In Mrinalini Mukherjee’s Garden of Earthly Delights

At the Met Breuer, a winding path guides viewers through the late artist’s seductive, organic sculptures 

Like a lush garden with woods, glades and flower beds, Mrinalini Mukherjee’s first US retrospective, curated by frieze contributing editor Shanay Jhaveri at the Met Breuer, unfolds in discrete sections along a winding path. The knotted rope sculptures, ceramics and bronzes she produced over the course of her 40-year career have been installed directly on the floor and on low, undulating plinths and are spot-lit in corners, forming a sequence of views. This extended metaphor of exhibition as garden, and sometimes temple, reflects the artist’s interest in vegetation, animism and Hindu and Buddhist figuration. Referencing all things fecund – deities and plants at once spiritual, sensual and energetic – Mukherjee’s methodology was likewise vital: she would begin intuitively and let her forms grow.

Mrinalini Mukherjee, Waterfall, 1975, hemp and cotton, 264 × 100 × 15 cm. © Mrinalini Mukherjee; courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art; photograph: © Randhir Singh, 2017

Born in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1949 to a family of artists, Mukherjee grew up in the Doon Valley in Northern India, at the foothills of the Himayalas. Her father was based in Santiniketan, a small town in West Bengal, known for its canopied chatim trees and palm groves. The vegetation and flora that she grew up with in these garden towns would become central iconography in her early textile works, such as Squirrel (1972) and Waterfall (1975), which open this chronological exhibition.

Eventually, these cascading wall hangings of woven, knotted rope – Mukherjee’s medium of choice during her time at Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, where she studied mural design – leapt off the wall, resembling suspended human figures. Most of these works bear Sanskrit titles that reference the Hindu stone sculptures of nymph and forest deities Mukherjee encountered during her extensive travels across the country. Not on view are the thousands of photographs she took of these historic sites and the sculptural figures on their façades and interiors, from forts and palaces to the cave temples of Ajanta and Ellora.

‘Phenomenal Nature: Mrinalini Mukherjee’, 2019, exhibition view. © Mrinalini Mukherjee; courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In a 1977 essay on Mukherjee’s hemp sculptures, art critic Geeta Kapur observed that they resemble totems, ‘at once idea, motif and presence.’ Historically, totems venerate specific plants and animals, but also spiritual beings. They are markers of ancestry, lineage and mythology. Apsara (Celestial Nymph) (1985) for example, refers to the female spirit of the clouds and waters from the 4th century BCE epic Mahābhārata. Made up of naturally-dyed crimson rope of varying weights, both Apsara (Celestial Nymph) and Pari (Nymph) (1986) evoke the suspended armour of a samurai and the free-hanging, ethereal monofilament sculptures of Kay Sekimachi. Fittingly, Mukherjee’s archive includes slides of costumes for Japanese Noh and Kabuki theatre, as well as traditional Indian Kathakali and Theyyam performances.

Mrinalini Mukherjee, Basanti, 1984, installation view. © Mrinalini Mukherjee; courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Mukherjee continued to produce totemic, biomorphic forms when she transitioned to ceramics in the mid-nineties, and then to bronze in the early 2000s. Employing this conventional medium to entirely unconventional ends, Mukherjee combined found palm fronds and leaves that she collected around New Delhi, constructing invented species through lost-wax casting. These represented various stages of development, from ‘wings’, ‘outgrowths’ and ‘outcrops’, to ‘clusters’ and finally, ‘palmscapes.’ The ‘Palmscape’ sculptures are by far the most precarious of her bronzes, their fronds resting en pointe, their leaves bubbling where hot wax pooled. The show closes with Palmscape IX (2015), which Mukherjee completed just a week before her death.

Mrinalini Mukherjee, Palmscape IX, 2015, installation view. © Mrinalini Mukherjee; courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

‘Mukherjee was devoted to “the garden of representation,”’ art historian Deepak Ananth writes in the exhibition’s catalogue, borrowing the words of sculptor Richard Deacon. Drawing from mythology, ancient sculpture, and the natural environment in equal measure, Mukherjee’s works emerge from what Ananth calls ‘that place where nature and culture mix and mingle and are encouraged to grow together and to produce fruit and flowers.’

‘Phenomenal Nature: Mrinalini Mukherjee’ continues at the Met Breuer through 29 September 2019.

Main image: ‘Phenomenal Nature: Mrinalini Mukherjee’, 2019, exhibition view. © Mrinalini Mukherjee; courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sophie Kovel is an artist and writer based in New York.

Issue 205

First published in Issue 205

September 2019

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