Erica X Eisen

This Constant Becoming: An Interview With Mithu Sen


ISSUE 98 | TEETH | JUL 2021

Each issue, we highlight an artist whose work is thematically resonant with the written pieces. For TEETH, we spoke with Mithu Sen, a multidisciplinary artist for whom attempting to distill her work into a short biographical description would be out of keeping with her desire to evade the strictures of the art world. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Mithu Sen: I’m always a little hesitant about speaking. That’s my practice: the politics of language and being unable to speak. It makes me very nervous, and therefore I came up with this “unlanguage.” If you want me to speak it, I can give you hours and hours of interview. I feel very empowered, maybe because you cannot understand.

Hypocrite Reader: Interesting, so speaking in your “unlanguage” there’s no nervousness, but speaking in an intelligible language, you get nerves?

MS: Yeah, because I’ve experienced constant judgment, and I’m tired of it, I just give up.

HR: Where do you think the judgment comes from?

MS: Well, originally it comes from my cultural upbringing—India is a postcolonial country, and English is the dominant language of power. My mother is a poet in Bengali, and I myself started writing [in Bengali] very early. And then I moved to Delhi after my master’s, and that is when I started feeling the politics of language and the constant humiliation. I studied fine arts, and to be in the art world you always need certain gate passes, and language was one of them. You need to be very sophisticated and polished in English, and that’s why I started feeling isolated and frustrated, so I stopped writing for 10 years after moving to Delhi.

After that I was into computers, and I started writing again because of my sister, who said, “You can just download software for Bengali and try,” so I did. And when I write it’s like a flow; I hardly edit. So I wrote like that, and when I looked at my screen, I couldn’t believe it: some technical error had happened, so I couldn’t read the poem. It was all glitches. But this time I just thought, “No, I will not deprive myself of being a poet,” so I continued writing those glitches.

After I completed one book in this way I called my publisher. He called me back that evening and said, “Sorry, it’s a corrupted file.” It took another couple of months to convince him that this was poetry. He said, “Nobody can read it, not even you, so what do you want?” But poetry is not just a readable language or script; it can also be visual. A curator at the Tate Modern was visiting my studio while working on a show called Word. Sound. Power., and she saw [the glitch poetry] and quite liked it. I made a little book for the exhibition at the Tate. There was a recorder [in the gallery], and the price of the book was [the viewer’s] voice.

At the same time, I thought, “If I am going to ask people to read it, then why don’t I ask myself to read it?” So one day in the studio I started kind of creating sounds, screaming, super conscious not to pronounce anything that sounded like something I already knew. So I started performing my nonlanguage.

I fell into some kind of criticism: people started saying, “She’s working in another world, just like a trance.” It looks like I'm hypnotized, I’m drugged. It goes with my “exotic” body—you know, I try to perform and act to pull this world that judges me into its own fantasy and trap it.

HR: By the way, it took me several minutes to realize that what’s behind you is a QR code. At first I thought it was just an abstract design. Can I ask what it is?

MS: This is one of the works I developed during the pandemic. I keep changing the images or the tapes or whatever [the code links to]. A part of my practice is about self-censorship as performance, so this is how I also play censorship: I pass that responsibility to the viewer or to the curious artworld who wants to scan it. If there is any kind of response, I can immediately change it, and nobody can do anything.

HR: I live in Kyrgyzstan, and before the pandemic there was a feminist art show that became very controversial because there were sexual themes and nudity that more conservative viewers thought were inappropriate. The head of the museum ended up getting so many threats of violence that she ended up resigning. These conservative elements demanded that the offending pieces be removed, so what the organizers did was replace them with a piece of paper with a QR code, so if you just had a phone you could still view them—and I thought it was so interesting that through the digital these artists were able to escape censorship.

MS: I’ve been censored because of my highly sexual visuals, and the way my country is changing is really very disturbing. Maybe 2005, 2006, 2007 when I was making these drawings I was appreciated, a young woman working on male sexuality, but now curators and galleries always ask me to be sensitive and not to harm others’ sentiments. I was so frustrated the last couple of years that I took some works in my studio and I blackened them.

HR: How do you think the Modi government has changed the artworld in India?

