I have only one language; it is not mine
January 12 – February 16, 2019
Opening reception: Tuesday, January 15, 6-8:30pm
Artist talk: Saturday, November 17, 4pm
“Mithu Sen plays. She messes. She creates.
Her practice revolves around creating situations of impossible possibility.
She lets strangeness and strangers in, radically, hospitably.
In doing this, she questions the boundaries of hospitality; identifies them, embodies
them, inhabits them – and then
refutes and ignores them. Breaking them apart from within.”
— excerpt from Mithu Sen’s (un)biography
Thomas Erben is pleased to present multi-media artist Mithu Sen’s video installation I have only one language; it is not mine (2014, 29 min). This is a project in collaboration with Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai.
I have only one language; it is not mine will convert a portion of the gallery into a lushly
immersive, potent installation incorporating video, red-colored carpeting, tropical plants,
drawings, and mixed-media sculptural objects previously used in performances by the artist.
Installed in the path of the video projection and animated by a fan, these elements cast lively
shadows, adding to the video’s vibrant visual language.
Commissioned for the 2014 Kochi-Muziris Biennale, the installation wades into what Sen has
called “a fantasy film on a reality set… an experience of intimacy and trust, producing physical
and emotional behavior, making all involved believe in an alternative world.”
A focal point of the exhibition, Sen’s video makes use of a fictional character the artist
developed prior to her visit to a government orphanage for young girls in Kerala, India—many
of them victims of emotional and sexual abuse. Conceiving of a way to freely interact with the
children, Sen developed Mago, a character she has described as “a seemingly homeless
person who speaks her own language.” Mago is playful and anarchic—a sneaky challenge
generating channels of communication beyond language and its associations with trauma,
institutionalization, and hierarchy.
Neither Sen understood the girls’ language, Malayalam, nor did the girls understand Mago’s
non-language, resulting in an experience built purely on human interaction and mutual
empathy. Sen inhabited Mago over three days in an unscripted performance that in many
ways shared the role of guest, host, child, and adult with the girls, putting into practice the
artist’s commitment to “radical hospitality”, “lingual anarchy”, and “guest-host-hospitalitytolerance” practice.
Seeking to establish a situation of trust, the performance was documented by Sen herself,
wearing a set of recording devices around her neck. The visual language of the video is thus
shaky and sometimes out of focus, a quality that is emphasized in passages of the videos
when the girls assumed authorship, playfully taking the camera and turning it back on Mago.
I have only one language; it is not mine carefully balances on the border of intimacy and
distance, inside and outside, one’s self and not one’s self. This sense of invitation, extension,
and changeability is echoed in the video’s presentation, which is enriched by a red line drawn
by the artist around the gallery, outside the projection area. Further still, the video is digitally
manipulated with a red-hued, high-contrast effect, resulting in an imagery that resembles
animated drawings. This effect ensures the girls’ anonymity while also invoking the very
elements of Sen’s main medium: LIFE.
Seeking a dialogue outside the narrow alleys of comprehension, Sen/Mago and the children
transform a reality of trauma and neglect into a space of possibility and hope.
New Delhi-based Mithu Sen (born 1971, West Bengal) received her BFA and MFA from Visva
Bharati University (Santiniketan, India) in 1997, before continuing her studies at the Glasgow
School of Art from 2000-2001.
Widely exhibited in India and internationally, Sen had a solo show at the Eli and Edythe Broad
Art Museum, East Lansing, MI (2014) and has participated and performed in numerous group
shows, including at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg; Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi (both
2018); Guggenheim Museum & Asia Society Museum, New York (2016); S.M.A.K., Ghent;
Albertina Museum, Vienna; Palais de Tokyo, Paris; Gaungdong Museum of Art, Guangzhou (all
2015); Tate Modern, London (2013); Zacheta National Gallery, Warsaw (2011); Rose Art
Museum, Waltham, MA; and Kunstmuseum Bern (both 2007).
International biennials include The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Queensland
Art Gallery; FotoFest, Houston (both 2018); Dak’Art, Dakar, Senegal (2016); Kochi-Muziris
Biennale; and Dhaka Art Summit, Bangladesh (both 2014). Since 2006, numerous solo shows
took place at Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai (including a 2016 Art Basel Art Unlimited
presentation); Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Brussels and Paris; Nature Morte, Berlin and New
Delhi; and Galerie Krinzinger, Vienna.
In 2015, Sen received the Prudential Eye Award for Contemporary Asian Art in drawing and, in
2010, India’s inaugural Skoda Prize for Best Contemporary Art.