Artists

The lessons of this wisdom will have to await the attempt at a textual unravelling of Mrinalini Mukherjee’s work, undertaken with something of the same patience with which her sculptures in hemp fibre have been wrought. The material she uses and the technique of knotting to which it is subject already provide a metaphor for the multiple references that come to be enmeshed in the elaboration of her imposing anthropomorphic forms. For the very act of gathering several strands of fibre into a knot suggests that the nexus thus posited might also be taken as a figure for the kinds of aesthetic choices at play in her work.

Although Mukherjee painted and made prints as a student at the art school in Baroda, she also experimented with natural fibres such as hemp and sisal, and this has proved to be her elected medium for more than twenty years now. In the context of the pedagogy professed by K.G. Subramanyan, Mukherjee’s decision to work in a material traditionally associated with craft rather than “high art” reflects on her teacher’s conscious attempts to overcome what they considered to a stale polarity in Modernism, not least in view of the extreme richness and continuing actuality of traditional artisanal skills in India and the sheer versatility of popular vernacular idioms. Subramanyan’s terracotta reliefs from the early nineteen seventies, for instance, ingeniously meld the dexterity of a handicraft aesthetic with the modernist taste for an economy of plastic signs. Nearer at hand there was the precedent set by Mukherjee’s father, the artist Benode Behari, who, both in his teaching at Santiniketan and in his own practice, notably in the epic scale mural commemorating the artisanal simplicity of the saints of medieval India, embodied the humanist syncretism envisioned by Tagore’s institution.

Within Western Modernism, as well, the late nineteen sixties mark the moment when a significant number of artist manifest an interest in what might be called the poetics of a vernacular mode. The artists of the short-lived movement in France called Support-Surface attempt a de-construction of easel painting into its constituent parts (chassis, picture plane, touch, colour) in a set of de-mystifying gestures framed by the Maoist sympathies of some of the members of this loosely knit group that emerges in the immediate aftermath of May ’68. Witness their analytic interest in bricolage (after the paradigm proposed by Claude Levi-Strauss), in knotting and weaving, in materials that betoken an artisanal provenance such as rope and wicker, in the ironic grids obtained by the folding of cloth, in the recourse to the technique of tie and dye (this last must surely bring a smile to at least some artists in India), in short, in the foregrounding of the archaeology of the picture making process the more to be able to de-conceal the illusions of which Painting is the object and the commodity fetish. Concurrently, the artists associated with Arte Povera mine an aesthetic of impoverishment which, for all its telluric nudity, rarely forgets the incarnate sensuousness of the marmoreal splendours with which Italian art is littered. There is also the reaction to the phenomenology of metallic imperviousness represented by one aspect of Minimalism in the form of various manoeuvres to render more supple that movement’s tendency towards an obdurate objecthood as in Jackie Winsor’s use of rope (one of her works of 1967-68 is called Rope Trick) or in Eva Hesse’s recourse to latex, rubber, papier mâché, cord and other pliant substances.

Mukherjee’s earliest rope sculptures, too, date from the beginning of the nineteen seventies, although it will be evident that the overtly wrought aspect of her work differs significantly from the apparent informality, the untidiness even, cultivated by some of her European and American contemporaries. But then, it could be argued that for these latter artists the poetry of the uncouth is, in a sense, also a dissimulation of a certain romance of the archaic, not least in view of their recourse to artisanal materials and modes of production in the era of high-tech. the inadvertent exoticism of such choices has, of course, little currency in societies where the vernacular has not (yet) been vanquished, so that an artist like Mukherjee can unembarrassedly avail herself of a technique and a topos, estranging their very familiarity in the process of elaborating an idiom that bespeaks an awareness of the options available in a post-colonial situation. For, if the indigenous comes readily to her mind, this is already secure ground for reckoning with the imported. Further, the sheerly organic character of her works is, among other things, also an index of an easeful access to Nature, whereas it is precisely the eclipse of the latter in the West that comes to haunt, say, Richard Long’s walks in the “unspoilt” corners of the world, or indeed the sublimity of the sites chosen by the artists of Land Art. At any rate if the field of sculpture has truly expanded, then one must allow for less ostentatious forms of the territorialisation of space; if Mukherjee is disinclined to draw mud circles on the ground, this is so because something of the sensuous humus has already intimately nurtured her arborescent forms.

