Asia Art Archive in America invited artist Rina Banerjee to present her work to art colleagues, on the occasion of her current exhibitions in the US, Japan, and Israel, as well as her recent exhibition ‘Chimeras of India and The West’ at the Musee Guimet in Paris [May 25 – September 26 2011].
Jane DeBevoise (JD): I am utterly delighted to have all of you here today in our little library. For some of you whom I am just meeting for the first time, my name is Jane DeBevoise, and I am the Chair of Asia Art Archive. Our home base is in Hong Kong, but we have a small office here in Brooklyn, and I go back and forth. AAA is a library and archive focusing on contemporary art mostly in Asia, but we are also very interested in artists from Asia who are working outside of the territory. Obviously, most artists regularly move around the world these days, and we have several here before us: artists from China [Xu Tan] and from Cambodia [Srey Bandol] and others who have not self declared [Laughter].
It is particularly exciting to have Rina Banerjee with us this evening, as part of our dialogue series, because we have been trying to get her here for a while – and I know now, having had a look at her resume, why we have not been able to organize an event until now. It seems, Rina, that 2011 has been quite a busy year! Rina has a long resume consisting of high-profile exhibitions, and is currently showing at the Yokohama Triennial [‘Our Magic Hour,’ from August 6 – November 6 2011], at the Yerba Buena Art Center in San Francisco [‘The Matter Within: New Contemporary Art of India,’ from October 15 – November 29 2011], and importantly, at the Guimet Museum in Paris, in an exhibition which just closed called ‘Chimeras of India and the West’ [May 25 –September 26 2011]
Rina Banerjee (RB): Thank you, Jane. I want to start by talking about some of my sculptures, and really focus on some key exhibitions that shaped the way I make my work, which is the most important journey for an artist – to see how work develops because of some of the experiences – curatorial or otherwise – an artist has with places they visit, which is something artists do more of now, and are almost expected to do. So, I’m beginning with a piece that I did for a solo show with my gallery in Brussels, and this is typical of some of the works that I call ‘branch pieces.’ They came out of my very early work after leaving Yale, because, at that time, I actually did use branches and vines. The idea behind that was to visualize a sense of growth. In the very beginning, I was keen on working with ideas of mobility, which would become a conversation about globalization and commerce. These ‘branch pieces’ are fabricated from drawings that I share with my fabricator and are then adhered to the wall. I collect things that really reference that sense of being in the world – what does that mean – and how one sees oneself as part of an international community – understanding whether this is possible as one coming out of one culture, and not really participating with the variety that exists within the world. One of the ways I wanted to show this was to talk about authenticity – embracing the idea that everything that we touch that is unknown to us and that isn’t a part of our inherent identity is inauthentic, but that they are also true experiences of another sense of ourselves. This other sense, this otherness, is never allowed to evolve – it comes out of our individual experiences with tourism.
Here, I have a Charlotte doll, which you see up on top – it is a collector’s doll from the 1800s. They were made in Germany and shipped to London. I have feathered fans from Pearl River in Soho, which is also a tourist spot. I have a horn from Pottery Barn – we live in an era where one can go to a design store or furniture store and find things that dictate what one’s living room should be about. This kind of display could suit your parlor room perhaps, but it is all of an ‘other’ aesthetic, an emergence of a desire for the outside world becoming a part of the inside world. In some sense, it is an effect that has had a tiptoe emergence that never shows itself in full. I’ve delved into that through the items in these stores – and seeing that any place can be a legitimate source of one’s identity.
JD: Did you search for those specific items or did the sculpture evolve?
RB: That’s a great question. I allow for all of that to happen. It’s not like the 1960s where the found object was the found object – it was both orchestrated and found upon – the idea of mixing and corrupting a single way of collecting was very important to me at the time, and still is.
