Hospitality situations can go wrong in many ways, given the unpredictability of human nature and the many variables involved, such as level of commitment and availability of resources. No matter how hard a prospective host prepares, the process of welcome remains open-ended, full of promise and hope but also fear and anxiety. As I noted in the Introduction, this anxiety leads many people to ponder whether to host at all. In addition, existing inequalities feed into and are fed by the unequal treatment of various groups in hospitality traditions and customs. So far, the artists I have discussed in this book have overcome their fears and anxieties by creating artworks that find new forms to expand hospitality. Their artworks imagine and enact the promise of welcome to make hospitality traditions less discriminatory and hierarchical, as Kathy High did when she hosted transgenic rats in an attempt to cross the anthropocentric boundary of unconditional hospitality.
Mithu Sen, a contemporary Delhi-based artist, has devised a different strategy for engaging with the practice of what she calls “radical hospitality.” Sen puts herself in difficult, often unpredictable situations, as a host and a guest, both inside and outside the art world. She also creates difficult moments for participants in her artworks. What does this mean? In one of her more recent art projects, I Have Only One Language; It Is Not Mine (2014), developed for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kerala, India, Sen spent several days in a girls’ orphanage as Mago, a fictional character who did not speak any of the languages the girls could understand: “Mago wanted to offer them an unusual form of experience in life with strangers, using non-language communication/performance.”1
The artist brought along a camera and, together with the girls, shot footage that was later used to create a beautiful and moving video artwork. The filter used to edit the film makes half of it look like an animated painting; this also serves to protect the girls’ privacy by masking their faces.2 The viewer can see how Sen’s hosts react to her, devising strategies to interact with their strange guest. The girls came to the screening of the video at a venue of the Biennale, and Sen has kept in touch with them since the exhibition. In this Sen is similar to Lee Mingwei, who also stays in touch with many of his artwork participants, but unlike Lee, Sen does not smooth the edges of hospitality. On the contrary, she challenges her hosts and guests.
Frustration arises in hospitality situations that test trust, authenticity, and power dynamics between hosts and guests. In this project, Sen, already a stranger in the home she shared with the orphan girls, alienated herself further by taking on a fictional identity and withdrawing one platform of communication, a common language. While viewing the video, I kept wondering what that experience meant for the girls who were put in the situation of being Sen’s hosts. In my communication with the artist, Sen welcomed my questions about her responsibility, both as an artist and as an adult. I was not the only one thinking about responsibility. Adults at the orphanage and curators at the Kochi exhibition also had their concerns. Their discussions and negotiations with the artist became integral parts of this work and Sen’s process. For Sen, her stay at the orphanage provided the girls with a space of a different type of encounter. By withdrawing a common language, Sen created an opportunity for each individual “host” at the orphanage to attempt to connect with her outside the “normal” forms of communication. She was not there to interview the girls. She was there to be hosted. I present this withdrawal of a common language as just one example of Sen’s art practice that provokes and reveals elements of power dynamics in the realities of welcome.
Although this chapter includes a brief discussion of several of Sen’s projects, my primary focus is a work that I experienced personally and have researched extensively, the work that started Sen’s exploration of “radical hospitality”: It’s Good to Be Queen (2006). From Sen’s point of view, radical hospitality is not supposed to be an easygoing, effortless experience of welcome. And it is not just a matter of hard work and preparation. In the radical hospitality of Mithu Sen, the promise to welcome “anyone” who comes ashore (any stranger in need of welcome, similar to Derrida’s call, as discussed in chapter 4) opens up vulnerabilities and power dynamics that are often unequal and unpredictable but rarely revealed or addressed. Sen welcomes these difficulties rather than shying away from them. In this chapter I describe how the artist deconstructs hospitality and then, with the help of her participants and collaborators, reconstructs it.
Over the past two decades, Sen’s art projects have included drawings, installations, videos, residencies, objects, poetry, performances, and collaborations. One effect of her work, among others explored in this chapter, is the revelation of how much hosts’ and guests’ perceptions of what takes place—how successful or limited hospitality is—depend on the level of trust, especially with regard to the authenticity of each other’s intentions, within the larger context of questions of identity and power that trust in each other implies.
Mithu Sen and I first met in New York in 2006, at a time when both of us were relatively new to our experience of being foreigners in the United States. From April 15 to June 16, Sen was an artist in residence at Bose Pacia Gallery in New York. As part of her residency, she stayed at what was at the time Bose Pacia’s new Artist Space in Chelsea.3 Shumita and Arani Bose, two of the owners of Bose Pacia, invited Sen with the understanding that the apartment she was staying in for the residency would subsequently become the venue for her exhibition. The Boses also had an agreement with Sen that the owner of the apartment would use the place during those few days when Sen was not there. As an artist invited by a gallery, and as a guest in someone else’s apartment, Sen was in a vulnerable position. (Keep in mind that this was happening before the advent of social networking sites like CouchSurfing and Airbnb, which have since mainstreamed the subletting of one’s personal space to strangers.)
