As you step into Mothertongue, everything whirs and whizzes. It’s all light and shadow. Lightboxes and video projections are scattered around the room in an “illuminated mind map”. Words and phrases are scrawled across the walls in a staccato pattern: "un-language”, “un-diasporic”, “un-home”.
At first, it’s almost overwhelming – the sounds coming from each wall beckon your attention. The scale of the works ranges from microscopic to huge. When you walk in, turn to the right and you’ll see Sen’s face projected across the wall in a video performance work titled How To Be a Suckcessful Artist. But turn to the left, and you’ll see a tiny illuminated window. Peer through to glimpse a rotating cabinet of curiosities flipped upside down. Mithu Sen’s work is subversive and disruptive. This is what curator and Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) artistic director Max Delany hoped to capture in this major exhibition of Sen’s work.
“Mithu’s work encompasses a breathtaking array of forms, from poetry and language, drawing and sculpture, to video and performance. The curatorial question was how to bring the complexity of her practice together,” says Delany.
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This collection of new and existing work traverses the past two decades of Sen’s career. The exhibition represents her rejection of imposed identities and institutional power structures relating to race, gender and ethnicity. It is the latest instalment in ACCA’s annual International Series, which platforms international artists through solo exhibitions.
“It’s been a really rewarding process of dialogue with Mithu over the past few years, [she] is an compelling artist and thinker, and a charismatic performer and provocative trickster, who grapples with the cultural politics of the art and the academic worlds,” says Delany.
In a recorded performance titled Alexa, Sen paces in front of her series of lightbox artworks with an Alexa AI in the centre of the room. She demands of Alexa: “What is a friend? Alexa, are you a friend? Alexa, do you not understand my English?”
Many of the works grapple with gender. In one of the rooms, a sculpture of a metre-long row of gums and teeth is suspended from the ceiling. The artist has said she was once wary of using the colour pink. But here, it appears in all its shades, from watercolour rose to stark, bleeding berry. Sen’s work is visceral and fearless.
“The title [of the exhibition] relates to that almost primordial relationship between language and the body that we all share. Language and the body are important themes in her work. The idea of ‘mother tongue’ also alludes to matrilineal inheritance, and points to Mithu’s engagement with feminist art and aesthetics,” says Delany.
“The exhibition brings together works which deal with language, and what Mithu refers to as ‘unlanguage’, or the undoing of language. She grapples with the inherited baggage of colonial discourse, unsettling linguistic hierarchies through non-language, an invented language of nonsense, gibberish and glossolalia,” he adds.
The five rooms that comprise the exhibit are winding and non-linear, slowly revealed in layers as you follow the sounds, words, lines and images throughout the space. If you turn the corner after looking through the tiny window that depicts the upturned carousel of knick-knacks, you’ll find the room where the full-size carousel itself lies. All sorts of objects are lined up on display – old rolls of film, a boomerang, an assortment of pearlescent buttons and a row of pencils sharpened down to stubs.
In summary, Delany says the exhibition is designed to invite the viewer in, before introducing them to a wide range of questions and ideas. “[Sen] hits you with poignant and sometimes uncomfortable questions related to identity, and to social, political, and cultural politics, through her deeply personal visual language.”
Mothertongue runs from April 22 to June 18 at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art.
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