Water that sustains and destroys: Rina Banerjee’s installation at Freer Sackler – podcast

Art inspired by a background as polymer scientist and the rough seas of Hurricane Sandy.

In a podcast talk produced by the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries, Indian-American contemporary artist Rina Banerjee explains how her use of symbolic objects connects her art with the fragility of rivers and her diasporic experience. The conversation, which took place between Banerjee and Sackler Gallery Curator Carol Huh, marked the July 2013 opening of the artist’s installation A World Lost.

Rina Banerjee, 'A World Lost: after the original island, single land mass fractured, after populations migrated, after pollution revealed itself and as cultural locations once separated merged, after the splitting of Adam and Eve, Shiva and Shakti, of race black and white, of culture East and West, after animals diminished, after the seas’ corals did exterminate, after this and at last imagine all water evaporated...this after Columbus found it we lost it imagine this' (detail), 2013, mixed media. In "Perspectives: Rina Banerjee" at Sackler Gallery (Washington DC). Photo by Hutomo Wicaksono.

Rina Banerjee, ‘A World Lost: after the original island, single land mass fractured, after populations migrated, after pollution revealed itself and as cultural locations once separated merged, after the splitting of Adam and Eve, Shiva and Shakti, of race black and white, of culture East and West, after animals diminished, after the seas’ corals did exterminate, after this and at last imagine all water evaporated…this after Columbus found it we lost it imagine this’ (detail), 2013, mixed media. In “Perspectives: Rina Banerjee” at Sackler Gallery (Washington DC). Photo by Hutomo Wicaksono.

A World Lost, which was commissioned for the Sackler Gallery’s long-running “Perspectives” series, was inspired by Rina Banerjee’s experience of Hurricane Sandy, a huge storm that hit New York in 2012. As she says in the talk, “We could see the sea coming in towards the high rises that I was living in and in that moment it was very clear, the connections we have to the rest of the world, which is this water that surrounds every place in the world.” Banerjee is particularly concerned with the sustainability of river systems, because they “impact on our climate but also our livelihood, our commerce, our engagement in migration.”

Click here to listen to the full podcast on the Freer and Sackler Galleries website

In A World Lost, Banerjee groups objects together to form a meandering “stream” of coral, shells and ceramic figurines, which for her is a symbol of all rivers. An object embellished with plastic replica horns that Banerjee says “creates a sense of fear in most people” floats just above the river. Her choice of materials reflects her desire to explore “what is the beginning, what is the origin mythology, what are the stories that we tell ourselves, make into history,” she explains. The material used to create the horns not only refers to Banerjee’s former career as a polymer scientist, but also signals a shift in the artist’s agenda. She compares the selection and creation processes of the work to an individual’s evolving cultural identity. “In some sense we have the power to fabricate our own culture, and our culture can be connected to other places,” she says.

Through 'A World Lost' (2013; detail), Rina Banerjee invites viewers to contemplate fragile global. Photo by Hutomo Wicaksono.

Through ‘A World Lost’ (2013; detail) Rina Banerjee invites viewers to contemplate on the fragile globalised world. Photo by Hutomo Wicaksono.

Banerjee places a lot of emphasis on the titles of her artworks. The full title for A World Lost is 72 words long:

A World Lost: after the original island, single land mass fractured, after populations migrated, after pollution revealed itself and as cultural locations once separated merged, after the splitting of Adam and Eve, Shiva and Shakti, of race black and white, of culture East and West, after animals diminished, after the seas’ corals did exterminate, after this and at last imagine all water evaporated…this after Columbus found it we lost it imagine this.

“The text – although it appears always more exacting than the visual, which remains very suspicious – allows us to enter the work because we share the particular language that the text is involved in. […] The text allows you to contemplate, to wander, to bring your ideas into reading the work,” she explains.

Artist Rina Banerjee installing 'A World Lost' (2013, mixed media) at Freer and Sackler Galleries. Photo by Hutomo Wicaksono.

Artist Rina Banerjee installing ‘A World Lost’ (2013, mixed media) at Freer and Sackler Galleries. Photo by Hutomo Wicaksono.

When questioned by curator Carol Huh about the challenges of working on such a large scale, Banerjee replies, “Your body only allows you to see the space in which you are making it; […] you are not in control of all of it, you are somehow part of it.” Rather than being overwhelmed by this lack of control, she compares it to her place in the globalised world. “In a very natural way we can participate in that world if we’re not in control of it, as opposed [to] standing away from it and seeing the whole as a cohesive, singular space,” she states.

Rina Banerjee, 'A World Lost' (detail), 2013, mixed media. Photo by Hutomo Wicaksono.

Rina Banerjee, ‘A World Lost’ (detail), 2013, mixed media. Photo by Hutomo Wicaksono.

More on Rina Banerjee

Born in India in 1963, Banerjee moved to the UK with her family and then to the USA where she was educated. Graduating in 1993 with a BSc from Case Western Reserve University, she worked briefly as a polymer engineer. In 1995, she graduated from Yale University with an MFA. In a direct reference to her former career, Banerjee often uses plastic in her art.

Since her participation in the Whitney Biennial in 2001, she has been part of many group and solo exhibitions held at museums and art events internationally, including the Echigo-Tsumari Triennial (Japan), the Musee Guimet (Paris) and the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (Brisbane). In 2013, aside from her participation in the tenth year of Sackler’s “Perspective” series, her work is showing at the Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti in a collateral event for the 55th Venice Biennale and in commercial galleries in Delhi, Tokyo and San Francisco, among other cities. She is represented by Galerie Nathalie Obadia in Paris and LA Louver in Venice, California.

This article was written by a participant in our art writing diploma programme. Do you want to write for Art Radar, too? Click here to find out more about our Diploma in Art Journalism & Writing.

Belinda Piggott

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Related Topics: Indian contemporary artists, mixed media art, installation art, art and environment, art and globalisation, art and migration, video interviews with artists, museum shows, events in Washington DC

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