Sen and I met at a party shortly after her arrival in New York for her first two-month-long visit. I had arrived in the United States only a year before, so we had a lot of opinions to share about the differences between our cultural expectations of the United States and how we found it. At the time, I was writing a book on the philosophy of hospitality, and I was really excited to meet an artist whose practice resonated with my interest; hence, Sen and I discussed the welcome we had expected and the actual welcome that we had received.
We both found people in the United States generally very welcoming, but we also noted some peculiar customs. One of these that we discussed was the seemingly normal practice in the United States of inviting guests to one’s home for a specific amount of time. For example, a month after arriving, I received a written invitation to a party at a colleague’s house. It clearly stated that the party would begin at 4:00 p.m. and end at 6:00 p.m. Sen and I both thought this practice of telling guests when they would be expected to leave was unusual, especially for a party at someone’s home and not at work. We did not immediately judge the practice itself as good or bad; rather, we both simply expressed surprise—the idea was alien to us. (Now, in fact, this practice seems perfectly normal to me.) We imagined ourselves informing our guests that they are supposed to be gone by a specific time, and we were reminded of the Bengali film Agantuk (The Stranger, 1991), the last film of the famous Indian screenwriter and director Satyajit Ray.
In the film, a woman named Anila Bose finds herself, along with her husband and their son, dealing with a man who claims to be her wandering uncle (not unlike Odysseus). The “uncle” becomes a guest at the family’s house on this pretext and overstays his welcome. Over time, the son becomes friends with the guest and does not want him to leave. As mistress of the house, Anila feels ambivalent about asking the guest to go, but her husband worries that the man has nefarious motives. The film’s message—it is wrong to prompt a guest to leave—solidified common ground between Sen and me regarding our understanding of hospitality. We had been taught that it should be the guest, not the host, who makes the decision about when a visit ends.
After that initial meeting, Sen invited me to visit her at the Chelsea apartment, which I did in early May. The apartment was spotless, with white walls, white kitchen cabinets, and a soft cream-colored rug (see Plate 6). Sen prepared a cup of tea for me and served sweets. Her radiant smile and the excited, warm tone of her voice made it seem as if all she wanted to do that day was to meet me. I felt really special.
I asked her what her residency days looked like, and her daily diary provided a record: “I provoked and cocooned myself by different incidents and storms . . . I discovered each and every nook and corner in that flat with lots of stories . . . I watched the rain for hours from the window . . . I went for sushi and watered my ginger flower pot. . . .”4 During my visit Sen also told me about other visitors who had come to the apartment (the Artist Space), and her practice of taking Polaroid snapshots of them with her face close to theirs. Back in 2006, we did not call such pictures “selfies,” but that’s what they were. Sen played with her visitors, with their personal space, their comfort and discomfort:
The photographs in particular are an exploration of intimacy, as characterized by the tension between proximity and distance among us. One must choose, make an immediate decision when confronted with another person. How close? To hug or not? To touch or not?5
Sen asked me if I would be willing to have my picture taken with her, and I said yes. Notice how she asked here for “consent” to take a photograph. Her manner was playful and forthcoming. Though we had only just met, her face was close to mine, and she was hugging me to take the picture, prompting a feeling of awkwardness and intimacy at the same time. Hugging was not something I was used to, culturally or personally. I was still figuring out what I thought about it. (The current public discussion about the need to mind the personal space of others in public settings and ask for consent to enter that space if in doubt, prompted by accusations of intrusiveness and insensitivity, is important because it highlights various scenarios in which the “warmth” of a welcoming hug can transition into an intrusion, especially if the person initiating the hug has actual or perceived power over the person receiving it.)
When Sen took that intimate photograph of the two of us, I was also curious: How would we look so close together? If our foreignness in the United States provided us with common ground, our cultural and ethnic differences could offer another opportunity for exploration and wonder or create a distance impossible to bridge. What was the role of race and ethnicity in Sen’s hosting? Sen’s photograph revealed my whiteness as a matter of fact. To me, it felt like something that mattered and did not matter at the same time, depending on how each one of us was situated and what we wanted to do about it. So it seemed to me at the time, given Sen’s playful gesture. Since then, it has taken me many conversations with Sen and a great deal of reading of other scholars’ and critics’ writings on her artworks to continue approaching this question of Sen’s ability to create wonder in welcome not by reaching for commonalities but by accentuating and exploring differences.
