The exhibition, Phenomenal Nature, from Mrinalini Mukherjee explores many different facets- including the human body, sexuality, and feminism while simultaneously serving to call into consideration Indian culture and the duality between tradition and modernism.
I found the exhibition to be remarkable in the way in which it was curated. The curator afforded us the opportunity to step through Mukherjee’s history as an artist from the beginning with her wall hangings, through the large scale fiber sculptures; from the artist’s exploration and experimentation with ceramic sculpture, through her final works in bronze.
Standing in front of the work, I was intrigued by the handmade quality of the work, particularly the fiber art. In my own artistic practice, I like to experiment with embroidery and weaving and the way in which materials overlap to create a certain tension and form. What struck me at this particular exhibition was the large scale of the work, and how challenging, laborious, and time-consuming it must have been for the artist to create these works. For me, a small scale work would take hours or even days, so I was astonished by the intricate detail and manipulation of materials that Mukherjee was able to accomplish. The artist frequently worked with a knotting technique. The process of knotting plays with looseness and tension. It also works with combing two separate entities into one attached form. To me, at times the artist’s knotting resembled beading or basket weaving, which made me think of traditions of domesticity. Yet, Mukherjee challenged these notions not only by the scale of the work, but by the subject matter which provided abstracted versions of the human body, a topic which is often seen as provocative. I felt a sense of power and dominance reflected in this collection of work.
I noticed, and found extremely crucial to the exhibition, that the angles at which I approached each work altered my perception of a piece. I found myself walking around each work amazed at how they seemed to transform themselves depending on a slight adjustment of the spot at which I was viewing it. For example, I noticed in Pari (Nymph) 1986, that the angle that I viewed the work shifted my perspective of the work itself. From one perspective, the work seemed to resemble a mask or face. However, when viewed from the side, the work seemed to resemble female genitalia. Also, the placement of the work next to Yogini (Female Seeker) gave more context to the piece, affirming how important it was to see the pieces juxtaposed with each other. Every section of the exhibition was part of a separate dialogue, yet, they all worked together to create a unified experience. The scale of the work was interesting as well because at times the work seemed gentle by the rounded forms, but at the same time they seemed threating, especially the closer I moved to each piece. The shadows also enhanced this experience. At times, it felt like the works could consume me, which was both scary and captivating, and enticed me to keep observing each piece.
One further thing that I would like to address was the way in which the fiber art was hung, and even the fact that these objects were hanging in the first place. Typically, when something is hung there is a sense of lightness and an aerial quality to the work. Yet, I found that the wires which support these works added to a sense of heaviness of forms. The works still touched the ground, and made me question the intention of hanging them, or even so, how the curatorial decision was made to show these hangings. This is especially curious since most of these works were visually weighted by the collection of fiber at the bottom. Overall, I believe that the hanging wire added even more dimension to the piece, and allowed us to see the handcrafted effect of each piece. Moreover, in my opinion, the hanging enforced a kinetic aspect to the work, drawing my eyes from the top to the bottom, across the curved and linear forms and invited me to consider the duality of what was expected and what was shown- the playfulness of heaviness and lightness, of delicateness and rigidity. Also, some works were free-standing which led me to question how they were able to be supported, creating a sense of mystery and playfulness within the works.
The curtains were also hung to separate different bodies of work. The curtains served as an important backdrop for the work, but I found myself distracted by them at certain points. After all, looking at the hanging art drew my eyes up to pay attention to the curtains as well. I think they were important, though because they created boundaries and helped to tell Mukherjee’s story, but I wondered if they could have been included in a different manner.
Additionally, the color of the work fascinated me. The artist used mostly earth tones, which I immediately associated with nature. Mukherjee was not trying to completely disguise the material, but rather enhanced its rawness. Color worked as a tool to add visual interest and further context to each piece.
Following our visit to the Met Breuer, I found a video of the installation process (https://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2019/mrinalini-mukherjee-phenomenal-nature). It was amazing to see how many people and how meticulous it was to piece this exhibition together. It further heightened my appreciation of the exhibition. Mukerjee’s work was some of the most beautiful and compelling work that I have ever seen, and thoroughly inspired my ideas of how I consider my own work.