myself who won that power game.

Border Unseen, , 2014. Dental polymer and artificial teeth suspended by aluminum frame and steel cables, dimensions variable.

SK: It’s a litmus test of your notion of tolerance.

MS: I put myself in a situation that is extremely vulnerable, and I make a situation that is vulnerable for my guests. You can’t help but act in a very pure, raw way. You show your purity as a human being. I don’t see his act as inhuman. All characters and qualities are human. What trigger made this person react like this at that moment? In a black and white way, you may believe him to be the villain. But am I not the person who provoked this situation? Am I not the person who also planned for this accidental, dramatic situation to happen, to indulge myself? To what extreme can I challenge my tolerance?

SK: Your role in the situation is layered. You were going to be hosted by him and, in turn, you were to be hosting other people. You were an intermediary between his personal space and public access, even if he was also, in fact, a guest in a rented space. The original host in this chain of hosts is the unknown, absent friend of his who owns the house, a person who is present only metaphorically, through her belongings. Typically we assume hospitality creates a safe space. It is a social framework that facilitates some level of camaraderie. It implies welcome, a precommitment to civility and geniality, and the offer of nurture via offerings of food.

MS: I want to do things that are outside the social framework. That is why I provoke and insist: I seduce. I do all those things in whatever medium I use. Whether related to images of sexuality or my use of unintelligible language, I always try to grab people and pull them outside that box. I want to make a new rationality.

SK: The project launched with social media posts that you created in the weeks before the performance. You refer to the posts as both trailers and invitations. The UNhome Facebook album is also a diary of your residency. It’s very personal, full of ordinary moments and ordinary found objects made mysterious in your short animations, such as your bike rides around Santa Monica with a GoPro.

MS: Media is such a powerful thing. In the ancient days, there was always a mediator, like a priest who is a mediator with a god. There is never direct contact, from one person to another person. What is the need for this middle person? That is where all of our problems start—it complicates everything when there is no oneto– one directness.

SK: How do you think these prequels to your event set expectations for the audience? The Facebook page has elements that are very lyrical, poetic, and emotional in tenor. 

MS: I tried to twist things a bit, with many different poetic and philosophical contexts. It’s social media, so it’s taken for granted that there will be many people who will respond to various parts—the songs, the poetry, the visuals, some abstractness. There is some food for everyone. This is my idea of creating a platform, creating expectations and desire. At the same time, I wanted it to be ambiguous, so the vulnerability would be there and people would be more curious. There is some haziness to the images and things may be pixelated, so you see what you don’t see.

SK: I read it as a kind of experiential collage, using social media, that runs parallel to your drawings, sculptures, and installations in which a multitude of small episodes might float within the field, with varying degrees of specificity, narrative, or metamorphosis. The viewer’s focus meanders curiously and generatively.

UNhome poster, 2017. Digital collage.

MS: It’s a durational thing. I know people are missing things in each trailer. They are missing things but seeing others. They are not capturing everything but seeing other things in between. 

SK: Shortly after you arrived in Los Angeles, you lost your backpack, which contained your passport. Surprisingly, someone found it and returned it to you intact. The woman who found your backpack became a participant in your performance. Did this have any other impact on your project? 

MS: I don’t separate this piece from my day–to–day life. I took the two months of my residency as the durational period of this one project. I am not an intellectual planner, so why should I act like someone who comes up with a project and a hardcore proposal beforehand, then materializes the idea? I thought I’d do it the reverse way and be completely free with the flow of life. All the stories build up from the first day, like with the gardenias in the studio. In two months, I collected 17 gardenias, which I am keeping as a calendar of my time here. The watercolors I’ve done are also my diaries. I used these small watercolors as the props for the little trailer films on Facebook. You see them as if the production were really big. People asked me if I was screening a new film at the event. Did I make a film in Hollywood? The subtle line between serious things and humorous things got lost.

SK: Are the watercolors of palm trees the first images you’ve done in a while without the body?

MS: Interesting question. My Master’s project was on trees, but yes, it’s true. I was thinking about the politics of who belongs where. The palm tree is not native to Los Angeles, so these images are also about immigration, about refugees. 

SK: The intense red areas feel visceral, as if bleeding. This red is also an ongoing characteristic of your sculptures and figurative drawings.

MS: It’s a little clue, making it more humanized.

SK: Is there anything different about how you have been working while in Los Angeles?

MS: I did a 100–meter–long, non–stop drawing in response to my visit to The Broad museum. I also went to the ocean at one a.m., but my iPhone couldn’t capture the image. What it did capture was the sound, so I called it “a night sound drawing.” This gave me the shape of something new. And I kept the gardenias as a note of the days, adding another when the previous one began to wilt. It is a calendar through the sense of smell. Some of the things I tried are a very romantic but new way of discovering the different perspectives of life.

UNhome screenshot, , 2017–10–06 at 11.51.56 p.m.

SK: In your handout sheet for the performance, you gave people a mandate: no talk about blue cheese, art, Trump, or real estate. However, UNhome in City IF Angels is particularly relevant now. You are creating a conversation about hospitality in the context of a country that has newly asserted inhospitality, but you forbid people from talking about it. 

MS: I am making a statement by pointing it out.

SK: The grandeur of the house in which you intended to stage your event has class implications. Did this magnificent house in the Hollywood Hills influence your thinking?

MS: Yes, of course. That was my very first thought when I met the guy and he said he lived in a palatial house in Hollywood. When I came all the way from India to L.A., I said I must not do something in Santa Monica. On my invitation card, it will be written that it is happening in Hollywood. The whole world is mad about Hollywood— about the fantasy, the myth, the market of celebrity. So yes, I was determined to make my event happen in Hollywood. I faked an old Hollywood movie poster for my Facebook “poster.”

SK: Your subtitle is a play on “City of Angels.”

MS: “UNhome” is the first word. The way I construct my sentences, the vernacular use of the language feels incorrect. It’s like when you translate something with Bing—it’s a mess, but you get some interesting ideas. I just said, “City IF Angels,” as in “Only if…” I ended up getting a different kind of home while here, because of the angels who supported this event.

SK: The language play recalls your use of random gibberish in other performances. “IF Angels” ended up being particularly ironic when one of your angels did not exactly play his part. Or maybe he did?

MS: He played the best role, as a catalyst. I have since thought about the limits of this “Radical Hospitality” and where it can go from here. Sharing, interaction, the human connection on different levels—these are the things I love. In the end, the event was magical. It was beyond magical. It was unnerving.

Susan Krane is executive director of Working Assumptions, a California foundation that supports the arts and produces creative projects, and a former museum director and curator. 

Watch this video on Mithu Sen
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Mithu Sen installation: Border Unseen from Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum on Vimeo.
Tongue That Wont Stop Wounding– FINAL from Mithu Sen on Vimeo.
Mis(s)Guide, interactive performance by Mithu Sen from Mithu Sen on Vimeo.