By Sue Bell Yank and Vasundhara Mathur
New Delhi-based artist Mithu Sen was a visiting artist in residence at 18th Street Arts Center from May 1 – June 29, 2017. Her time in Los Angeles began with a lost passport and ended with a mysterious event. The story unfolds from the perspectives of Vasundhara Mathur, a New Delhi-born undergraduate intern on a summer fellowship from Vassar College; and Sue Bell Yank, 18th Street’s Director of Communications and Outreach.
2 weeks till June 23, Vasundhara Mathur (18th Street Arts Center Intern):
Mithu Sen and I have a lot in common. I remember my first time entering her studio at the 18th Street Arts Center, where I was interning for the summer. There were things everywhere: posters, expertly distorted with collaging and water-color, a table magnificently strewn with curiosities including a plastic tree inhabited by headless barbie dolls, rows of neatly arranged magnolias, postcards, an intricately carved toy carousel, and expertly cut out pictures of bicycles. As I looked around in awe, my eyes slipping from one object to the next, Mithu regarded me with intense curiosity and soon after, began showering me with questions. I was caught a little off guard by her forwardness, but shook it off easily, and talked myself into a home-cooked meal. Her house smelt like mine, as our shared hometown New Delhi inhabited it; incense sticks, turmeric and cardamom.
When she invited me to help her with her final presentation, I agreed enthusiastically. We worked for weeks, ideating, writing poems, painting, planning, floating, laughing, crying. I sat on her couch, watching myself slowly become a part of her studio, meeting her friends, talking to them about their outrageous lives. I listened to Mithu pull people’s deepest stories out of them within minutes, and cover years of distance and radio silence within seconds. As we were inviting each other into our lives, we questioned what it takes to extend those invitations to relationships and conversations that go beyond social norms.
Expanding emotional and empathetic vocabularies has been Mithu’s mission for many years. What she calls “Radical Hospitality” is the core of her work. “I want to create situations, where people are face-to-face with strangeness. I want to UNravel, UNdo all the expectations that I face, and make room for new possibilities.” One afternoon in her studio, a friend from grad school reunited with Mithu after ten of years, settling in on the blue couch in her studio, asked: “So, Mithu, when is the final presentation?” Her face lost all expression, her back straightened, and she tilted her head to the right: “What do you want me to present?” An intense silence follows her question, and I escaped the awkwardness by climbing up the tree I was cutting out for her from a poster.
10 days until June 23, Sue Bell Yank (18th Street Arts Center Director of Communications):
I had been in on it from the beginning, though Mithu had been quite secretive about the event itself. She has been experimenting with what she terms “radical hospitality,” for many years, pushing the limits of what it means to be a guest and what it means to be a host. I watched a video where she was invited to the Guggenheim to give a TED-style talk, and was given an 8-page PDF of guidelines on how she should present her work (provide a deep focus on a single work, keep it to 19 minutes, talk about process, etc). Instead, she reacted to the guiding document itself, which she projected behind her, intermixed with her own work, speaking with increasing invective and emotion in a made-up “one-time” language, dancing about the stage with frenetic grace. Sen employed this same “one-time” language (meaning, it has no grammatical structure nor vocabulary, and is as illegible to the speaker as it is to the listener) to erase the role of language in her stay at a girls’ orphanage in India. The range of reactions to her behavior and abrupt appearance were deeply human – mocking, yelling, obscene gestures, genuine attempts to communicate and translate, singing, music, and finally, bonding that went beyond words. What a mysterious presence she must have been to those girls. It is difficult to watch those videos without unpacking the nuances of power in how we relate to one another through language. The children, largely powerless in their society, armed with common language, and the outsider, who has no understandable language, even to herself. Who plays the guest and the host in such a situation?
In my experiences with Mithu, I found myself confronting my own easy attempts to categorize her methods as subversion. They can feel quite off-putting and egregiously naive. Her expectations are unreasonable and her disappointment profound. Sometimes these methods seem to lack empathy. But Mithu is generously and genuinely interested in the restrictions people internalize, and engages in a process not of undermining or critiquing, but of undoing. Whereas subversion is the poking or tearing of social fabric, even for a moment, her radical hospitality tugs at the threads and watches things unravel. The fabric does not always rend, but it does become something new, uncontrolled. Perhaps Mithu herself is still coming to terms with the consequences of what she does.
As we planned (or “unplanned”) the event, Mithu described why she was so secretive. People in Los Angeles, she explained, overplan. Everything is so scheduled – appointments, meet-ups, even free days, and that intricate scheduling is overly dependent on our perceptions of geographical distance, traffic, parking, and the flows of everyone else’s time. People on the east side, for example, have to have a really good reason to come to the west side at 6pm on a weekday. We schedule, re-schedule, and then flake with regularity. She wondered, “What if I create an event where no one knows the location, and no one knows what it is about? I just leave a breadcrumb trail of clues and poetics so that people can connect to the undoing I am attempting in this structure. If just two people come, that will be interesting.”