This is one of my first larger sculptures – it really happened by coincidence, so I always like to show it because it has a funny story that goes with it, and one that can happen to anyone whose path is marked by a particular incidence. I had no idea I was going to have such a large space at the Whitney Biennial in 2000. At that time, the curators had chosen their artists and a long time would pass before the installation of the work within a specific space. I was told my space would be five feet wide by ten feet tall. A week before the installation began, I was told by the curators that a new decision had been made and that my wall would be thirty-three feet wide. ‘Aren’t you so happy?,’ they said to me. [Laughter] I said, ‘Oh, so I’m doing large scale sculpture now?’ This is what I came up with, and as I mentioned at the beginning, there is quite a large interaction that an artist has with the whole artistic machine in the production of an exhibition that may shape the kind of artist you will become. Those are moments and opportunities that are both very scary and also superstitious – and this was one of those times for me. During this time, I also was not thinking about international art or globalization; it wasn’t a part of my path. Coming out of school [Yale School of Art, MFA, 1995], the subject matter was always drawn from notions of my unique identity, separate from my classmates; that I was Indian, and my classmates and the faculty were not. So, the whole subject matter was really shaped out of their recognition that I was different from them, and for me, to talk about that meant I had to talk about my migration into the US, and the whole identity question – what it means to be an immigrant to this country.
After that time, I started to search how this small area [immigrant identity] – which in my mind was a small area of representation – could actually become the whole world. That was the first realization I had about the global – and how we develop ideas around connecting ideas. At that time, in 2000 I believe, India was dealing with a large HIV epidemic, as was Africa, and New York was very calm. Everyone felt everything was going to be okay here. I thought, ‘what about the rest of the world – why are we not talking about it in the papers anymore?’ This was the point where I began thinking about things not as an Asian, Indian artist, but as a human being in this world. This particular disease [HIV] was important to me too because of its contaminating nature and its ability to bring the world together through a connection; that we don’t have to struggle for a connection because it already exists. Culture and science really helped me think about the global. Within my previous education in engineering, the global was already something everyone talked about. I came from an education of Polymer Engineering, which was specifically interested in the market of plastics — plastics being the future of the world — which at that time was an exciting access point. We always think about science as global. So, why is it that we have such a hard time thinking about global art? What is the mechanism, the way we operate within this particular area – art – that is different from the sciences?
This was the one article that brought my work – which at the time was virtually unknown in New York – into light. That day, everything seemed to change, and this idea of the global was very much in the mind of the Whitney Museum. In essence, they had decided to have more than one curator for this particular show – it would be a shift into the international. This was an approach the Museum was taking to come to a strong show via this route as opposed to a show through one individual voice, which up until that point was how things progressed. I think it was a very important time, and of course, I think everyone remembers quite well that September 11 happened right after the 2000 Biennial, and things shifted in the world, certainly in the US – in terms of its own identity and its capacity to embrace other cultures, which of course was shakier. I think, during those years, it became an informative time for me to really gather what this period meant and how it affected my sense of home here in the US. 2005 came at a time when I had spent five years thinking about these ideas and in doing so, created this piece for the Greater New York Show [curated by Klaus Biesenback, PS1MoMA, 2005], which provided a nice opportunity to return to sculpture again.
I am saying ‘sculpture-again’ because up until that point, I really didn’t have the space to make big sculpture, or the kind of sculpture I was imagining. So, whenever I was invited to exhibit in a museum show, I really almost always made something by assemblage, which became a way to work. I would send individual pieces to the museum, they would hold them, and then I would go to the museum to gather the pieces to put together. It was really a kind of make-shift way of working and while planned, it had a quality of ‘oh, so that’s what the work looks like!’. It was as much a surprise to me as it was to the curators of the show. As a young artist, you just don’t really have the kind of studio space that is conducive to certain kinds of work. Is it possible to be a sculptor in a small studio? I think mine was 150 square feet.
JD: Did you do drawings beforehand?
RB: Yes, I faxed them out; the curators would say to me ‘I don’t know what this is,’ and I’d tell them it was the drawing for the sculpture in the show. [Laughter] At that point in my career, I had good faith that the curators with whom I was working had faith in me. So they were okay with the fax, and the way I was working.
JD: Did the curators visit you in your studio?
RB: Well, for some of these bigger shows, they just didn’t have the time.
JD: How did Klaus Biesenback come to know your work, to invite you to the Greater New York Show?
RB: He called me, and he said ‘I’d like for you to be in the show.’ (Laughter) How he knew my work before, I don’t know. I don’t know where he would have seen my work to come to know the work.