One scholar who has written about Sen’s positionality is Sushmita Chatterjee, whose poignant and multilayered analysis of Sen’s use of her own face in her artworks is relevant here. Chatterjee approaches the question of race in Sen’s art by developing a larger theory of postcolonial feminism in her works. What is postcolonial feminism in this definition? Chatterjee defines it through humor as “a covert counter-colonial strategy”:
Humor acts as the bulwark against the limits of postcolonialism with its proclivity toward generalizations, and feminism in its move to represent “third-world women.” Thus, by desettling an easy answer, Sen as a “trickster” unmaps postcolonial feminism. Through a “changing of skins,” Sen asks: Who is the “woman” of postcolonial feminism? Sen’s incomplete pictures of men, women, and animals draw our attention to assemblages of power, co-constitutions and different layerings of social constructions. Maybe through incompleteness and humor, Sen lays out an ethos for postcolonial feminism that prevents border-crossing from falling into the traps of neo-colonialism. Without claims to know or be the “whole” picture, Sen’s aesthetics nudge against ossifications. Rather, process-oriented becomings prevent a reiteration of the status quo where postcolonial feminism would keep repeating the rhythms of colonization.6
Within this understanding of postcolonial feminism, Sen’s art is political in its uses of her face, mostly in photographic form, manipulated through drawing or, as she did in the Polaroid photograph with me, by reaching out to other faces and skins. This enables Sen to create a strategy toward “an active mode of self-making.” In doing so, she subverts “frames that declare fair (or white) skin the epitome of beauty in India.” And, I would add, elsewhere, as I agree with Chatterjee that even if neocolonialism wins, it is now much more self-aware as neocolonialism. Chatterjee argues that “as a ‘woman of color’ creating art, Sen faces herself through her art,” affirming the specificity of her face as not fixed as either, or only, Indian or woman.7 Chatterjee’s analysis deepens my understanding of what the effect was of that moment when I saw the photograph of me and Sen together. My skin color, not hers, was accentuated, bracketed, and marked. Immediately, when Sen gave me the photograph to look at, I had to decide on the spot what kind of “white” I am: From which period in history? Which side of the present? I was just one guest, in one photograph. When a photograph album containing Sen’s images with many other guests became a part of the final exhibition, it in effect created many Mithu Sens, all in the process of “self-making.” Through hospitality, such “process-oriented becomings” constitute a strategy that seeks enjoyment and thriving, even under the duress of history.
Sen also showed me a small photograph of Shah Rukh Khan, a Bollywood star, whom she told me she loved, and a few little dolls that she called, metaphorically, “her son and daughters.” Along with pink roses and family portraits, they had all traveled with her from Delhi. She had also brought in objects she had found outside the apartment, mementos from street vendors she encountered nearby in Chelsea. When I left the apartment that day, it was with the expectation that I would see Sen again at the exhibition opening. I eagerly anticipated our future meeting.
Remove Your Hair
After my visit, Sen and I exchanged e-mails about ideas related to more “radical” forms of hospitality, such as offering an unconditional welcome to all or experiencing the unpredictability of a guest who overstays her welcome. Then, one day, I received an e-mail from Sen requesting a phone conversation. When we spoke, she told me she had found a handwritten note on her pillow, left there by the owner of the Chelsea apartment.
Please use one set of bed covers/pillows etc what’s on the bed for your use.
Make sure the bed room does not have hair on the floor. We will keep everything tidy for your use also.
Sen was upset. Her negative feelings were intense. It did not help, as she told me during our conversation, that the host was from her home country (India), so she felt particularly affected by why and how he wrote the note. She felt targeted. The person who wrote the note seemed to be saying, “Those American women don’t know better and don’t care, but you are Indian. The standard is different for you.” In a situation where the message could have been more appropriately conveyed in person (or by phone, if speaking in person was not an option), the apartment owner chose to write a letter in red pencil. Was his choice of color accidental? As if a reference to a woman leaving behind her hair as something shameful would not be enough of a hint about the need to discipline her body and sexuality, he had to emphasize his message with his choice of color.
When people travel outside their home countries, they carry with them traditions for greeting, grooming, cooking, and hosting. Familiarity with traditions can be a blessing because it can produce a sense of belonging. “We” belong, and “they” do not, because “they” do not share “our” traditions. When Sen and I chatted about the “strange” American custom of inviting guests between 4:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m., we felt as if “our” traditions of hospitality were validated. But familiarity can also be a curse, when assumptions and judgments are made about us as hosts and guests based on a common place of origin. (Would the note that Sen received have been written differently, or at all, if the note writer did not see Sen as an Indian woman? Sen certainly had her doubts.)
Sen learned through the grapevine that the note writer, the owner of the apartment, might have been affected by seeing her hair because it reminded him of his sister, who was far away, and whom he missed very much. What these friends tried to tell Sen, through this message, was that she should not be offended. They provided an explanation as an excuse for his note, but Sen did not want to guess what the note writer had on his mind. Whether he acted because of his own nostalgia or to criticize her uncleanliness, she had been affected by his action. She knew that and expressed it to me.
