Mithu Sen

Mithu Sen is known above all for her erotic sculptures, photocollages, and drawings—and she herself often stands at their center, for instance in her photographic portraits from the series “Half Full,” 2007. As she humorously explains, using her own image allows her to avoid copyright problems. Yet this stylistic device is also clearly in line with her aesthetic position. Since her early sculptures made of hair (“Unbelongings,” 2001–2006), Sen’s work has made use of autobiographical experiences, perceptions, and feelings, which she transforms into images rich in ambiguity.

Preparing her show for Vienna, “Me Two,” Sen conducted intensive research on Egon Schiele, finding both thematic and formal parallels with her own work. The New Delhi–based artist decided to take up one particularly striking motif of Schiele’s for her new series of drawings—his depiction of hands. In Sen’s “On your hand – I place my hand – barely. In our hands – nothing,” 2009, these hands appear to be holding or grasping something, but it is nothing we can see. These clenched hands are combined with sweet little roses and charming tigers, with squid, pretzel sticks, a gorgeously adorned boot, a stag’s antlers, and cacti. The motifs are ornamental but also symbolic: The rose stands for immortality but also for the convolutions of the unconscious; the bird is an image of migration but also stands for a “desire to nest.” Balls recall nipples, and even tigers and fish are freighted with sexual connotations. Like Schiele’s work, Sen’s pictures conjoin pain and beauty; sexuality, longing, and death; ornament and emptiness.

In Tattoo, 2006, a video made during a residency in Brazil, Sen has a spiral inscribed on the most sensitive part of the body: the palm of the hand. She wanted to “resist the tears but not the pain,” Sen says, explaining her motivation. In her new animated video shifted and shifted—deleted and edited, 2009, the hand is no longer a surface to be inscribed; it is active. Two hands grasp each other, one holding the other down. This closeness soon turns into pain. The fingers dig into the flesh. Blood flows. The touch that at first was intimate becomes an imposition. The variation of skin color (Sen is Indian) suggests a disparity of cultural spheres—is this Sen’s hand meeting Schiele’s?

The third part of Sen’s show here was let myself be nailed . . . , 2009. In a corner of a darkened room stood a confessional. In front of it a pair of headphones dangled. “I copied my own work again and again,” a female voice confesses. In this powerful installation, Sen speaks very openly of her fears of not living up to certain artistic expectations. The drawings in watercolor, ink, appliqués, and collage for which Sen is known and which have become her trademark are put into question. But the drawings already question themselves. The hands in them are not only a motif, they are also tools. The hands create the drawings, but here they are empty, only digging their nails into each other. In these works, we see Sen struggling to overcome her own fears and dangerous hyperconsciousness. What she finds are highly striking images that signify “the sufferings and crisis of an artist.”

Sabine B. Vogel

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.