JD: Had you shown in New York before this show in 2005?
RB: Yes, a few group shows and one or two solo shows, around the time of 9/11.
This work marked my use of suitcases – about immigrant, migrant cultures, about mobility and just about being a part of this world. I was using vintage suitcases, with the ones here from the 1970s. I started to use this structure – with the inclusion of an upside-down umbrella…the image is slightly truncated, and hiding up top is a lobster cage. There is a sense of movement from the work because of the way it is hung. There are ostrich eggs, live banana leaves, a little construction workers light…there are a lot of ingredients that go in the work. What still remains is a sense of shift in place. The color here is what we call sindoor, a red-orange pigmentation that typically marks marriage, but which is now used by children too. There are some aspects in this work that you can clearly mark as Indian, but there are others, for example, the Chinese fans, which I always love to use, or Chinese umbrellas – the banana leaves I grow in my apartment…I cut them and used them for the floor. The work is titled Tropical Fatigue and the Seven Wanderings: You Are Not Like Me, and the title is the way it is to suggest what the seven reasons are for why one is not like me, confronting the audience and making sure that it is understood that when you are an artist, you have this encounter where you share your work with the world, but you are sharing a sense of your understanding of the world as though you can almost imagine what that person is like in the world.
This is a piece that I made for the 3rd Triennial in Tsumari-Echigo [curated by Fram Kitwaga, Hatchi, Japan, 2005], made with bamboo from the forest. What you see here is linen cloth [mosquito nets] and corn – this gave me the opportunity to use what was already available in the classroom of this site, which was a grammar school that had been abandoned in the town of Hatchi. I used the classroom chairs too – I like them because they were made in the U.S. These chairs were brought into Japan for their more ‘global classroom’. The glassware present was from chemistry labs and the globes, which are made of steel, were also made in the U.S. for the school’s geography class. I was surprised, really, to see so many things from the U.S. And then, the garden hose – in that particular town, there was an abundance of nature, which I really enjoyed experiencing. There were so many moths, butterflies and insects on my journey between my apartment [in Hatchi] and the site where I was building this sculpture [the classroom]. I thus had to include an insect into the piece, a praying mantis that would eventually become my re-creation of the Taj Mahal as a ‘green’ place with mosquito nets and a chandelier that always sits in the middle.
This is a work that I made for Art Unlimited [Art Basel 39, Switzerland, 2008], an even taller piece – 27 feet tall – in this remarkably large space for many artists who were invited to show together. It was quite a feat. At this point, my studio had grown to 800 square feet (Laughter), which was a big accomplishment. I was able to make this piece in three parts and bring it to Basel that way. But really, again, only seeing the work upon its assemblage in situ – it is always fun to put it together. There is quite a bit of handy work too in this sculptural process, which is often hard to find in big sculpture – this kind of low-tech handicraft kind of craft that feels accessible because of the way it is made…if you wanted to do something like this, that is. (Laughter) Accessibility is really important to me – it’s like a flower arrangement that blooms and grows – the petals fall, it decays…there is a sense of offering that I like to pleasure in, in the work.
JD: Did you write that passage? It is quite beautiful.
RB: Yes. The inspiration for me stemmed from books I was reading about adventure – Jules Verne going Around the World in Eighty Days [first edition, 1873] was the inspiration for this piece. I wrote something in reference to what that meant to me.
JD: I know your process is likely a back-and-forth process between the visual and the textual, but I always find fascinating the attention that is given to the language that an artist finds to relate to the work. Do you tend to start textually with your own words and then work towards the installation that you put together in parts, or do those words usually come after what you see?
RB: It comes whilst I make the work, by association. Although there is clearly repetition in the work, especially in terms of the materials I work with, I knew at that time that I wanted to make a balloon-like structure, like the book, and to engage the fantastic nature of having a melon in the sky – which is very different from thinking about a plane in the sky. I was also thinking about the awkwardness of movement, of having a sky melon in a round world exist above everyone else in the world – and the absurdity of these two circles, like planets, turning on each other: this balloon and its Earth. It seemed like an obvious idea, but also a silly and ridiculous cartoon-like idea – to travel, in speed, in a round object. So, I liked that it was clumsy in the story, and from there, I did want to create a balloon-like structure.