By questioning her presence in the apartment, the note produced a ripple effect in Sen, moving her attention inward, away from the busy life on the streets. It changed her modus operandi. It reminded her of the unwritten rules of hospitality in private settings, which are different from the rules in public settings, such as those governing the hospitality industry (for the rental of hotel rooms, for example). In real life, hospitality in private settings involves vague expectations and habits that often are not spelled out explicitly among adults. Preparations for hospitality are usually done in advance and out of sight (just as Ana Prvački trained the documenta 13 exhibition staff, as described in chapter 1). A host does not start dressing up in the guest’s presence; rather, when the guest arrives, the host is already dressed for company, perhaps in beautiful robes, as Lee Mingwei was for The Dining Project. Visitors did not see Lee arranging the pillows and flowers in The Living Room at the Gardner Museum—the host took care of these details in advance, so that guests could enjoy the event of their visit. Also, just as in some cultures a host needs to wait for a guest to initiate the end of a visit, so in many hospitality traditions hosts do not ask their guests to clean up after themselves.
Sen was in an awkward situation, caught between a hospitality scenario of everyday life and a hospitality scenario of the hospitality industry. And the author of the note did not make that position easier for her by referring to her hair specifically. I would argue that by writing this note, which the artist received in the early days of her stay, the apartment owner unwittingly defined the direction of Sen’s installation by prompting her to narrow down the multitude of potentialities of her being in New York. This experience, of working with the unpredictable, subsequently led Sen to be even more open to difficult experiences during multiple other residencies in Brazil, Singapore, and South Africa, to name only a few of the countries where Sen has been hosted. As an artist, Sen soaks in the new experiences of the places where she stays, noticing what is happening outside her residence, as will be illustrated by another example presented at the end of this chapter. In her New York residency, however, Sen focused her attention inward, toward her status as a guest, with all the unspoken rules associated with that status.
Long, thick, shiny, black hair is often praised and considered to be beautiful on a woman’s head, but it becomes an object of shame and horror on the floor of a bedroom being shared by strangers. The owner of the apartment emphasized Sen’s status as a guest, with the string of cultural expectations attached to it. Referencing his own care for his guest by leaving towels and keeping everything “tidy” for her, his message conveyed a demand for gratitude and reciprocity (saying implicitly, “Keep your dirty hair out of my sight”).
It’s Good to Be Queen
A few weeks later, I received a beautiful card inviting me to a private party to celebrate the opening of Sen’s exhibition It’s Good to Be Queen at the Artist Space—the Chelsea apartment, which had become a gallery. Amazing drawings in red ink, Sen’s signature style, adorned the invitation, which indicated that the party would last from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
With minimal traffic, it would take me four hours to get to New York City by car from where I was living in central Pennsylvania. But the day of the opening, June 2, fell on a Friday, when traffic tends to be heavier. I allowed extra time for the drive to avoid being late, because I wanted to have a chance to have a good talk with Sen before other guests arrived. However, it took me two hours just to cross the bridge to Manhattan from New Jersey. I was concerned about arriving after the party’s specified end time—9:00 p.m.—but I made it to Sen’s apartment around 8:00 p.m.
As an artist, Sen is very well known for her large-scale drawings and sculptures, and the apartment was full of her works, as well as a crowd of people and a buffet spread in the kitchen—the same white kitchen where Sen had brewed me tea a few weeks prior. The familiarity was pleasant, especially for a new immigrant. Though I knew only three people out of the hundred who were there, several other attendees immediately introduced themselves to me, and we chatted about how excited we were to see the show and especially the artist with whom some of us had visited and had our pictures taken.
We sat on a pristine white couch in front of a coffee table, browsing through an album full of our pictures. (I could not find the image of Sen and me, but others around me were recognizing themselves in the photographs.) To browse through the album of all those intimate moments between Sen and her visitors, the guests at the opening wore white linen gloves, several pairs of which Sen had left on the table (see Plate 6). Gloves felt inviting in this case, because typically audience members are not permitted to touch art objects, so the gloves indicated that it was okay. When I saw people wearing the gloves, I felt like we were at an upscale party. White gloves also provided a sense of separation between the wearer’s own skin and the rest of the world, alluding to an inherent anxiety about fusion with others involved in our rituals and routines of hospitality. (For example, how much intimacy and touching is too much? Kathy High expressed this in the work described in chapter 4, when she was at first repulsed by her guest rats but then later felt comfortable with taking extreme close-up photographs to express her intimacy with them.)
In some cultures, people take off their gloves before shaking hands; this indicates that they feel comfortable touching the other person and is intended as a sign of trust and respect. Sen’s choice of providing gloves contradicted the sense of proximity that I felt when she asked to take that selfie with me earlier, but here, it seems to me, she was more interested in the aesthetics of preciousness. Such seemingly small decisions carry a lot of weight in situations of hospitality. Here the material used (white linen) indicated to guests their own preciousness.