MS: Ruin. There is no space for criticism. Recently I heard that an artist was invited to a show in the National Gallery of Modern Art, but they wrote that no political or “sensitive” issues should be shown. So what artist will do it?

Even galleries that used to believe in me strongly are nervous now. Slowly they’ve started asking me, “Don’t do this, it will be unfair, it will be in a public place, not that series of work.” And I see new artists they're programming—I’m not saying bad things, but it’s not a subject of criticism anymore, it’s patterns, it’s abstract. It also depicts big issues, but it doesn’t have the social critique.

I know if I do a similar kind of very political, graphic, or sexual things, I’ll not even get an opportunity to show them. I sometimes feel like maybe the next time I travel I will not be given the visa. Still, they don’t take artists’ position very seriously. It’s still in their mind that you’re not as intelligent as a doctor or an engineer. So in a way it’s good because you can take advantage of being an artist.

HR: In our last issue one of the articles was illustrated with a modern painting of Kali, and when we posted it on Facebook we got comments from people saying this image is offensive because she was nude—which if you understand the history of paintings of Hindu deities is common. And then I would look at the profiles of these people, and they were all BJP hardcore Modi supporters. So they were claiming to be the guardians of tradition, but they didn’t even understand the tradition.

MS: They don’t see the tantric art, they don’t see the Shiva lingam—this is the energy, this is the power, and it’s about human life. It’s the life, the energy that you experienced and you give the highest regards to. And now suddenly they see a nude as objectionable and sexual and disrespectful—this is illiteracy. But I'll do what I want. I don’t care.

HR: What kinds of things are you doing in your latest work?

MS: The first five months of the pandemic I couldn’t do anything because there was a lockdown and I couldn't go to the studio and was very affected by my family situation. And then I was almost “artwork attacked”: everyone wanted to know how I was doing as an artist, what I thought. I completely refused to talk to anyone and give my responses—I thought it was very insensitive. I didn’t know the purpose of making any more art pieces, but I also realized that I want to. I don’t want to die, I want to live. I am an artist, and I create, and therefore I survive.

I did a performance with Alexa where I asked her a lot of things, and she failed more than half of my questions—

[ALEXA BABBLES IN THE BACKGROUND]

—she failed to say when I asked her who Alan Kurdi was, the Syrian boy who drowned in the sea while crossing the Mediterranean—

[ALEXA BABBLES]

Alexa, stop!

She couldn’t understand my language; when I cried, she suddenly started playing music. They tell us [AI will] give you more, but we end up with such bizarreness.

I did a virtual residency with Berkeley, a 72-hour live performance. Inviting someone [to perform for that long] is inhuman, even though it is understood you can go and sleep… Something happened in my body: around 67 hours I collapsed. Any popular Indian artist who really does a lot of shows keeps a lot of assistants, but from the beginning I’ve tried to prevent that, no one even to help. I want to consider my whole life a performance. With my age, with my fatigue, with my illness, with every one of my movements.

I see artists who are more and more getting demanded by the market to do a particular kind of work. In 2005-7 there was a contemporary Indian art boom where I was taken by many galleries, and within six months’ time I saw how particular types of my artworks jumped in price. I got very disturbed emotionally about this, but I was told you should accept that. But I don't want to create [the same thing] again and again to create a singular identity as an artist.

I’m highly influenced by Fernando Pessoa. This constant becoming, this constant evolution, never stopping in one place. I’ve edited my Wikipedia page so many times: I change my biographical data, I change my date of birth, I put wrong information. It says I participated in documenta. A particular size and style of my drawings is always signed within a 20-year timeline from ’97 to 2017, so even if I make it today I'll sign it 2006, or 2012, or 2015. I’ve done a couple of big projects completely anonymously. So there are different ways I try to subvert or sabotage the system. I want to deconstruct and confuse the provenance of the artist. I really like the name of your magazine because this is how I feel: how one can be a trickster. A lot of people tell me, “You’re in the market but then you’re criticizing capitalism.” And they don’t understand how I am taking advantage of my skill but I’m not giving the market or feeding the market the way they want. Nobody can seduce me with that kind of offer. I have to constantly play different roles, I have to be alive with the whole mindset and play.

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