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A maverick challenges the status quo
Sahar Zaman  23rd Jul 2014

Mithu Sen’s Border Unseen consists of an 80-foot-long stretch of false teeth and dental polymer suspended in space across the gallery

ithu Sen can't find a moment to catch her breath. She's just back from Düsseldorf, where she was a creative consultant for German choreographer Ben J. Riepe's latest production, The Last Craze. It features actors sporting masks with their own hair pulled over their faces, interwoven pearls and rolled-up clothes. The striking poster of the play reminded me of the time I had gone to shoot at her studio but found her keener to dress me up instead. I was soon adorned with false teeth, a banana, leopard-printed velvet and lace, and dubbed "Kaala Babu"!

The Last Craze is Sen's second tryst with theatre production. Her first was in 2012, another collaboration with Riepe that dealt with anxiety and the cultural codes of representing sexuality on stage.

Talking about sexual taboos is a major part of Sen's body of work. In 2006, she brought the subject out into the gallery space through her show "Drawing Room". Her style is a mix of strong erotic imagery but sometimes merely suggestive, for fear of seeming pornographic.

Making art works is often a monologue with the self, but Sen has managed to keep alive her desire to establish her art as a dialogue with the viewers. Bubbling with excitement, she recalls an incident from last month, when a complete stranger in Germany got one of her paintings tattooed on her back. Running from nape to lower waist, it rested on the left side of her ardent fan's back, which she flaunted with great pride, hoping Sen wouldn't charge her any royalty. This particular work, Art in Flesh and Blood, starts with a branch of delicate leaves and flowers, transforms into the skeleton of a limb and claw, and ends with two roses in full bloom.

There's nothing pretty, however, about Sen's art. It's dark and sinister but the excessive use of pink can be misleading. It's a ploy that pulls you in, but a deeper look can be unsettling. She addresses issues of sexuality with the undercurrents of violence using gentle water colours of female reproductive organs and male genitalia, twisted spinal cords, fish bones and claws; mixing the medium with the use of soft fluffy velvets, lace, feathers and flowers to soften the grotesque effect of the overall imagery. She even subjects images of her own happy, delightful face to such ruthless superimpositions.

Her forté lies in expressing unspoken thoughts that are not often addressed in life. She made a fresh attempt at this through her poetry, which she read out as part of a special project at London's Tate Modern. Ironically, her poetry was an attempt to break out of the barriers created by language, which she sees as the essential impediment to being transparent about your emotions.

"I came to Delhi a decade ago from Bengal, where I used to write poetry in my mother tongue. The domination of the English language in this city's cosmopolitan culture intimidated me. My poems became minimal in character and I started exploring a void instead of shaping thoughts into words."

Her poetry collection I am a Poet is primarily a collection of poems conceived in Bengali but accidentally mistranslated by the English keyboard using Bengali font into computer-generated asemic text. "I am a Poet is an effort on my part to challenge those lingual power structures that repress spontaneous emotions."

Sen likes to challenge established notions and structures. At the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at the Michigan State University, however, her challenge to structure was quite literal. The world's best known name in architecture, known for her neo-futuristic forms, Zaha Hadid, had designed the museum building, which became the main subject for Mithu's first museum solo there. Her work, titled Border Unseen, consists of an 80-foot-long stretch of false teeth and dental polymer, forming an irregular line, suspended in space, across the gallery, in dialogue with the prismatic design of the building. In a rare move, visitors are invited to walk beneath and step over the work, getting a bit closer to it than museum etiquette usually allows. The installation rises up gradually from the floor, jutting into empty gallery space. Apart from the fake teeth, Sen adds pointy shark teeth, tiny cartoon skulls, and miniature train set figurines to the pink polymer.

Sen explains why the use of false teeth has been a constant in her works. "Teeth accrue more complex sets of meanings in the practices of sex, tracing a line between desire and fear, satisfaction and pain. It is an intersection of sensuality and violence. But when you have a toothache, it goes straight to your brain."

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