In her work, Sen deconstructs the notion that hospitality is at its best when the situation of welcome goes smoothly. Working across various cultural contexts, she enjoys drawing on differences, contrasts, and comparisons, teasing them out, experimenting with them, and using them in her artworks. As I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, unlike other artists discussed in this book, who create hospitality situations to smooth the transitions between different audience members with their aesthetic interfaces, Sen accentuates and welcomes the sense of being inaccessible to each other. She is a global artist who is fiercely uninterested in smooth communication as a foundation of hospitality.
“It’s good to be queen,” Sen seems to tell us, because the queen can do whatever she likes. Appropriating the status of royals enables Sen to claim a privileged relation to hospitality. In a fairy tale, the queen is above mere mortals. This special status is bestowed upon her by gods and goddesses, by her birth. When we describe a girl or woman as “behaving like a queen” (or princess), we mean that she does not expect to serve herself or clean up after herself—she does not need to worry about removing her hair from the floor. In titling her work It’s Good to Be Queen, Sen was also being ironic, playing on various meanings and expectations.
Another aspect of Sen’s queen status was the context of her artist residency. Artists are often referred to as prima donnas, especially as they become professionally and commercially successful and in demand, and artist residencies are considered to be something of a luxury. Being provided with time, place, resources, and new experiences for inspiration enables an artist to create new work or just recuperate and contemplate. Artists seek such opportunities for being treated like queens because residencies are an expected part of an artist’s professional life, but also because in many countries (including the United States and India) there is little public funding for new work by contemporary visual artists. Mithu Sen, as the queen, seemed very generous at the opening of her exhibition, leaving many things for her guests to discover. After all, the word generosity is etymologically derived from the notion of a noble birth. Being “noble” in this sense allows one to share because, presumably, one’s wealthy background enables one to give things away. And Sen, indeed, shared.
For the exhibition, Sen made drawings that were displayed on hangers like clothes, created installations with ready-made and newly made objects, and compiled a photograph album. A lot of her artistry involved hair: actual hair, drawings of hair, hair as a metaphor for the female body and cultural notions of propriety. There were many pillows, too, reminders of where the unfriendly message had been left. The pillows had messages on them as well as beautiful drawings, some depicting figurines of little girls—her metaphorical “daughters,” whom she called real. The artist made her own set of bed covers and pillows, which were splendid, gorgeous, and outlandish, as if refusing to use the bed linens left for her by the apartment’s owner, as he mentioned in the message to her, to press the point of his hospitality. She created her own pillowcases out of paper, with hand drawings made with watercolors and red ink. She created an atmosphere of a palatial bed, fit for a queen. Two large drawings separated the bed from the room, serving as an entrance into a sacred realm. Sen reclaimed the space with her art, as if to say the space belonged only to her and her imagination.
Sen had followed the instructions in the note she received from the owner of the apartment and left no hair on the floor. But hair was very much present everywhere else, and stayed there for the duration of the exhibition, from June 6 to June 30. In the living room, beautiful balls of hair were placed on two serving plates, arranged like yarn for knitting. Long black hair came out of the torso of an ephemeral gorgeous patterned pink tunic, a shalwar kameez, which hung ominously in the window. (It reminded me of the famous 2002 Japanese horror movie Ju-On, which was released in the United States in 2004 as The Grudge.)
On the bathroom wall, a huge drawing of a comb was spectacular, the first thing visitors saw as they came in. It was dripping with hair and paint, larger than life, both domestic and formally perfect in its verticality. Strips of black tape crisscrossed over the toilet bowl seemed to reassure guests that no creature could appear from there, nor would they disappear into the bowels of the house.
The motif of hair was not new to Sen’s installations and drawings, but in this particular installation hair took on a special significance and sensation. The places where she used hair indicated how strongly she had been influenced by the note from the apartment owner. The note itself was on display, so that the whole audience (and not just the guests who, like me, were “in the know”) could understand the reason for so much hair. Hair was important that night, and Sen was not hiding its inspirational source.
Sen’s gorgeous artworks also expressed a conventionally accepted guest’s anxiety around cleanliness. If a place to which a guest is invited looks posh and spotless, the guest may be expected to avoid spoiling that condition. Sen’s abandoned black hair, with its connotation of dirtiness in a whitewashed apartment, accentuated the almost clinical hygiene in the rest of the installation, including the white gloves mentioned above. It was as if she were telling us, “I know how these pristine surroundings will feel. I know the effect of this contrast.”
In all of that abundance the artist was nowhere to be seen. My first thought when I entered the apartment, after a six-hour drive, had been “I do not see Mithu.” I worked my way through the crowd, politely chatting with others and looking at work, at all that hair. As I waited for Sen to appear, I whispered to someone I knew, “Where is Mithu? Do you know?” Her answer was simply, “She is not here.” Did that mean Sen might not show up at all?
