In the cavernous gallery spaces of the Australian Centre of Contemporary Art (ACCA), Artistic Director and exhibition curator Max Delany provocatively and productively failed to provide an overview of Mithu Sen’s practice over the past two to three decades. Mithu Sen: mOTHERTONGUE questioned the unbelongings of language and bodies. Incomplete and unravelling mind maps drawn with red tape and LED rods intervened in the space and its objects. Accompanied by unobtrusive but persistently recognisable wall captions, the physical, digital, and LED light objects were nominally recognised as isolated works of art.
This show commented on territorialisation in physical and virtual terms, from the uninvited inhabitation of unceded Aboriginal lands by uninvited settlers of Australia to the imposition of Anglo-linguistic hegemony in India and beyond. It belongs to histories of feminist art practice, institutional critique, and performance art practices from and through a post-pandemic present. At frequent points, ACCA’s wall captions were further accompanied by A4-sized certificates or Contracts (2018-2023) that disavowed the artwork in question.
Legibility, communicability, standardisation, and the art market are key undercurrents throughout the show. The site-specific LED rods, given names such as Sky-cutter (2023) and The remains of a friend (2023), connected yet defamiliarized Sen’s existing work. By using material typically used in the commercial gallery as an emphatic part of her visual proposals, Sen simultaneously gestures to her mastery of the structures supporting the modern and contemporary art scene and injects, in time, her work into the now. This sense of the absolute now is hard to shake out of, indicative of Sen and Delany’s success in persistently reframing and recontextualising the work as if they were made exclusively for mOTHERTONGUE.
Mithu Sen, I have only one language, it is not mine, 2014, installation view, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, 2023. Courtesy of the artist. Image Courtesy: Andrew Curtis.
A historical punctum remained in BYEBYEPRODUCTS!! BUYBUYPRODUCTS!! (2020). Made of 67 AI-informed ink and watercolour drawings, the casual visitor may understandably identify the work with 2023 developments around ChatGPT and DALL-E. A closer look at the framed statement on the right side of the wall installation knocks us back in time. Referencing what will soon be known as the COVID-19 pandemic, Sen declared “Welcome to my #BOGO sale at India Art Fair 2020.” This was not a simple statement dating the work to the fair, which was held between 30 January and 2 February 2020. It was further dated “26.10.2020,” after the fair was held. Sen’s corruption of dates would have been evident to 2020 India Art Fair visitors inspecting a work dated to their future.
In the 2023 present of mOTHERTONGUE, this installation serves as an elusive historical example of Sen’s conscious use of reframing and recontextualization. The slippage between 2020 and 2023 is revealed through reference to the fair but also concretised with the October dating of Sen’s statement. The dates of each caption, the curatorial suggests to the visitor, are less relevant than the persistent and singular present of ACCA. Persistent reframing and recontextualization is a mainstay of Sen’s practice and are visible in discrete artworks within the show. Having been curated with the same artistic strategies in mind, mOTHERTONGUE is both a solo exhibition and a single work of art, dated 2023.
Sen observes the arbitrary and ambivalent values placed on physical objects by persistently changing the contexts and entry points to her artwork. In MOU (Museum of Unbelongings) (2023), a diverse and large assortment of knickknacks has been arranged behind glass in an oversized turntable or carousel that moves on its own, turning in front of the static viewer’s eyes. Made for mOTHERTONGUE and the only work given an exclusive gallery space, MOU’s bricolage is paraded in choreographed repetition. The stringed instrument always stood behind the line of tiny glassware, which is followed by a small brown and yellow figurine standing on a glass pedestal. Hold on, when they returned in revolution it seemed instead to be a scene about a duck-beaked humanoid having a night out with some music. MOU drew the viewer through the logic of the museum: a space understood to preserve objects old, rare, or prized in some way. Implicit in museological value is public or societal value. In this mini museum of objects, the visitor places their trust in Sen’s discernment and concedes their personal positions as those of lesser wisdom. As the carousel moves, the visitor watches quietly.
Mithu Sen, mOTHERTONGUE, installation view, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, 2023. Left to right: BYEBYEPRODUCTS!! BUYBUYPRODUCTS!!, 2020; Klazomania, 2023. Image Courtesy: Andrew Curtis.
Yet as objects that were personally valued, there was an evacuation of any sort of original, historical, and thus museological, value. Revelling in the highly ordered and bureaucratically managed contemporary reality, MOU shores up Sen’s thesis for radical hospitality. An archival installation of ephemeral junk, the visitor searches for faint traces of Sen’s memories, ultimately only able to gain small flashes. Each revolution does not so much reveal as it does create an increasing sense of simultaneous familiarity and disconnect. Familiar, as the eye is no longer tricked into believing in the revolving newness. Disconnect, as the search for meaning runs cold in between the objects that fail to come together to form a satisfactory narrative. ACCA describes Sen as “fundamentally…a performer” and it is clear her work revels in the disruption or confident inhabitation of uncomfortable, unintelligible spaces. MOU undoes the museum, undoes the artwork, and unmakes the object. Somewhere along the way, among the bricolage, Sen is offering up an object as a gift (or is she looking for one?).
I opened this essay asserting that mOTHERTONGUE failed to be an overview of Sen’s practice. I can imagine Mithu reading that with relief: to be summarily or concisely boxed up is precisely what her practice has been working against. She works with the box not to stand within or outside of it, but to usher us between the inside and outside. Perhaps her practice does not sit in art nor outside of it. The challenge posed, or the strawman raised and discredited, in this show is thus the question of authority and permissions. Who gets to authorise the creation of art? Was it the assertion of visual style, standardised paperwork by institutional powers, time, strategically placed lights, or something else? Does the artist have a say? Should the artist have a say? Who then? Must there be someone?
Mithu Sen: mOTHERTONGUE, Solo Show of Mithu Sen, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, 22 April–18 June 2023.
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