As if in harmony with the vegetal realm from which her medium is derived, the leading metaphor of Mukerjee’s work comes from the organic life of plants. Improvising upon a motif or image that serves as her starting point, the work’s gradual unfolding itself becomes analogous to the stirring into maturation of a sapling. The tough, hand-dyed hemp fibres (the matte lushness of their hues recalling jungle flora) twisted and knotted around an initial, fairly rudimentary metal armature, are, as it were, roped into a logic of inexorable growth. Possessed of something of the heavy languorousness of tropical vegetation, the resulting forms are instinct with the luxuriance of proliferating root, unfurling leaf, burgeoning flower: the suggestive protrusions and openings are poised at the wondrous moment which precedes a dehiscence. In a slow upsurge from the ground the frontality of coiled tumescence and swollen declivity betokens an exuberant implantation in the soil of the erotic: these totems are the avatars of an (abstracted) iconography of aroused sentience. Further, the unabashed co-presence, rather the oppositional polarity, of female and male attributes within a single configuration is the sign of an exceptional intuition: a potential collapse of sexual difference, a blurring of the boundaries that unexpectedly brings to mind examples from a tradition that one would not instinctively associate with Mukherjee’s sculpture: the inexhaustible carnal ambiguity of Giacometti’s Suspended Ball, or the metaphor of a “round phallicism” evoked by Roland Barthes à propos of Georges Bataille’s dark narrative of erotic transgression, The StoryoftheEye.As a counterpoint, we may recall the Sanskrit word for base or pedestal to appreciate another kind of erotic economy, one that is not irrelevant to the work under consideration: Pitha: ‘pedestal’; the socle of a statue or the linga; in the case of the latter, it is interpreted as the female counterpart of the male symbol of Siva; in the Northwest especially, the pitha of both sacred images and of lingas has a raised edge and a spout to collect and drain off the water from ritual lustration. [1]

“It is common to find the snaking roots of lianas adhering to the surface of rock. This smooth and sinuous form is as common to Indian nature as gnarled tree forms are to Europe. The sculptors spontaneously turned to these most typical natural analogies, as their Romanesque counterparts in Northern Europe studied the growth of oak and elm. One often in India sees the trunk of some huge tree locked in the embrace of a creeper, or one trunk coiled round another in a marriage as sensuous as the couplings (maithuna) of the Indian deities.” [2] Although occasioned by a discussion of the Sanchi gateways, Richard Lannoy’s remarks might almost be describing the irrepressible anthropomorphism of Mukherjee’s sculptures. Conversely, when she treats of the human form, it is to affirm the organic bond with the vegetal. Vana-Raja and Yakshi, the titles of two of her works, for instance, explicitly allude to forest deities. Imposing in their physicality, their compactness is that of an arrested rampancy, so that to approach the spaces in which one confronts them is almost like a trespass. “My anthropomorphic deities owe much to the equation with awe and reverence that a traditional invocatory deity inspires in her spectator. But my mythology in de-conventionalised and personal, as indeed are my methods and materials.” [3] The mythological references are harnessed with the desire to create a hierophany, as if the knotted mesh were a receptacle for the numen, even while continuing to be a … sculpture according to the “dialectic of the sacred” described by Mircea Eliade. (A stone that is sacred continues, nevertheless, to still remain a stone.) [4] “My idea of the sacred is not rooted in any specific culture. To me it is a feeling that may get in a church, mosque, temple, or forest. The countryside is filled with places where divinity dwells…It is often a sense of space, scale or presence that gives me a sacred feeling, and this could be anywhere in the world. My inspiration and visual stimuli come from all over the world, from museum objects and artefacts and, more immediately, from my environment.” [5] (In this context it is significant that the titles of her works refer to generic beings such as, for example, Yogini or Yakshi, rather than to any specific divinity.) Learning as much from Indian art’s partiality to a voluptuous iconographic excess (from high temple sculpture to wayside shrines) as from the abbreviated iconicity of modernist forms, the variety of “sources” have been drawn into her sculpture’s pantheistic (and pan-erotic) embrace.