As the 9:00 p.m. time when guests were supposed to leave came closer, it became clear to me that Sen was not going to come. The hostess had abandoned her guests, whom she had invited. Her guests kept themselves busy talking and exploring the apartment. The story of her absence also started with that note about hair, I thought, as I looked at how much hair she had left around the apartment and her rebellious act of withholding hospitality on the opening night. As I learned in subsequent years, testing the hospitality principles of hosts and guests, whether others or herself, is an important feature of Sen’s aesthetic.
It was not a great feeling for me to be without Sen at her exhibition opening, in a city where at the time I knew only three people. I was fine, of course. I was an adult. But questions still came to my mind. Do I stay? Do I leave? It was not clear to me why she had abandoned us. Had my effort of driving for six hours to meet her at an agreed-upon time and place, to show appreciation for her previous welcome and my attention to her art, figured in her decision? It is hard to be an abandoned guest, even as part of an artwork.
I do not know what others at the opening felt. Certainly, my friends looked puzzled and expressed disappointment at Sen’s absence. I wondered if something in the apartment owner’s note had set her off, or if she might be feeling overwhelmed with meeting so many people on her visit to New York. I believed there was a lesson in Sen’s withdrawal of hospitality. Her absence meant that her guests thought of her even more.
This oscillation between total acceptance and total abandonment is seen not just through the shift in the positions of guests and hosts but also dialectically: Sen breaks the rules to create new potentialities of welcome. The result is a new kind of game of hide-and-seek that builds on a fantasy of her imagery and her person. In her artistic and poetic work, Sen finds ways to show how people become alienated strangers, foreigners, immigrants, and the forgotten; how someone can be shown the door, metaphorically and in real life, and thereby turns from a potential friend into an “alien” through a process of unwelcoming. Sen tests hosting as a form of communication between hosts and guests.
By withdrawing hospitality in It’s Good to Be Queen, the missing Sen alienated her audience. Who is an alien? The English word alien may be translated into Russian in at least thirteen different ways. In New York, Sen and I shared many of the meanings of those translations (stranger, foreigner, visitor from another planet, actually and symbolically). Sen mined these meanings to make whatever could form a common ground between herself and her guests strange again.
On the day of the opening I carried my “alien card” as a new arrival in the United States. In the paperwork I had had to file repeatedly, first as a nonresident, and then as a “resident alien,” ALIEN appeared prominently in all uppercase letters. Around the same time, in the summer of 2006, an American embassy official in Moscow verbally abused my seventy-year-old mother, who had gone to the embassy for her interview as part of the visa application process. He denied her application on the spot and in a manner that made her feel so unwelcome that she has since refused to set foot in the embassy or even speak about the encounter. That word, alien, still makes me feel uncomfortable every time I see it or hear it, but Sen’s symbolic gestures validate, rather than exacerbate, the memory of my mother’s absence from my American life. Why is that so?
As an artist, Mithu Sen plays the role of an alien voluntarily. She devises forms of conscious alienation, revealing other heartbreaking stories of those who cannot choose when and how to become alien. For It’s Good to Be Queen, she left her guests at the opening. For other art projects and poetry readings, she sometimes speaks only in gibberish, rather than in a comprehensible way.8 She challenges her audiences to work harder at hosting her, to decide whether to wait for her when she is the hostess, or whether to ask her to leave when she is the guest. Sen sets up alienating situations so that audience members can ask themselves, “What would I do in this situation? What should I do in this situation?”
Drawing Out Hospitality
One day Sen is a perfect hostess serving me tea and making me feel like I am the only one she has waited for. Later, she is not even there to greet me. Unlike a guest who is always late, Sen had issued an invitation to a private party for her exhibition opening. She had choreographed every decision and gesture carefully. Her choices were not random. So, what had happened? Shortly after that opening night, Sen sent an electronic message to those who had visited her during the previous weeks. Without apologizing, she explained why she had been a “bad host,” absent from her own party:
Dear, I am sorry for not being sorry about my physical absence in my opening night. Let me contextualize my thoughts and feelings regarding my absence on June 2. I am sad but not sorry for my act . . . it was a conscious decision . . . it was a part of my whole relationship (guest-host-hospitality-tolerance) project.
As one of the guests who was “stood up” by the host, I thought it was nice to know that Sen was okay, and I realized how deeply she had thought about her decision not to be present. Her absence was part of her performance, her way of showing us how it feels to be on the receiving end of withdrawn hospitality. It also served as an occasion for her to explain why she had to be a horrible—absent—host.
I know it was announced in the invitation card of doing an artist discussion during that evening with my viewer . . . AND I was away. (I did not escape or run away) . . . I just took my physical presence off from that very gallery site on that evening.
She then went on to reveal her thoughts about the “absent artist” in relation to the many art objects presented in the apartment-gallery.
In most art openings the artist’s presence is needed to explain the intimate details of the artist’s persona in order to put the art objects into context. In this case however all of my most intimate details were and are open for your viewing and I did not want my presence to interfere with your process of discovery of those very private and intimate details.
