An act of persistence
On May 10, at the precise moment when a panel was discussing feminist art, the audio of a collage of voices of male art critics extracted from videos on youtube mixed with sounds of clapping started to play.
And at the moment when the clapping reverberated in the room in Venice during the 58th biennale, artist Mithu Sen entered a room dressed in a red sari with frills, loose hair and on her forehead, a big bindi. The image of an exotic goddess, the favourite of the white world, a reigning fantasy of men.
An unworldly women talking in unlanguage. Of course it was disruption. And Sen, above all, is a disruptive force in art."I think there is only one language. A fluid one like in fourth or fifth dimension. That is called monologue. I speak, I hear, I 'un'/ derstand," she says.
You could say it is aphasia-resembling non-language but the artist says she has no language. "It scares me," Sen, an artist and a poet at heart who is dismantling language itself in her performances.
As she increasingly turns towards performance art as her medium of expression, she is looking at issues of marginalised identities. It is all in the complex domain of theories like neoliberalism, counter capitalism, etc.
Sen was born in West Bengal and obtained her Bachelor's and Master's degrees in painting from Kala Bhavan at Santiniketan, and later, completed a postgraduate programme at the Glasgow School of Art in the United Kingdom.
Her tryst with performance art started long ago with Ephimeral Affair in 2006, which is a performative video loop "depicting pain from an undisclosed source."
"For the video, my face was in focus, the expressions contorting, leaving much to the viewer's imagination ( pain or pleasure?). Off camera, I was getting a tattoo on my hand.
A scar that I desired. It was painful. My face was conveying the feelings, where I was resisting a voice. It could be seen and understood in multiple ways - just like an ephemeral affair," she writes.
Over dinner one night, she says she is increasingly drawn towards performance art, which she feels is about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, and about constant becoming.
"It invites us to destabilise the institution, providing a space of possible civil and political negoti ation, through concepts, ideals, and intimacies. I use this potential as a challenge to myself and particular institutional, codified forces," she says.
As she liberates language from its transactional and descriptive functions and gives it a third possibility, which is expressive by its virtue of structure and its staged utterance, she is also deconstructing and destabilising almost everything. Words, diction, grammar, notions, assumptions, etc.
"Unlanguage is part of a practice I call lingual anarchy, which aims to expose and unsettle how language (often the colonial remnant of English) functions as a hierarchical institution," she says.
For Sen, who has worked with the intersections of sexuality and gender, body is "an undeniable physical existing part of our consciousness."
"The body transforms into a ongoing site of becoming the realisation of that constant 'becoming' is a very feminist discourse.The performance involves a direct transmission of energy between the doer and the viewer, and the body is a site of perception," she says.
In her practice, the cognitive and sensory projections in the form of life and human experiences are the actual material that produces her art.
"My performances, in all their typical and untypical forms, are primarily about unsettling the rigidity of any constructed theory. Performance art is a call to push fixed ideas into a state of 'happening' and not to let it stop," she says.
She says she has always seen her art as 'performance'. "It is my life which is the medium of expression as well as the object of investigation, and for this the reason, I have always been a 'performer'," Sen says. SHE calls her audience her co-performers.
"Social media and audience documentation go on to define the way my work will live on in the archive and in image," she says. Sen is also questioning whether her body of work, spanning more than 20 years, can be reclaimed, repositioned, and reconsidered as performance.
When she walked around in that red sari, she almost also became the goddess of destruction in a primordial world where she has collapsed the tropes of language itself to take on patriarchy. That's Sen, a trickster behindthe-scenes who inhabits her unworld and unsettles the world at large.