1 week till June 23, Vasundhara Mathur:
Mithu’s event is very soon, and as we converse, photographs I take of her in moments of laughter, begin to adorn her Instagram feed, and words I say appear in her poems. I have given up long ago on attempting to pin down the event in any way, and instead am focused on the opportunities awarded to us by her openness. One second, we were making the “longest drawing in the world” by sketching a line while unravelling a roll of paper without lifting the pencil off, the other, we were talking about Freud. For the amount of confidence it takes for an artist to pull something like this off, she is fairly nervous. The pressure to produce something, live up to people’s expectations bears over her. The last few days have passed without any food or sleep and I meekly try suggesting naps in the middle of the craziness.
With the same frenzy, we explore themes of what “home” means to us conversing about her past projects, questioning what makes us feel safe, questioning belonging and un-belonging. We talk about how homes can be in people and how homes and people are both transient and can be found in the most unexpected places. Her time in Los Angeles, has been dictated by “Angels” she has run into, who have helped her along the way. She has a vibrancy about her. She asks outrageous questions. There seem to be no walls, or limits. Curiosity is something we share along with the will and inclination to tell each other things, verse with each other, push and pull and collaborate. So we keep writing and worrying about home and un-home.
Mithu wants to keep the location of the event private and in spite of repeated warnings about low attendance, stands firm on her belief in spontaneity. The whole project is about Radical Hospitality, she says, as we walk to a coffee house a few days prior. How much strangeness can we let in? How can we trust? How can we be okay with not knowing someone/something/some idea before we engage with it; how can we treat the unknown with care and consideration? With the same gloved gentleness with which we would regard a piece of art in a sophisticated gallery?
We are going to take all of Mithu’s sketches, the poems we have been writing, her bicycle, and put them around the Los Feliz house of a friend of a friend, a philosophy professor. People are going to walk in, we are going to give them an envelope, instructing them to walk around the house and look for Mithu’s art. I become comfortable as this image settles in my mind. I can imagine all her friends thanking us after the event, shaking her hand, hugging her, congratulating her. I imagine the dim, artistic, mysterious lighting, the cheese and fruit on a table, I can imagine helping to pack up.
Then she calls me to her sofa in the middle of our last writing session. Vasundhara, you are the only one I am telling this to, she whispers: I am taking nothing with me. There will be nothing there. I am silent for a while, watching her talk about how she wants to break the limits of an audience’s hospitality towards her art, and I listen to her as the image that had settled in my mind fade away. Tomorrow is a blank slate. I smile, “Of Course,” I say, “that makes so much sense. Why would they have to look for you when you are right there?”
10 minutes till the time of the event on June 23, Sue Bell Yank:
“Location has changed. It’s in the park,” Haroon, my coworker at the 18th Street Arts Center, texted me. “I’m here in the driveway directing people.” Because it’s Los Angeles, I was, of course, driving. I looked at the clock and pulled over. It was 10 minutes after Mithu Sen’s event was supposed to have started at an enormous mansion in Los Feliz, hosted by a friend of hers, a philosophy professor she had been engaged in deep communication with for weeks. Shrouded in mystery even for those of us who were drawn in as collaborators (co-conspirators?), the event called UNhome in the City IF Angels was part of the visiting artist’s explorations into art, life, and radical hospitality in Los Angeles.
The title turned out to be prescient. I assumed a thumb-tapping pose with my phone, there on the side of Sunset Boulevard at 7:10pm, and rapid-fire sent out email messages and Facebook posts to attendees. My colleague Anu (also driving, also pulled over, also tapping) beat me to it – “We’ve been UNHomed!” she declared. “Meet us in Barnsdall Art Park!”
15 minutes to the time of the event, Vasundhara Mathur:
Oh no, oh no, oh no. What is she doing on the side of the road? My mind went blank as we pulled up to a devastated Mithu. She looked into the car, pointed to me, and said: “I need her.”
I opened the door, stepped out, and gave her a hug.
“We lost the house,” she said, in a muffled voice.
“He doesn’t think my work is art.”
“He doesn’t think this is art.”
“He told me to leave.”
I said nothing for awhile, other than reassure her that she was going to be okay, as I watched her look helpless. Then it hit me.
“Mithu, look at this situation– look at the title of your event. Isn’t this amazing? You have been un-homed! Think about everything you have been trying to say! Look at us right now!”
She looked up at me and smiled. I couldn’t help thinking how perfect this disaster was.