As a hostess who seemed to know she had stretched her guests’ goodwill and jeopardized the possibility of a future welcome, Sen used her note to reach out to me and all the other guests who were at the party just for her. As sincerely and strongly as she could, she pointed out the little details of our moments together:
I truly hope you understand my project and support what I did. I love you all and . . . believe me, I was overwhelmed when I came back completely soaked and drenched . . . I found the wet foot steps all around my apartment . . . I found the white gloves filled up with touches of invisible friends . . . who visited my space in my absence . . .
Sen felt that what she did was right, important, and harder than just going with the flow. She did it for her friends and to help us, her audience, learn more about ourselves.
It was hard for me to not to be there knowing that you are coming for me . . . I was sad . . . I walked all the way to the river and finally got into a New York site seeing bus, made a night trip in the city . . . believe me, it was so wonderful . . .
She assured us, her now friends, as a result of her hospitality, that her feelings were intense in each moment of her being absent, and that she felt sad and wonderful at the same time. Sen ended her message by reiterating what the exhibition was about:
I treated myself as a queen.
Sen took back her dignity by not waiting for others to bestow it on her; instead, she found her own form, showing one possible path of responding to withdrawals of hospitality. Sen knew she would be missed. She acknowledged that her presence would have been special to those with whom she had built the intimacy revealed in her letter through her choice of words:
I will try to meet you before I leave, I promise. I again hope that you did not miss me that night because I was really with you . . . Thank you for bearing with me. I love you. Yours and only yours, Mithu.9
Sen’s letter told us that after being left, abandoned, we were the only ones among her friends who truly mattered to her. Should we have believed her? Her authenticity was almost too much. I do not doubt for a second that Sen felt horrible about not being at the opening, imagining that she might lose some friends over her choice, something that is always hard for artists, who rely on their audiences, curators, and critics to come to their openings. If she wanted to teach us a specific lesson about being emotionally prepared for the absent hostess, I believe that as an artist this was not an easy gesture for her.
It’s Good to Be Queen sought to exceed the normal boundaries of welcome. Even the catalog of the exhibition, which was published in 2007, was beautifully designed, illustrated, and conceived as a gift, carefully packaged in a transparent, shimmering red cover. What distinguishes Sen is her continuous, remarkable commitment to her art of radical welcome. Even if such moments might go unnoticed by the majority of her audience—who, for example, were not invited to the private opening party and did not experience her absence—similar kinds of gestures accumulate over time. When I first met Sen, I did not know that such gestures of disruption and withdrawal were her way of “testing” her audience.
Art critic Nancy Adajania finds in Sen’s work another meaning for withdrawing, which is relevant to my point concerning the questioning of Sen’s hair by the apartment owner and expectations about how women’s bodies are supposed to operate in space:
Sen is recovering the nuance of the “withdrawing room,” the room where women once discussed their private affairs. Instead of secreting the private fantasies of the women away from the patriarchal tentacles of the present-day drawing room, Sen returns this room to its original owners: the women, literally drawing them out of their isolation and marginalization.10
“Drawing out” here does not mean revealing or clarifying. “Drawing out” could mean insisting on being alive, having a right to one’s own secrets, to be revealed when and how one chooses. Sen asks us to give her space to make a new kind of hospitality possible. In It’s Good to Be Queen, Sen demanded that we wait for her without knowing if she would appear, as if we were her ladies-in-waiting for the night. It’s Good to Be Queen ended well despite—or, as Sen would argue, because of—the note about her hair on the floor, which made her feel unwelcome.
Since 2007, Sen has challenged herself consistently by imagining new forms of radical hospitality, especially, as discussed above in relation to her work I Have Only One Language; It Is Not Mine (2014), during her time as an artist in residence far away from home, when she unsettles boundaries and expectations of welcome. During her 2017 artist residency at the 18th Street Arts Center in Los Angeles, Sen spent her days getting to know her new surroundings, much as she had during her New York residency in 2006. She found that the reality of Los Angeles contrasted sharply with Hollywood’s representation of its elite inhabitants, with deep divisions between rich and poor. Then one day she was given another “gift,” which started with the offer of a mansion in Hollywood as the venue for her final exhibition. Inviting her “guests”—all new friends she had met during her residency—to a Hollywood mansion to mark the end of her residency would be a significant way of starting a conversation about the economic and everyday disparities between the lives of the rich, living in the hills, and the lives of the rest of the folks living below, especially the homeless people of Los Angeles.11
The exhibition invitations were printed and sent out, and a Facebook page documented the preparations and Sen’s time in Los Angeles. Then, forty-five minutes before the exhibition was to open on June 23, the owner of the house, the “host,” withdrew his invitation to Sen. By extension, all her guests were also disinvited at that moment. As the guests were in their cars driving to the Hollywood Hills, Sen was desperately trying to reach them by phone.
