Remembering Mrinalini Mukherjee, Naturally

During my first meeting with sculptor Mrinalini Mukherjee, our time was spent with me asking questions and her giving me terrible, unusable answers like, “I don’t know. I like trees. And leaves. I like leaves a lot.” (Later when I’d see her again and remind her of that terrible interview, Mukherjee was taken aback. “Really? But I thought we had such a nice chat,” she said, genuinely perplexed.) The only point at which that first conversation got interesting was when I told her that I wouldn’t have thought someone who seemed as gentle and cheerful as Mukherjee would make the gigantic bronze monsters that were on display in her show. She mulled on the word ‘monsters’ and asked if I found the sculptures scary or repulsive. They were neither, I told her, but there was something about the shapes that she’d moulded bronze into that made them weirdly defiant of natural order. But then what is the natural order, Mukherjee asked me, her eyes suddenly unblinking behind her thick glasses. I told her I had no idea, but I hoped her benign monsters would protect it.

Two years after that first meeting, Mukherjee would pass away in 2015, a week after her retrospective Transfigurations opened at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi. She was only 65 and in the most creative phase of her life. No one who had seen her would have been surprised that her lungs were protesting, given the packets of cigarettes that she made her way through in a day despite wheezing for breath, but that Palm Scapes IX would be the last sculpture Mukherjee made felt absurd and wrong. She was finally getting the recognition that was her due and possibly because she was one of those artists who wanted to listen more than she wanted to talk, she hadn’t made headlines. This despite making a sculpture of a outsized vulva with its central lips, sorry, petals swollen and red, back in 1993.

Every article about Mukherjee, born in 1949 in Dehradun, would have you know she’s the daughter of the legendary artist and teacher Benode Behari Mukherjee, who is perhaps best known for not letting his blindness stop him from continuing as an artist. (There’s a lovely profile of her here.) Links are drawn – with good reason – for the importance that Benode Behari paid to nature in his philosophy of art and Mukherjee’s sculptures, for which she consistently turned to the natural world for inspiration. The influence of artist KG Subramanyan, whom Mukerjee studied under while she was a student at MS University, is also always noted; again, with good reason. Subramanyan encouraged his students to draw inspiration from crafts and indigenous art traditions, and reconnect with artistic histories that had been looked down upon by colonial and Brahmanical establishments. What tends tend to be overlooked is that Mukherjee was also the daughter of artist Leela Mukherjee. In the notes I have from the godawful interview, one reads, “MM: ‘My mother was also an artist.’ Check what she made.” Leela Mukherjee made works in bronze. They were nothing like the enormous complexities that her daughter would make in the last years of her life, but she was the one who introduced the medium to Mukherjee.

Embedded as these legacies may be in Mukherjee’s work, ultimately her practice and her art were distinctively her own.      

Three of Mukherjee’s fibre sculptures, on display in Phenomenal Nature. Photograph courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Three of Mukherjee’s fibre sculptures, on display in Phenomenal Nature. Photograph courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Last week, The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened Phenomenal Nature at The Met Breuer (definitely read the exhibition guide). It’s a retrospective that shows 57 of Mukherjee’s works, including sculptures that have never been publicly shown and standout pieces from her 40-year career in fibres, ceramic and bronze. Pushp is on display as is Squirrel from 1972, a strange and vaguely terrifying creation of an animal caught in the net-like grasp of what looks vaguely a chaarpai. Also on display is Palm Scapes IX, her last work. Curated by Shanay Jhaveri, the show makes very literally an exhibition of what an incredible imagination and radical aesthetic sensibility Mukherjee possessed.

Black Devi (1980), by Mrinalini Mukherjee

Black Devi (1980), by Mrinalini Mukherjee

One of the fibre sculptures on display at Phenomenal Nature is Black Devi, loaned from a private collection and on display for the first time. It’s a magnificent figure in full regalia – her spine is straight, the pleats are in place, a dark crown upon her head. Come closer, and the body is revealed to be an incredible net of knotted fibre. Look up to gaze upon her face, and all you can see is an eerie combination of knots, emptiness and negative space.

The sad truth is that photographs do not do justice to the grandeur of the large fibre sculptures, particularly something like the two Van Rajas (it means “king of the forest”). They’re humanoid figures but they’re also lush, looming trees that tower over us, offering shelter and refuge. (Move over Ents, we’ve got Mukherjee’s Van Raja.) Although Mukherjee’s names for her sculptures might suggest that she’s referring to figures from Hindu mythology, these divinities were actually her personal creations. (From my 2013 notes: “MM says yogini etc not sacred, no ref to Hindu traditions. So mythology is personal? Her own imaginary pantheon?”) Decades later, these forms would shape-shift to become the curious hybrids in bronze. For now, the natural and human were in a balance that tilted towards the human form, seeking to invoke in the viewer the sense of awe that you feel in an inner sanctum.  

