The Queen in Her Chamber

Olu Oguibe

Queen Mithu steps into her chamber alone. There is no elaborate ritual accompanying her entry; no pomp and pageantry. There are no guards in sight, no courtiers, and no officers of the chancery. There are no ladies of the chamber bearing her jewelry or holding the hem of her dress. There is no costumed and plumed master of ceremony and no drum roll. She steps in as a queen might in the middle of the night through a secret door to relieve herself of the lugubrious spectacle and ceremony of court or the cacophony of nobility and gentry, and have a rather quiet moment with intimate friends.

The ornate and gilded exuberance that we associate with royal chambers is not in evidence. The floor is bare, the walls are spare and austere, but in this chamber the Queen has created a world of her own and peopled it with characters of her choice. Inanimate objects and found accoutrements are bestowed with names and attributes that give them life and seem to constitute them into an endearing microcosm of household deities and guardian spirits. There are elements of the light and frivolous, also, and a gaiety that belies the customary gravity of royalty. The objects and characters that the Queen has peopled her chamber with are eccentric and colorful, coupling the spiritual and mysterious with the flirtatious and ordinary. And the Queen is relaxed and in high spirits as she attends to her guests and conducts them around the animated cosmos that she has created, taking time to introduce and speak at length about each element; giving patient ear to the responsive guest, offering the occasional gift in exchange for another.

Even with the inevitable reality that this enchanted, make-believe world and moment are not without their restrictions and prohibitions, there is freedom here, and none more important than the liberty to depart at will the shoulder-crushing condition of royalty. The Queen is only queen for a moment. Historically this is a freedom that many queens have pined for and found only one door to: at the gallows. From Anne Boleyn and Mary Stewart, Queen of the Scots, to Marie Antoinette d’Autriche who all perished under the blade for having a taste of the crown, many a queen has discovered this freedom too late. Not even madness could save Isabel of Portugal from the prison of the crown.

Unlike Elizabeth II this queen has no reason to linger enough on the throne to endure an annus horribilis. She does not have to contend with the scrutiny and resentment of scornful subjects, or suffer the groveling of conniving politicians and conspiratorial courtiers. Not for her sleepless nights tangled up in paranoia, or the interminable torture of failure to bear an heir. Queen Mithu wears her crown lightly because she made it herself.

Of course, after our fifteen minutes or two hours of audience with Mithu Sen in her performance, It’s Good to be Queen, we are curious to understand the drama that we have been part of. Should we read it or read into it, and if so, what and how should we read? If the enactment or performance is to be understood as conceptual art or a drama of ideas, what ideas do we look for and what should we expect to find? How does it fit with the rest of the artist’s growing oeuvre and if not, in what ways does it constitute a departure? How, if at all, may we relate or compare its genial, interactive availability to, say, Marina Abramovic’s equally live-in but extremely austere and tense House with an Ocean View in the same neighborhood three years earlier, since in either case the artist, a female, made herself available to strangers in a gallery space commandeered and reserved at the limn of the public and private space over a period of days? What difference does it make that Sen engaged her guests in social interaction and conversation that ranged from spiritual explorations to moments of vague flirtation in an environment that became increasingly cluttered as she produced and procured and added all manner of objects and elements to it over time, while Abramovic restrained her audience at a distance and preserved her clinical and monastic space shorn of all accoutrement including at times her own apparel?

And what shall we make of Mithu Sen’s choice of location for this performance in the Chelsea district of Manhattan, New York, the very heart of the slick and oily arcades of the contemporary global culture market? Shall we conclude from the location and title that this is an institutional critique in which we are complicit, a mild but serious satire of the often fleeting rewards and ceremony that attend recognition in the contemporary art world? Might this be a good-humored but wary reflection on the suspect nature of a growing personal reputation? Might it be a commentary on the itinerant appeal of global contemporary culture?

With the current frenzy for all art contemporary and postcolonial, and especially the quick turnover that has recently met contemporary art from India and China thanks to the emergence of a well-heeled noveau riche keen to procure and patronize an equally emerging and excitingly exuberant creative fervor, does it say something that Sen’s performance with all its little drawings and converted bric-a-brac in many ways still makes itself unavailable for easy procurement and market conversion?

Thinking again on the location of Sen’s performance and her choice of theme and title, we are inescapably drawn to the inevitable cultural innocence that is part of the transcultural practice of global contemporary artists, because in New York cultural history the figure of “queen” is so heavily loaded, socially and sexually, in ways that may not have occurred to the artist. In New York to be queen has far less to do with the regular geopolitical resonance that it has in other places, and the metaphor of power and privilege that attach to it, than it does to sexual orientation, “attitude”, and the tense and paradoxical politics of mores around sexual disposition that have afflicted the metropolis over the years. And so we wonder what the performance tells us about the lines that contemporary practice crosses in the age of globalization.

As we contemplate Mithu Sen’s Its Good to be Queen and wander through the possibilities, another thought occurs to us: are we perhaps reading too much into the whole affair, and might it be the case that the work is no more than an elaborate and self-indulgent example of contemporary art lite?

All these questions take us nowhere if not into the captive and enraptured territory of speculation and wonder, and this is the strength of Mithu Sen’s performance, for in art the room to speculate is the hallmark of depth and sophistication. In Its Good to be Queen Sen presents us with an alluring and much nuanced performance that leaves us torn between rigorous contemplation and having a mere good time, each guest welcome to their own interpretations and dispositions while the artist gives away so little and yet so much. What wondrous privilege to be Queen! ?

From the exhibition catalogue published by Bose Pacia (2006).

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