The Hollywood mansion owner decided to withdraw his hospitality after Sen arrived at the mansion empty-handed. He asked Sen about the art that was to be shown (“Where is your artwork?”), and Sen informed him that she had no artwork to show: the gathering at his house was to be her exhibition in Los Angeles. The owner would not have minded hosting the opening of Sen’s exhibition if some of her “other” artworks (drawings, paintings, sculptures) were going to be there on display, transforming his house into a museum of contemporary art by Mithu Sen. But, unlike in New York in 2006, Sen had prepared no “art objects” for the installation—there was no installation. When the mansion host-owner realized that his house was not going to be used as a trendy art gallery for one night, but instead was going to serve as a “free” rental space for a party (as it might have seemed to him, given discussions in the local news media at the time surrounding loud one-night parties in rented Hollywood mansions), he may have felt misled and taken advantage of.
Sue Bell Yank and Vasundhara Mathur documented how it felt from the point of view of Sen’s guests, who had to change plans quickly and find a new location for the exhibition as they were driving to the mansion. They also wrote about the owner of the house (a professor of philosophy at a local college), asserting that he missed the meaning of Sen’s art of radical hospitality: “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.”12 But the mansion owner may have been even more wary if he had known that Sen was interested in a discussion about economic disparity. Her party at his house could have “exposed” him to such discussions among Sen’s guests.
The owner withdrew his hospitality when he realized how he would be implicated by Sen in the “personal is political” of hosting. Without objects to mediate the hosting and present the owner as welcoming, his house would have become the central topic in a discussion about wealth disparity. The owner was probably surprised by Sen’s “art” and had not carefully thought through his own gesture of inviting Sen and her guests. Even if economic disparity is on full display in Los Angeles at large and not a secret that Sen’s work would somehow reveal for this mansion owner himself, exposure under such circumstances would be different, glaring. There would be no “art” to cover the mansion as the mansion.
Sen also explored questions about the “American dream,” as a dream, during her residency. The poster that Sen prepared for the exhibition played on the glitzy image of Los Angeles’s cinematic history.
“UNhome” is the first word. The way I construct my sentences, the vernacular use of the language feels incorrect. It’s like when you translate something with Bing—it’s a mess, but you get some interesting ideas. I just said, “City IF Angels,” as in “Only if . . .” I ended up getting a different kind of home while here, because of the angels who supported this event.13
The title Mithu Sen chose for the Hollywood show, UNhome, played on the negative connotations of being denied the feeling of being at home—the ultimate invitation when a guest is truly welcomed. The title seemed to point out, as did that note Sen received in the New York apartment in 2006, You are not at home. Ironically, in a twist of fate, the title’s message became reality as Sen was disinvited by the host at the last minute. The same was true for Sen’s play on the nickname City of Angels, which she transformed into “City IF Angels” on the poster. Grammatically incorrect, this phrase nevertheless claimed a higher truth of economic disparity and hard life in Los Angeles rather than an encounter with angels. But the “if” was not just ironic. It was, in Sen’s view, a question about the possibility of “What IF,” and “Only IF” in hospitality: its unnerving unpredictability.
What if . . . all gather in a huge, beautiful, dreamy Hollywood mansion, full of flowers, as welcoming as The Living Room in the Gardner Museum created by Lee Mingwei? What if . . . a polite host trained by Ana Prvački opens a door, waiting for the guests happily, like Faith Wilding in Wait-With? What if . . . the mansion owner takes care of all of the wishes of Sen and her guests, as Kathy High did for the rats in Embracing Animal? Imagine that!
Withdrawing hospitality leads to a conditional welcome, where a guest must guess “what if” and imagine “only if.” Withdrawal represents a promise of welcome that ended before it could even begin properly. Conditionality here is full of possibility, if not necessarily of naive hope in the power of hospitality. The artist gives others a chance to reveal their hospitality, with unexpected outcomes. In Mithu Sen’s works, hospitality is often made of dreams that do not come true, and her audiences are prompted to imagine what they would do if they had guests who overstayed their welcome, or if a host ended hospitality abruptly.
Sen and her guests had to relocate UNhome quickly, and they ended up in a park not far from the mansion. In a 2018 interview, Sen called the host’s withdrawal a “gift”:
He played the best role, as a catalyst. I have since thought about the limits of this “Radical Hospitality” and where it can go from here. Sharing, interaction, the human connection on different levels—these are the things I love. In the end, the event was magical. It was beyond magical. It was unnerving.14
Sen’s response makes me think that the note she received about her hair that led to It’s Good to Be Queen was also a gift for Sen the artist circa 2006. Sen uses her artwork to transform the withdrawal of hospitality into a new kind of hospitality, enabling audiences to consider what hospitality means to them and how far they would go as hosts and guests, especially in the real world beyond the contemporary art context.