Expression
July 7, 2021

Three Conversation Pieces III

Aveek Sen

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If I feel most truly myself when I’m in conversation with others, what becomes of the ‘truth’ of these conversations, and of the selves they bring into being, when they happen in a space of performance? Does something get compromised in the process—or is that too puritanical a view? Performativity is too much of a twister for my jargon-phobic tongue. But, in this case, I’ll set aside my block and ask, does the frame of performativity make certain kinds of spontaneous interaction less authentic? Does the Real Thing become less real, or something else altogether, when it is ‘set up’ as a series of happenings?

Given how the shadow of the art world falls across the word ‘happenings,’ is it possible to restore something like the innocence of the etymological link between happening and hap, that archaic word for chance and luck of Old Icelandic origin? And once we’ve put hap back into happening, where does that leave happiness?

These questions have been going around in my head, somewhat wistfully, since I agreed to participate in Drawn from Practice, a group show at the Experimenter Gallery, Calcutta, in 2018. The point of this unusual show was to test the boundaries of thought by looking at the remnants of process that creative or critical practices generate during the preparatory stages of figuring things out. It brought together materials like drawings, sketches, notes, maquettes, and videos, alongside finished artefacts, made not only by a couple of visual artists but also by other practitioners: a filmmaker, an architect, a choreographer-dancer, a singer, a weaver, a theatre director, and a writer.

As the writer in the show, I was given a room to myself, which I set up as my work-station. There were two chairs on either side of a writing table with a lamp and a small Bluetooth speaker on it, posters on the walls, coffee-making stuff, and shelves full of books from my own library. The other participants were represented by their work. I was the only one physically present there for most of the three months or so that the show ran. Every day, I would bring my laptop and notes, sit at the table and be The Writer, doing what I would do in my own study at home, including a brief post-lunch snooze with my head on the table.

It was both an utterly strange and utterly enjoyable experience—much less embarrassing and vulnerable-making than I had expected. More so, because it was happening on the top floor of our family home—a floor that we’ve rented out to the gallery. I had spent most of my childhood there, and the room that became my study in the show used to be the box-room. My cousins and I played hide-and-seek in it, with varying degrees of precocity. My real study is just two floors below, where I live.

Having grown up on a steady diet of my grandparents’ Agatha Christies, The Body in the Library was the title I had chosen for my ‘installation,’ inscribed on the wall at the entrance to my space. It had an open doorframe without a door, through which visitors would drift into my chamber, looking slightly awkward and unsure of themselves because of my working presence in it. I decided not to make them feel entirely at home. The secret was to wear the right mix of benign indifference and polite curiosity on my face. This wasn’t difficult because, having grown up in a vast and boisterous extended family, it took me little time to get into my work in the absence of privacy.

On the wall next to the shelves of books, I had scribbled an invitation for visitors to remove the books and read them, provided they put them back with all the stuff in them before leaving the exhibition. I annotate my books heavily and use them as storing places for random bits of paper I don’t have the heart to throw away. Some of these books are irreplaceable and mean a great deal to me. But I thought that putting them out like this would be the risk I’d take for the sake of this work. I don’t regret having done this. To this day, I discover little notes written by visiting strangers tucked in some of the books, relaying how much they had enjoyed their encounter with the books and the personal matter written or kept in them. Next to my instruction on the wall, I stuck a postcard of Holbein’s sketches of Erasmus’ ink-stained hands.

Very often, though, my study would turn into a conversation chamber. Most people wouldn’t know who I was or why I was sitting there with that vaguely proprietorial look on my face. So, they’d sit hesitantly on the single chair opposite me and say a timid hello. “I don’t want you to tell me who you are,” I would look into their eyes and say, “but why don’t you give me a fantasy introduction? Tell me who you’d like to be while we talk.” The rest, usually, was deep, free-fantasia fun, but of the ultimately serious kind.

Next to my chair was a wooden box full of picture-postcards I had collected over decades. If the conversation reached an impasse, I would suggest we play a kind of tarot, turning into a cross between a country-fair tarot-lady and a doctor’s-chamber receptionist: austere, brisk, but with more than a touch of batty. The visitor would pick three cards blindly, lay them on the table, and we would use these images to shift conversational gear. Soon, most inhibitions would be shed, and we would read poems together from the books on the shelves, or listen to songs or music on YouTube. We’d simply let one thing lead to another until we got tired of each other’s company. There was no time limit, no psycho-babble, no names or numbers exchanged.

I realise today that the most important feature of the space was the fact of that doorframe without a door. It was a threshold, or a proscenium arch, that we had to cross in order to become – or leave behind – who we were, and were not. I couldn’t have pulled that off on my own. I needed another – or at least one other – person.

Aveek Sen lives in Calcutta and writes on literature, art, cinema, music and everyday life.

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