The fusional aspect of Mukherjee’s work, result from the happy promiscuity of art and craft, the masculine and the feminine, “high” and “low”, inside and outside, ascension and descent, is imbricated in the very technique and choice of material. Miraculously malleable in her hands, the knotted texture becomes at once buoyant and cascading, flaccid and torsioned. It also allows for daring symmetries and an ornamental elan, and for ingenious ways of negotiating volume and relief, scale and proportion, weight and counterpoise. Witness how, in her free standing works, the base or pedestal is absorbed into the formal logic of the sculpture, thereby giving an unusual twist to a signature Brancusi motif. Inversely, the willed drooping of her material gives a sly turn to a counter-aesthetic of “the slack”, inaugurated by Duchamp (in a work that, significantly, hinges on the use of thread) and continuing upto and beyond Robert Morris’s felt pieces (no pun intended). [6] While the latter’s avowal of impersonality, his distaste of anthropomorphism could not offer a more flagrant contrast with Mukherjee’s sculpture, a formal (albeit, insolent) parallel nevertheless suggests itself in the light of Gilles Deleuze’s extended discussion of the fold, the crease or pleat which is manifest in both artists’ work. [7] Although it has always existed in art, it is, asserts Deleuze, the distinctive trait of the Baroque to have multiplied the fold to infinity. It is in the Baroque that everything folds, unfolds and refolds incessantly. (The image of drapery immediately comes to mind). For Deleuze such features of the Baroque as the treatment of material in terms of mass, its tendency to overflow space, the rounding of angles, the plethora of swirls are all gathered in the figure of the fold. More intriguingly, it is the persistence of the fold well into the twentieth century - Klee, Fautrier, Dubuffet, are among the painters cited - that leads Deleuze to identify a modern neo-Baroque. If the wayward but tenacious curve described by this trait can, in Deleuze’s account, also enfold the Minimalists (he cites, among other examples, Robert Morris’s use of felt) what might one say of the extravagance of the imagination of the fold at play in Mukherjee’s sculpture, other than to remark on a strikingly new perspective on her work that is thus unfolded.

The folds invite being touched, and this contact, in its turn, draws us to the manual activity of the sculptor, which consists in the making of knots. In Mukherjee’s practice, the knot is a metonym of patience: the same gesture, perforce slow, repeated endlessly. (The ontology of repetition might take knotting as its figure.) The knot is a punctuation mark in the syntax of her sculpture. The knots are also a way of marking time, the seeds of a gestation. Perhaps because the global configuration of her sculptures is so metaphorically rich that Mukherjee appears to be not taken with the symbolics of knotting as such, as is the case with a number of artists in the West from the late nineteen sixties onwards. (One recalls, too, Jacques Lacan’s fascination with the Borromean knot, that, towards the end of his life, bordered on obsession.) The symbolic charge attached to the act of making a knot, of course, long predates the latter’s “rediscovery” by contemporary art. Prevalent in all the ancient cultures, it was attributed with a wide range of meanings. The most transparent signification of the knot is that it is a link: it is the weapon of Varuna, the God who ‘binds’, usually represented with a cord in his hand. During ceremonies, everything that he links together, beginning with the knots, is said to Varunian.[8] A metaphorics of concatenation might also be the most appropriate way to describe the sensuous organic wholeness of Mukherjee’s sculpture.Tostaywith the knotis also to return to the thread with which we began. Given the singularity of Mrinalini Mukherjee’s achievement, it is fitting that the Sankrit word for independence is expressed by the significant term sva-tantra, being one’s own string or thread. [9]

Notes

Proverb in the title quoted in A.K. Coomaraswamy, “The Iconography of Durer’s ‘Knots’ and Leonardo’s ‘Concatenation’, The Art Quarterly, Spring, 1944.

[1] Glossary of Sanskrit and Tibetan Terms appended in T.S. Maxwell, “Lakhmandal and Trilokinath: The Transformed Functions of Hindu Architecture in Two Cross-Cultural Zones of the Western Himalaya”, Art International, September-October, 1980.

[2] Richard Lannoy, The Speaking Tree, Oxford, 1971, pp.23-24

[3] Mrinalini Mukherjee, Interview with Chrissie Iles, catalogue, Mrinalini Mukherjee, Sculpture, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, 1994, p.12’

[4] Mircea Eliade, Images et Symboles, Paris, 1952

[5] Mrinalini Mukherjee, ibid, op.cit. n4, p.12

[6] The aesthetics of “the slack” is the subject of an essay by Maurice Frechuret, Le Mou et ses forms, Paris, 1993

[7] Gilles Deleuze, Le Pli, Leibniz et le Baroquw, Paris, 1988

[8] Mircea Eliade, ibid, op.cit. n5; Georges Dumezil, Mitra-Varuna, translated by Derek Coltman, New York, 1988

[9] A.K. Coomaraswamy, ibid. op.cit. n1, my paraphrase
From the exhibition catalogue published by British Council (1995).
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