‘Mithu Sen : Border Unseen’ at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, Michigan from April 25 to August 31, 2014 – is Sen’s first museum solo. On tour since the opening reception, doing nine talks in six universities across the United States, Sen speaks to Srinjoy Gangopadhyay about the exhibition in this two part interview for Artehelka.
An eminent feminist voice in India, Mithu Sen subverts common approaches to gender and sexuality through her multidimensional exploration of ‘Body’ as the location of experience. Born in 1971 in West Bengal, Sen gained recognition in the past decade for her drawings, sculptures and installations. Her ironic and witty representations of human body, animals, and inanimate objects are sensual and beautifully grotesque. A poet in her mother tongue Bengali, Sen explores the boundaries and possibilities of language in writing and performances. Through her multidisciplinary practice, Sen has constantly extended the limits of conventional artistic language.
Commissioned by the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at MSU – ‘Mithu Sen: Border Unseen’ is curated by Karin Zitzewitz.
A dialogic space:
SG: ‘Border Unseen’ at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum is your first solo museum exhibition in the U.S. ; what are the issues behind the inception of this project ?
MS: Three years back when the curator came up with this invite, the first thing that struck me was Zaha Hadid and the Museum building. The main thing was the architecture. I started thinking about the political background of the whole thing, like how Zaha Hadid with her middle-eastern background… … she was originally from Iraq, making some kind of a prism-like piece, a truly monumental piece in a flat land like Michigan.
SG: In a sense, the piece is a response to that architectural space?
MS: Responding to Zaha’s and on that landscape. The cultural, political, emotional all because I know that museum has made lot of positive and negative responses among locals.
SG: What kind of negative responses?
MS: Some people think like you know maybe it’s offensive, because it is like too proud, too loud, so it’s like too… …So I make my own kind of narrative and for me it is almost like Zaha’s statement on that flat land, American land. It’s like all kind of overpowering the landscape. So, immediately I thought of making something that created a dialogue between me and Zaha. Since her piece was very concrete and geometric, I wanted to do something very fluid and organic and with some kind of a body material. I chose the teeth thing and I wanted to make a long long kind of massive monumental piece that is like a drawing.
The language of drawing:
SG: The idea of ‘Drawing’ has been central to your practice, what is your attitude towards this mode of expression ?
MS: In a way I consider all my works as drawing, even the performances, or the sound pieces, it is like an extension of the drawing. So I see it visually and conceptually and emotionally. So, it is like that singular line that continues, that extends … …like a flow. Drawing is like… … I think it’s like a pulling out, something you kind of extend.
SG: This attitude resonates in your practice even when you are working in various, disparate mediums.
MS: I work across the medium. I don’t want to be type casted as like, Mithu Sen is a drawing artist, Mithu Sen is the sculptor or something. So I try to break that idea. I write poetry you know. Poetry is like completely different. That is like my way of negotiating language… because I am not comfortable with language.
SG: ‘Language’ is a major theme in your works. In 2013 you did the interactive performance titled ‘I am a poet’ at Tate Modern, London, which pushed the limits of Linguistic eloquence. How did your interest in ‘Language’ develop?
MS: Very early, when I was a student, I used to publish my poetry and a couple of books you know. I grew up in small towns in North Bengal. My parents sent us to Bengali medium school, because they were very nationalistic and we were also a middle class family. They had whole sentimentality about language. My mother is a poet, so you know. My parents sent me to Santiniketan. But then I moved to Delhi, then slowly that kind of lingual void appeared in my… …so I could not cope up with. …maybe I am just dyslexic (smile). In Delhi I could not cope up with Hindi or that sophisticated language… …So that Hierarchy, the hegemony of the language is still in… … it’s a colonial hangover.
Meditative process provoking the corporeal:
SG: Referencing the body through the application of material has been a recurring motif in your explorations. How do you see the role of the material in this site-specific piece at the Broad Museum?
MS: You Know it is Dental Polymer. Initially I used to make like small objects. Then in 2006 I started making them in a little longer scale, but most of the time it was in the wall. So it is like revisiting that medium. But the material was not that important as it was like you know making some dialogue. I think in a way I complicated and also complimented the space.
SG: In a sense, the beautifully grotesque materiality created a tension within that immersive space.
MS: Yes… …and it’s like you know in a very abstract way. So huge, flattened kind of jaw, it reminds you about the body. I also painted the whole gallery pink, you almost see like you are entering the mouth or something.
SG: The monumental scale of this piece and the suspended installation in the museum space indicate a demanding process.
MS: Technically it was a challenge. It came in 44 pieces, in 4 huge crates & they were shipped from my studio in Delhi to here. It takes like months & months to build because the material I use, that chemical, it is dental polymer so it has its own kind of character it fixes very quickly like within 1 or 2 minutes time, at a time I can only do like 3-4 spoons of material. So, it is like really quite challenging material to work with, like layer by layer, so each inch is different. The process, I see it as a meditation. Tooth by tooth, like thousands of teeth you know & not only tooth also tiny objects. I started from the ceiling and ending on the floor. So in a way you will see the whole – my audience is allowed to see the space physically.
(.. To be continued next week…)