What you see here too is a Victorian chair, where two people can see each other. That was conceptually important to me too – two people moving through the world together with two separate viewpoints, and in a sense, the socialization of two viewpoints and the secret conversation that can occur in such a scenario, in a shared chair. This really gets quite dense when understanding how I pick these items and why – but then, finally, it happens the way it happens. I like that a flowering can happen. There are camels present, and a road…and I think about these brown vintage bottles that I collected as found objects from Junk –a place in Brooklyn – as cities below. There is often a sense of playing with the world in my work, as though the world is a toy, which many of us might realize as a pleasure with toying with the world.
JD: There is a very deep intellectual aspect to your work – how much of that is actually accessible to your viewer in an exhibition?
RB: Well, I would imagine that you would not have direct access to the intellectual unless you want it – if you are asking ‘do they get it?,’ some people might, and others may not. The works aren’t really made to be understood the way I understand them – that intention would not be as interesting to me as an artist – to truly convey what one is thinking about. I feel like that, as an intention, is rather egotistical. My surprise and my pleasure in making the work comes from finding out how my language separates itself from your language and by that gap, I may choose or find that I may get to know you as an individual. It’s how you interpret the work, and sometimes I get to hear that, and certainly today, I may get to hear that for sure. But I think that expectation [for full intellectual understanding], for me, as an artist but also as a viewer going to see art, just isn’t there. Of course, when stepping back, there is so much mystery and intimacy in knowing someone’s work and just having the access to seeing it is amazing – there is a great trust and faith in receiving someone’s work, which is another important way to understand the global.
JD: Building on that question, I’m very interested in your notion of community – obviously, to be part of a community means recognizing what differentiates us within our milieu, but it also means, as you pointed out, that we are thinking about nodes of connection as well. Given the fact that you have science in your background and given the fact that you were educated at Yale, which is one of the nation’s great art schools and offers so many intellectual facilities, I was wondering if you could say a little about the artistic and intellectual community that nurtured you and this vision of connectedness which is so much a part of your work.
RB: I think, even whilst in engineering school, I gravitated toward coursework that was related to medical anthropology. Later on at Yale, I was able to engage coursework of a similar subject matter; anthropology, archeology, ethnography – Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library has an incredible archive of ethnographic photography, including photographs specific to India – and I really enjoyed thinking and talking about those disciplines. I tried to answer a lot of questions about how to feel comfort and knowledge about a place; is it sincere, is it possible? – and certainly, continuing to be critical of the way we have done things and from that, understanding our limits. Also, the idea of occupation, how do we understand our history and evolve?
I remember, whilst in Greece, some friends showed me around the navy base just behind the hotel I stayed in – they talked about its ‘occupation’ and it was very interesting for me to hear their feelings about it. Many of the Greek residents who I spoke to who were in the engineering field compartmentalize that feeling when visiting their homeland, Greece. But when here in the U.S., they take on a new identity, which we sometimes refer to as the Diaspora. There really just aren’t enough words to describe how complex the Diaspora is.
JD: To what extent are the objects in your sculptures purely aesthetic ornamentation?
RB: I think aesthetic ornamentation is very important. I think there is a vast market of ornamentation that are arranged within commerce and are very much a part of what we desire: to have and to hold. I am drawn to some of these things because they have a lushness about them that tempts me. I like the idea that I can be tempted to hold and touch something [an object or a sculpture] and that I can inspire that in the people who come to see my work – that they should want to take a piece of the work and walk away with it. I am engaged with that relationship to the object, so I am bringing that into critical experience – what is your experience with an object? There is a huge history in trying to make objects that will sell and you can’t dissociate with the world of migration and colonization and occupation – there is this idea of exchange that we have, one before and beyond currency. I am looking at both, where art becomes a kind of currency that takes on an exclusive note with certain users, and it is different from having a one hundred dollar bill. There is potency to having an object that currency does not provide. Certainly, you can talk about the mobility of that currency, and how currency can become mobile, even if it is a cultural heritage or anything that touches that culture. We have this sense that some cultures are more valuable or less valuable than others. We grade things by the currency we use for them. I think this all falls into the realm of ornamentation.