Mukherjee made fibre sculptures between the 1970s and 1990s. They look like nothing you’ve seen even now. The idea that someone could make an eight-foot tall sculpture by knotting fibres like natural rope by hand, without a sketch to follow, is mindboggling. Add to that the sheer and beautiful arrogance of saying that raw material that wilts and has no ability to stand will be transformed into something sold, substantial and upright. Not for Mukherjee the granite or metal that male-dominated Indian sculpture used. Instead, she picked up the natural rope she spotted at a shop near her home in Delhi and dyed it in colours that are intense, earthy and glow with vitality. (From my 2013 notes: “Why natural rope? MM: It feels nice.”)  

Made of natural fibres that are tough, resilient and flexible, her sculptural figures don’t stand on floors or lean against walls; they are suspended from ceilings, as though they are either ascending to the heavens or have descended from them. The almost-human figures should have looked like giant sweaters, but Mukherjee created structure using folds and layers – all through simple armatures and knotting, which was definitely not seen as an artistic technique when Mukherjee was doing it. It was the stuff of everyday labour and at best, ‘folk’ art. As the daughter of Benode Behari (and Leela) Mukherjee, she could have laid chosen to do anything for her practice. She chose a technique that was looked down upon, physically demanding and required an incredible imagination. No, seriously, you try looking at a coil of rope and imagining it as a human form; and then turning it into one.   

Seen from a distance or from the corner of your eye, Mukherjee’s figures seem recognisably human. Their poses are often reminiscent of nayikas sculpted on ancient pillars. Many have the strong, solid stance of women as they’re drawn in some tribal art traditions. Come closer, and the figurative dissolves and becomes an abstract impression of a human form. Now you notice the textures, the neatness of the knotting; the way the shadows in the hollow bits create an illusion of substance with their darkness. This shift between figurative and abstract is particularly mischievous in the fibre sculptures like Nag Devta and Aranyani, in which male and female pubic architecture is beautifully realised. If you’re open to them, there are plenty of vulva and penises (erect and flaccid) to spot in Mukherjee’s fibre sculptures.

Night Bloom Vi (1999-2000), by Mrinalini Mukherjee

Night Bloom Vi (1999-2000), by Mrinalini Mukherjee

One of my abiding regrets is that I didn’t ask Mukherjee about either the show she’d done of obviously sexual fibre sculptures (I think this was some time in the 1990s) or the ceramic sculptures she’d made. I can’t say the ceramic sculptures that I have seen had made much of an impression on me in person, but thanks to the photographs I’ve seen of the works in Phenomenal Nature, I’m fascinated by Night Bloom VI. There’s something almost nightmarish about this piece. Peeking out of a cluster of rippling tendrils – are they tentacles? Tree roots? Waves? – is a breast (complete with an Instagram-unfriendly nipple). Has the rest of the body been consumed by those ripples, like the temple of Ta Prohm in Angkor which is both held up and being swallowed by the white roots of the mysterious, predatory/ protective tree?

When I met Mukherjee at her show of bronze sculptures at Nature Morte in Delhi, she’d said that one of the most enjoyable parts of working with ceramics was getting to play with clay. When it became a challenge to find kilns that could fire her sculptures (the regular ones used by potters wouldn’t do. I don’t know why), Mukherjee started playing around with wax. Why? The answer was a smile and a shrug. It was cheap, easy to access and she was just having fun with it — until wax’s ability to carry imprints led her to make bronze sculptures using the lost-wax casting process. The importance that Mukherjee attached to working with her hands made me realise how art has always been a tactile affair for Mukherjee (possibly a legacy of seeing her father work using his sense of touch as his sight weakened?). Whether the medium was rope, clay or wax, Mukherjee enjoyed feeling the material as she refashioned it to reflect the images in her head.

As I’m writing this, I find myself frequently frustrated by how little there is by way of interviews when it comes to writing on Mukherjee. In my experience, she was easy to talk to and difficult to interview, which has meant that there is so little to read if you want to know what informed her thinking and choices. On the flip side, though, is the agency that Mukherjee gave her audience through her unwillingness to put thoughts to words. Her sculptures stand on their own, having sprung full-formed from her imagination like Athena from Zeus’s forehead. The viewer stands before them without anything to influence their perspective or tint their interpretations of the fantastical imagery on display. You have to make sense or nonsense of it for yourself and as a result, what is forged is a curiously personal experience. All you have to guide your approach is knowledge of her process, whether it’s knotting or lost-wax casting.

Considering how emphatically futuristic Mukherjee’s bronze sculptures look, it’s interesting to note that aside from being ridiculously complicated as well as time and labour-intensive, the lost-wax casting process dates back to the 3rd millennium BCE. An old-world process to make objects born out of impressions left by nature, a timeless inspiration, upon the artist’s imagination.

