“The challenge of being an artist is whether you can be one person who impacts many,” says artist Rina Banerjee as she talks about her solo exhibition Make Me a Summary of the World, which is on display at the San José Museum of Art, California, until October 6, 2019.
The show, which will subsequently travel to the Fowler Museum at the University of California (December 8, 2019 - May 31, 2020), the Frist Art Museum, Nashville, Tennessee (July 24, 2020 - October 25, 2020) and the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina (February 18, 2021 - July 11, 2021), includes enormous installations like the soft red Taj Mahal, titled Take me, take me, take me...to the Palace of love, over 15 of her sculptures works as well as a selection of her paper works. Overall the exhibition is a riot of colours and objects, creating a meeting point of multiple diasporas.
Using a wide variety of objects from China, India, Africa and Polynesia, Banerjee describes her obsession with collecting objects as an approach towards mobility. She explains, “Objects or souvenirs create an understanding or reflection of the world because they represent different places that we travel to. Make Me a Summary of the World, a title chosen by the curator of the show, which is the beginning of a larger title of one of the sculptures in the exhibition, then speaks of the idea of mobility. Through seeing and experiencing objects, one can arrive at mobility without actually leaving one’s home. An accumulation of non-functional objects allows us to feel like we are a part of the world, like we are participating in a larger horizon. So, it creates a portal for being elsewhere without being there.”
In the same vein, Banerjee’s work is an exploration of culture that is not limited to ‘authenticity’ i.e. to any one specific culture, origin or residency. While she is considered Indian, irrespective of having spent most of her life in the United States since the age of seven, she finds this identity - which follows her wherever she goes - rather constraining. Banerjee describes this identity-flux as, “I am really preoccupied with those concepts to understand why we don’t think of ourselves as one place on the earth.”
The accumulation of objects, whether in a home, or a museum, or across a culture, is a reflection then of the identities people choose to associate with. While Banerjee notices a high proliferation of colonial objects from the 18th and 19th centuries, for her this is symbolic of people’s choices of who they are. As Banerjee says, “Clearly, I am making those choices too, but I am making them out of other objects, so I am reclaiming them as a cohesive one in one sculpture or one object. So there is a kind of consumption that I am producing and unlike the title, it is really talking about how you cannot summarise; it is unreachable, those goals of summary and universality and all that we would like to allow us to be complete in our understanding of who we are. However, it is an unending series of travels and questions that is very central to our feeling alive. Therefore, those questions can never really be closed or answered completely.”
While she is inspired by individual objects, making meaning out of those found elsewhere, what intrigues her is the question of why she cannot identify with a particular object or why despite being considered a cultural outsider in other cases, she often associated with things that she is told still cannot form a part of her identity. For Banerjee, acquiring a knowledge or experience of the world and other cultures is a journey towards unveiling one’s self-identity. According to her, “You really have to know the world in order to know yourself completely. With that kind of information, to some degree, you can understand what you are and who you are by comparing yourself to other places. The series of comparisons creates a vocabulary in which to speak of who you are and I think that you can never really obtain it but you are always driven by it.” The title then is ironic in the sense that while the extravagant exhibition threads together objects from across the world, in essence, it cannot present a summary of the world.
Even still, Banerjee’s visual attempt at presenting a cultural excess is symbolic of the multiple identities she associates with or rather the one that amalgamates them all. It is for this reason that while she threads together the objects she accumulates, each individual object speaks for itself. Banerjee explains, “I don’t really transform objects and cut it into a million pieces where you do not recognise them. You recognise what the object is and sometimes the object is fragmented, but I would not say it is dismantled. I achieve that because it is very important for you to recognise what these objects were before, that they had a history and a place that was its original place and function. And then I brought it to this location – the artwork.”
It is for this reason that Banerjee often likes to use handmade objects in her work, juggling not just with different cultural identities, but the individuality of each handmade object and its unique ‘clumsiness’ as she puts it. She further uses thread or wire rather than power tools or adhesive. Banerjee likes to evade perfection, almost consciously, and prefers to infuse her work with a “kind of intimacy that is essential to experiencing art,” as she describes. For Banerjee, her work is about “trying to make people understand that we can make anything from what is designated outside of our culture, and it can still be personal and we can identify with anything we want; we have that gift.” Any form of segregation, then, especially social or emotional, is the biggest constraint to realising our own self-identity.