At the park, June 23, Sue Bell Yank:
I was pretty sure this relocation was not planned. But I also knew that most of our audience would probably embrace this abrupt change as part of the project, and indeed, they all came to the park (not without some grumbling). We kind of milled about for a while until the food arrived. Our Artistic Director’s daughter brought a Disney princess ball, and a few of us tossed it around to break the ice. Then our three interns showed up laden with bags full of Trader Joe’s delicacies, and we laid the spread out on a red blanket taken from the back of someone’s car. I lit tea lights and placed them in plastic cups to protect them from the wind. We had no vase for the flowers, so I strew them around the ground. Things started to feel cozy. We settled on the ground, on knees and jackets on the bed of soft pine needles. Mithu’s old friend played the cello (an old, terrible, borrowed instrument that she fought the whole way through her original composition, her talent nonetheless apparent) and then Mithu talked, almost unbroken, for an hour.
At the park, June 23, Vasundhara Mathur:
Everyone formed a circle around her, hesitating even to sit down at the picnic that we had set out. Their eyes poking and prodding her. She finally cleared her throat and began talking about her story– her story that aimed at focusing on the locus of her art: the people who came into her life, her effervescent experiences in transit, and her refusal to be consumed, to be judged. One by one, she broke down the walls between her and her audience, yanking/thanking them into the spotlight with her, asking them to speak, asking them to be vulnerable, to express an experience rather than a judgement. Slowly, bodies that were rigid, calmed and melted into more relaxed stances, and people began laughing at points of humour in her journey, contributing to the conversation themselves, realizing that the invitation was open.
Why do we need the specifics- the time/date/place/description to trust that
something meaningful will happen? Home is in strangeness, in shadows, mystery.
Home is in trusting the un-defined, the invisible, the unrestricted. Home is in the
In the days following, Sue Bell Yank:
With this event, Mithu started something that perhaps even she could ultimately not control, another paradox of her work in radical hospitality. The event ultimately became an exercise in coming to terms with the radical situation of her own creation. “When you are a radical guest and push that role to its limit,” remarked Dr. Naman Ahujo, a pre-eminent scholar of Sen’s work, “you may encounter a radical host.”
Originally, she had planned to gather around 20-30 people at this philosopher’s house in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Hollywood, a beautiful old 8-room mansion. She requested of him poetic, psychogeographical impressions of the house and neighborhood that she then revealed to her invitees. She had been making art furiously for the 10 days leading up to the event, in the studio, around the city, and posted to Instagram, but she planned to bring none of it to the house. When she arrived around 4pm the day of the event, seeing the house for the first time, the philosopher asked her where her art was. In her telling, she once again explained what she was trying to do (radical hospitality, undoing, unplanning an event, the gathering itself as artwork) and he simply did not accept it. He thought she was swindling him somehow, tricking him. This is not art, he said. Where is your art?
Mithu later publicly thanked him for pushing back so strongly, because it brought into relief everything she had been trying to do in a way that she never would have planned. Her event had been rather poetically (and most literally) UNHomed in a moment.
What the philosopher could not see was that Mithu approached her entire residency at 18th Street like an artwork. Art at its best captures the eye and the imagination, and draws us into a world of unimaginable depth. It is infectious, we can’t get rid of the image, or the ideas. It is at once serendipitous, and discomfiting. We struggle to catch our breath. All of this describes Mithu and her activities in Los Angeles. Whereas her person is utterly genuine and generous, she also admits to performing a “likeness.” In her words, “People agree to do these things because I am quite popular and funny – but I am also very serious about my work.” She also had a habit of drawing everyone and everything that crossed her path into her collaboration and her world, and often demanded an extreme intensity of labor – but that interest and delight in each other needed to be reciprocated in order for the relationship to thrive. Her transactions were not typical. Though one could draw a connection with the tradition of relational aesthetics or Allan Kaprow’s happenings, or even a Fluxus score, Mithu Sen’s radical hospitality is more generous and sweeping and perhaps troubling than any of these. It excels in erasing all of those borders between art, life, social practice, studio practice, social media, the market, free exchange, relationships, work, collaboration, and creation. It fits into no categories, it is scripted and absurd, authentic and performed, subversive and embracing, generous and alienating. In her strange and beautiful world, these are all pieces of each other, threads in an unraveling mound, and those of us drawn in must wrestle with each of these contradictions.
I ride my bike everywhere. It is my mobile home, and I look at people’s faces as
whizz by them. I’m too blurry for them to look me up. Too blurry for them to
Instagram. But my bike, with the flowers sitting in its basket, is embedding itself in
the stories of the city. I am smiling at strangers, locking eyes with the unknown, wondering whether we will ever mean anything to one another. Perhaps we already do. But as I become more and more searchable, It becomes impossible to restart- to have a blank slate. Everything is in conversation with the past. Is there anywhere to hide/mask/obscure?