Mukherjee liked the element of surprise that the lost-wax casting process brought because there are details that you can’t predict or control even as you channel the molten metal to become what you want it to be. Sprued through her imagination and techniques, bronze, known for its solidity and immutability, became delicate and almost fluid. The metal that is usually seen as flat, polished and trusted to remain unaffected by the environment – think of brass thalis, for instance – was transformed into surfaces that had been stilled mid-ripple. It seemed to defy gravity, stretching out into almost-droplets and lacy tendrils that seemed to be floating (despite being spine-bendingly heavy).

From the Cluster series (2013), by Mrinalini Mukherjee

From the Cluster series (2013), by Mrinalini Mukherjee

In 2013, she made the Cluster series, which looks like shipwrecked treasure that has been claimed and almost consumed by fronds, shells, leaves and seaweed. A few look vaguely animalistic. All of them give the impression that the moment you look away, they’ll drop their stillness and spring to motion and life. Even though they’re inspired by the natural world, there’s an otherworldly quality to Mukherjee’s bronze sculptures.

The fantastic foliage truly bloomed with the Palm Scapes sculptures, which is the last series that Mukherjee made. It didn’t strike me when I saw them at Nature Morte, but having seen Annhilation, Mukherjee’s Palm Scapes today remind me of the alien-earthly hybrids in that film. Based on a novel by Alex Garland, Annhilation was a film that I would have loved to see on big screen because visual effects supervisor Andrew Whitehurst and his team created a mesmerising (and frequently chilling) landscape that showed nature bursting with mutant abundance. Mukherjee’s  Palm Scapes would have fit right in.

This last series is, for me, the most powerful of works of Mukherjee’s career. They were large, intricate and lush. Despite being elemental, metal rarely feels natural and alive. We tend to associate it with the loss of life — weapons are made of it as are robots — and stillness, rather than vitality. Mukherjee’s bronzes, however, hum with life. Because of how cleverly Mukherjee used lost-wax casting, the metal acquired a multitude of textures in the Palm Scapes sculptures — from a smoothness that feels slippery to the soft friction of grooves as delicate as fingerprints, the bumps left by burst bubbles and swirling whorls. She found fragility in a material as dense and unyielding as bronze. Much like the way she worked fibres, this wasn’t Mukherjee revealing bronze’s nature; she transformed her materials by the force of her imagination, will and physical labour.  

The Palm Scapes sculptures aren’t installed in a space; they occupy it. Each of them is made of metal that has been made to stretch and contort into shapes that are clearly inspired by nature but are also wildly alien. The curve of a scorpion’s tail, the style of a flower, the fold of a leaf on a stalk, the swell of a ripe fruit – you could see traces of the familiar in Palm Scapes, but they had been rendered unrecognisable. These strange, metallic creatures that Mukherjee had imagined into reality were a fantastical mix of vegetal, floral and animal. They were weirdly menacing as things that make a mockery of the natural order tend to be. Inside the white box of the gallery, the large sculptures looked like they were barely being contained by the walls. Their curves sliced the geometry of a room, making them seem smaller. Here there be monsters; benign perhaps, but distinctly monstrous and unmistakably present.

Palm Scape V (2013), by Mrinalini Mukherjee

Palm Scape V (2013), by Mrinalini Mukherjee

Palm Scape VI (2013), by Mrinalini Mukherjee

Palm Scape VI (2013), by Mrinalini Mukherjee

Palm Scape VII (2013), by Mrinalini Mukherjee

Palm Scape VII (2013), by Mrinalini Mukherjee

At some point in the future, perhaps Mukherjee’s bronze sculptures will be displayed in the open, placed in the context of the immensities that inspired her to make these fantastic forms. I can imagine them gleaming and golden, scattered in a dense labyrinth with tall hedges, or under the canopy of a forest, lit by dappled sunlight. Or perhaps on a beach at twilight, disrupting the neat flat line of the horizon; the curve of the moon in the sky mirrored in the elegant semi-circle of the Palm Scape on a plinth, suspended between sand, sea and sky.

Real nature may have been Mukherjee’s life-long inspiration, but the electric lushness that we see in Palm Scapes or even in the petal-like folds and tendrils of the older fibre sculptures feels like the stuff of fantasies. Looking at the sculptures she made over the course of her career, you see its nature change. While her fibre sculptures hint at phantasmagoria, they’re mostly calm and unthreatening. The nature in her bronze sculptures, however, is a mutant that is beautiful but also occasionally terrifying. With landscapes being denuded and distorted, it’s chilling to think that there may be a future not so far away when sculptures like Mukherjee’s will be all that we’ll have by which to remember what nature looked like once. As our cities are churned into concrete and our irresponsibly-skewed idea of development nudges species of flora and fauna closer to extinction, Mukherjee’s weird and wonderful sculptures of natural hybrids are reminders of nature’s resilience. We can only hope that there are benign monsters watching over them, and hopefully us.

Palm Scape III (2013), by Mrinalini Mukherjee

Palm Scape III (2013), by Mrinalini Mukherjee