Mrinalini Mukherjee’s Phenomenal Nature

at The Met Breuer
Reviewed by John Haber

Mrinalini Mukherjee had a dual fascination, with Modernism and the myths of her native India. If they seem impossible to reconcile, they both drew her to local materials to make the myths her own. Mukherjee worked in fiber for more than forty years, so it seems only natural that her retrospective at the Met Breuer opens not with a wall but a curtain. The entry holds barely a clue to what comes next beyond the artist’s name and a title, Phenomenal Nature — not even wall text at the side by the stairs. Penetrate within, and the curtains multiply, almost sheer but thoroughly opaque. One can still marvel at the former Whitney Museum, but its movable partitions have fallen completely away. They leave a space no less divided and mysterious for that. One might have stepped behind a stage curtain, only to find that the performance is just underway.

To the right, through September 29, her art unfolds chronologically, but one might do well to turn instead to the left for a living theater. A space directly behind the curtain might serve as a late-career survey all by itself, with work from 1996 until her death in 2015. It includes all three of her chosen media — dyed fiber, ceramics, and bronze with a patina close to gilding. There is no telling what holds up the knotted rope, in the shape of gods or humans. There is no telling, too, whether the rest represent sacred vessels, vegetation, savagery, or fossils. Mukherjee named the earliest sculpture here in Sanskrit, after a goddess of the woods, and the entire space might represent an enchanted forest.

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Mrinalini Mukherjee, installation views
all images courtesy of The Met Breuer

She cannot often sustain the enchantment, but she felt it in her bones. The overall layout could stand for successive inner sanctums of temples in her native India. Her largest work in fiber looks like the fragment of a temple wall, with a deity at its center. It is, though, King of the Forest, and dark ceramics from 2000, her sole piece without a fiery glazing, are Night Blooms. Slightly earlier ceramics, Fluorescence, might be temple flames. The tree growing tightly around a woman might be her temple canopy.

For all that, Mukherjee had an ambiguous relationship with native traditions, not to mention modern art. Born in 1949, she took to fiber in response to local craft, but also a break with traditional figure painting. She studied with K. G. Subramanyan, who advocated a distinctly Indian art, and she shopped for dyed fabric in local markets. Still, she would not admit to working “in opposition to Western modernist values,” she did further studies in England, and she expressed bewilderment at her found materials, as “something close to hemp.” Was it flax or jute? “Maybe it is something in-between.”

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Alberto Giacometti, Woman with Her Throat Cut. 1932 (cast 1949)
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Mrinalini Mukherjee, Palm Scape II. 2013

Did she take them up out of necessity or ideology? As uncoiling and separating rope became onerous, she tried ceramics — and as kilns and glazing became less available, she turned to wax on its way to cast bronze. Her imagery is no easier to pin down, not even with a text-laden handout. She named one work, from 1982, after a deity of terror, and one bronze, segmented like vertebrae, recalls Woman with Her Throat Cut, by Alberto Giacometti. Still, I mistook a squirrel’s tail in her very earliest work for a sorcerer’s cap and her contribution to the 2015 edition of “Greater New York” at MoMA PS1 for an empty suit. What you see and feel are up to you.

The curator, Shanay Jhaver, sees mostly terror, but it may be up to you, too, to feel it in your bones. It may help to imagine yet another theater, at the opposite extreme from a closed curtain or the diverse forms of life in that final room. The gradual unfolding of motifs and materials at the Met Breuer has little room for a solo act, but any of the largest fabric pieces could stand as one. Imagine one of them in lower lighting but backlit, so that an otherworldly character confronts you, but at a distance that not even art can bridge. Is it still smaller than life and an empty suit? That could be what makes this god or ghost so elusive — and so modern.

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Mukherjee was late in gaining recognition in the West, and you can see why. She may straddle traditions, but she preferred to work exclusively in India. She has trouble fitting into either set of traditions at that. She remains apart from the bustle of India in photographs by Raghubir Singh and Gauri Gill — or the abstract and ritualized forms of Zarina Hashmi and Nasreen Mohamedi. Singh and Gill used the ceaseless crowding of a caste- and class-ridden culture to put modernity in perspective. Zarina, as she prefers to be known, and Mohamedi use near-abstract drawings and prints to document their travels and to map their dislocations. Mukherjee, in contrast, seems all too eager to believe at once in myth and modernity.

Still, if all else fails, she can create them. They cannot make her a political artist or an icon of cultural diversity, but she is quite willing to sacrifice identity politics to her magic act. Terrifying or not, what stands out is a highly personal approach and a growing mastery of materials. Fabric comes down from wall, at first suspended from the ceiling, somehow rises on its own, broadens and deepens in space, and finds ever richer dyes before giving way. Even at just fifty-seven works, much seems more charming than phenomenal. Taken as just the final room or a single installation, it can briefly regain its theater, its mysteries, and its enchantment.

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Black Devi, 1980
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Nag Devta, 1979

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