What is ornament? It is sometimes this object of which we no longer make guilty – it can finally belong. If you can imagine something that is not triggered by its value, that it becomes almost empty of its value, so that it can travel to a new place without meaning only to be attached again to new meaning – ornament has a currency that paper money cannot have.
JD: I am curious about your working process: you had mentioned earlier that oftentimes, you don’t see the work until it is installed in situ – I’m just curious when you translate your ideas from drawing to fabrication – with note to your background in engineering – are your drawings precise, schematic drawings, or atmospheric and organic and more reminiscent of the overall shape of the sculpture? Is the process or transferal from drawing to fabrication additive?
RB: In this piece, which I made for a show in India, I didn’t make any prior drawings. I don’t really find it fun to make drawings of sculpture because it takes the surprise away. I have a big idea of what materials I want to work with; I’ll find those materials and gather them, and I have an idea of the technique I want to use – here, I wanted to use a lot of thread – and then I try to incorporate that into the material I want to work with.
There was a movie – I’m going to speak in fragments because I don’t remember the name of the film – an Indiana Jones-type movie where the goat’s eyes fall out and scares everybody because they think it’s going to get into their food. (Laughter) In short, it’s the experience of having dinner with someone you don’t know – of sharing food. I wanted to use that kind of experience [the effect of the film on me] and have it become a part of the work. So, sometimes, the idea will be completely detached from what is experienced, visually. For this work, I had to have the popping eyes, and I dyed them – but I didn’t draw them. As the object grew, I began to understand what it would become – and then thinking about it in terms of the specificity of site and making it work well with the space. This space had an extremely low ceiling, so I made a bed piece, with conch shells, and the head of a figure, slightly visible.
JD: So, taking this example, which was made specifically for this space, if the work travels, does the sculpture then evolve with the new site or do you work with the curators to create a site for the work that resembles the work’s original venue?
RB: This particular work did make its way to MoCA in Taiwan, and the space didn’t have the same unusually low ceilings. I don’t think an artist can have that much control over this – but there is a certain level of collaboration between the artist and curator to try to find the best placement for a work. This was particularly present for the exhibition at the Guimet. We aren’t always in agreement, but we entered a dialogue about this matter. It is an experience that is also important to have.
JD: So the work itself remains the way it is, usually –
RB: What you are suggesting [the evolution of a work with site] does happen in my work, and I can show you an example here:
Here is a work that I had insisted needed to change for its new site at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA). When I first made it, it was missing something, so when I was given the opportunity to re-make it for YBCA, I did. This is the piece that I first made in 2010 and I had it on a low plinth. I didn’t make a big change – and the curator really struggled with me wanting to change the work – but I expressed a need to improve the work, so I pushed for it. I might still change it, but this is a new plinth with sand on it which makes an imperfect rectangle but which has on its surface a controlled-looking effect. It was important to this work – the color of the sand, especially – was something I was looking and waiting for. The feathers are hand-dyed too, to have the right tone.
We have finally reached the present with the exhibition of some of my works at the Guimet in Paris. I have to say this is one of the most amazing museums I’ve been in because of its variety of spaces and the way it has been able to handle delicate objects – textiles, embroidery, jewelry – alongside statues, simultaneously. It incorporates a myriad of spaces for discovery, and you do, finally, have a sense that you are wandering throughout Asia, if you can do that in a museum space. This room is the first room you see upon entering the museum. The museum has a humble foyer, unlike any other foyer I’ve experienced in New York, so it was very unexpected for me to see a space like this. Upon walking in, you are able to enjoy the sculptures, which are all very vertical. I created this piece, which acts as a temple that opens you up to the exhibition and to the Guimet.
JD: How involved were you in choosing the exact location and orientation of works within the Guimet?
