If you don’t have a use for that fabricated alligator head sitting out in the garage, give it to Rina Banerjee. She might situate the head atop welded steel, cowrie shells, dried mushrooms, floral sticks, beads and linen.
Banerjee hunts and gathers material from all over the world to create such assemblages. Within a single sculpture, one might find a daunting variety of components: fake rhino horns, toy soldiers, distorted South Asian religious iconography, cowboy antiques, piles of light bulbs, mosquito nets, pitchforks, reptile skulls, pomegranates, fans, bent hat racks or beds of rocks. All woven together with surgical precision.
“Rina Banerjee: Make Me a Summary of the World” is her first mid-career retrospective, currently running at the San Jose Museum of Art through Oct. 6. Co-organized with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, the show presents almost 20 years of Banerjee’s large-scale installations, sculptures and paintings, including works commissioned for many of the world’s largest biennials. In each case, the assemblages convey a collision, a blur, or a fusion of opposing forces: whimsical and sinister; native and exotic; antique and modern; East and West; local and global; natural and manmade; nomadic and sedentary; or luxury and decrepitude. In each piece, the boundary between fine art and craft gradually dissolves when the viewer realizes that Banerjee personally hand-sculpted every single element all the way down to each little cowrie shell.
And unlike any other artist, the title of a Banerjee work conveys a similar type of multiplicity. Often longer than 50 or 100 words, the titles are more like mashups experimenting with language, spelling, grammar and the global effects of English domination. In dream with grin she kissed and licked his alligator wings, peeled his toes of all its nails and waled at the site of killing is one of the shorter titles. Some of them carry on for the entire text panel, blurring the difference between description, program notes and free verse poetry. It makes for a wonderful alternative to the artspeak of curatorial statements.
The entire exhibit can be understood as an assemblage in itself, especially because a few pieces take advantage of the museum’s indoor architecture, playing games with the entryway and other spaces, but a few noteworthy concoctions do indeed anchor the show. Take me, take me, take me … to the Palace of Love, for instance, is an 18-foot model of the Taj Mahal wrapped in bright pink cellophane, hanging suspended from the ceiling. Anyone can walk into the sculpture and mill about the interior. Normally, the Taj Mahal is understood as a monument to romantic love, but in this case, the pink color was used to ridicule the commodification of marriage and the white-only bridal attire used in the West.
If one feels overwhelmed by these pieces or becomes confused about the meaning of contemporary art, “Make Me a Summary of the World” will shatter any such feelings. Perhaps more so than any other recent show at the SJMA, Banerjee’s work really does prove that meaning and poetry can emerge from the myriad interpretations of the work after it is created. Kids will especially thrive on devising their own descriptions of what the pieces look like. For example, to one person, A World Lost, might address the apocalyptic nature of the migration crisis and its inseparability from the effects of climate change. To another, it might resemble an oversized gothic chandelier lifted from an episode of The Munsters after Tim Burton raided a light bulb factory and then transported the whole mess to the set of Alien so that a reincarnation of H.P. Lovecraft could spew an offspring that liquified all over the floor in a slimy puddle of cups, rocks, coins, yarn and toy soldiers, with some quantum-level hair-splitting of shiva and shakti entangled in for good measure.
What seems to overlap in all the pieces, however, is the fragmentation of materials and the global dispersal of cultures in the modern era. As Banerjee herself has migrated from place to place, from East to West and back again, she has gathered materials, stories and networks of heritage and history from every place she has visitedand continues to visit. The results are always negotiable, verging between the ridiculous and the sublime, between the whimsical and the grotesque, often in the same sculpture.
Rina Banerjee: Make Me a Summary of the World
Thru Oct 6, $10
San Jose Museum of Art