RB: With this particular work, Take me, take me, take me…to the Palace of Love, there were not that many possibilities for its placement due to its size – the curator and I gravitated toward this space as it was the most logistical place to hang such a work. The work, which was originally made in 2003 for Mass MoCA, had to hover above the floor. Later, it evolved into what you see before you. It had also previously been shown at the Peabody Essex Museum in an atrium space, which gave the work transparency due to the museum’s skylights. So, one could say, its bones had to be changed a few times. It was tricky trying to squeeze a big piece anywhere in the museum. You have to have respect for the work that comes before you, and as a contemporary artist, you want to make sure you can also engage in a conversation with the surrounding work. There is a certain longing too for a dialogue with a visual past of proximity, which, too, can act like another diasporic identity discovery. Everything becomes relevant to one’s own history. It’s like going to the Met to see Impressionist art with friends and when happening upon Indian sculptures, hearing the comment ‘those are about you, Rina’ (Laughter) – so to be at the Guimet, a full-house of probable connections – it is really important to situate oneself accordingly. As an artist, you are always asking yourself questions about where you are in the world, which conversations are important to engage…the past/present/future…it’s not just what just happened with Andy Warhol, but with everything. It’s a large space to work with.
I was really happy we were able to find a large enough space, and that nothing felt over-crowded.
I’ve always liked antique chairs – I collected this one from Massachusetts; it is one of a collection of tables and chairs that originally belonged to a seafaring family from the early 1900s. I collected it because of my interest in hybrid furniture. It’s an armchair, and has a show of craftsmanship, which was incredibly important during that time. It floats, like many of the works I make. This particular piece, The Globe, is also part of my collection of objects and it’s made of semi-precious stones – Bakelite, and things we associate with a colonial past.
This was in the Guimet as well, a new work. It consists of things that one might find on an oriental painting. The birdcage sits on top, and like the first image [the sculpture with the white horn from Pottery Barn], the Charlotte dolls sit amongst the vines. I paint them, mark them, and play with them – and I exoticize them. I exoticize them to have them look like what I would imagine them looking like on faraway lands. And, certainly, again, the fans, the squashes, the coconuts – some are real and some are fake.
This is another piece I made last year, also shown at the Guimet and part of a series called the mannequin series – the nose ring for the work was a decision I made for the exhibition – the sculpture really needed it when it made way to Paris. (Laughter)
These are some of my drawings, and the chair piece in the library space at the Guimet – all with relatively extensive titles.
JD: Who curated the show?
RB: Caroline Arhuero [Head of Documentary Studies and Contemporary Art] and Jacques Gies [Director of Guimet].
JD: I noticed that your recent work has a significant amount and vibrancy of color – can you comment on that?
RB: It may be true that the color is more vibrant because I’ve begun dying them. I think, when I started, I was using a lot more found objects for my sculptures – I didn’t hand dye. My interest in dyes came about as I became interested in having some control over color, but also for longevity, you want the best dyes for your work – so there is an archival important as well.
JD: How do you usually present your poems/prose with your work?
RB: They are titles I like to share, and in many ways I don’t claim to be a poet but it’s what I enjoy about the work – how I respond to it – so it is another facet of the making of the work. I think the text is very accessible too – I think it helps and says ‘please come’ instead of making the statement ‘this is what I am’. This [a title] is a really important thing that is available to the artist to use and inform.
JD: I greatly enjoyed your presentation – the way you are, the way you speak, it feels like the work is about the sucking and spitting of all these things that you see and absorb and express –
RB: Yes, and I think it is really important for me to share the storm of the world – when you can’t really ‘know’ any place, all the while being bombarded by everything that is out there. There is a sucking, pushing, throwing and falling in the process. It is both dangerous and exciting that I definitely like to bring to my work.
JD: Thank you so much, Rina, for this inspiring dialogue which we look forward to continuing in the future.
Born in 1963, Kolkata, India. Lives and works in New York, USA
MFA in Painting and Print Making, Yale University, USA
BSc in Polymer Engineering, Case Western Reserve University, USA
Rina Banerjee was born in India and moved with her family to UK and then US. Banerjee started to gain international reputation since her inclusion in the Whitney Biennial in 2000. She has participated in group exhibitions around the world including ‘Pretty Is As Pretty Does,’ Site Santa Fe (2009), ‘Mythologies,’ Haunch of Venison, London, UK (2009), Tsumari-Echigo Triennial (2006), ‘Greater New York,’ P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center and Museum of Modern Art, New York (2005), and ‘Whitney Biennial,’ Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2000, 2002).
Transcribed and revised by Ali Van