PHILADELPHIA — Twelve electric Chinese altar lamps crown a thin, towering sculpture, titled “The promise of self rule … ” (2008). In their pink glow, I’m six years old again, standing beside my mother in an old Shanghai temple complex that’s been transformed into a kind of bazaar filled with tchotchkes. You could find all the zippers in the world in those smoky, maze-like aisles. I count plastic beads into a ziplock bag, rolling them around in my palm to see them shimmer. I haven’t thought of this in years, yet here it is — a vivid recollection sparked by Rina Banerjee: Make Me A Summary of the World, the New York-based artist’s first major museum exhibition in the United States.
Displayed in the hallowed halls of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Banerjee’s assemblage sculptures are complemented by videos and works on paper — fanciful depictions of women and mythical beasts, made of stamped images and clouds of iridescent ink. Her material lists include cowrie shells, Yoruba masks, horns, Japanese mosquito nets, and crocodile heads, among other things. She brings a vast range of global cultures into the fray; most viewers will find something familiar. She insists on the potential of common objects to trigger lyrical, personal sense-memories — and to elude singular definition.
Much like their freewheeling, rambling titles, these motley, Frankenstein-like sculptures embrace wonderful ugliness. Each fantastical shape is assembled from hundreds of objects. There are gigantic, alien flowers that tremble with the weight of glistening glass bottles. A billowing parachute-like form hangs above a grand staircase, tethered to a winged figure with rakes for hands.
Banerjee sometimes uses precious objects, but combines them with mass-produced things, like light bulbs or wire mesh. Fake eyelashes become as valuable as Indian silks. The largest sculpture in the exhibition, “Take me, take me, take me…to the Palace of love” (2003), is an 18-foot recreation of the Taj Mahal, framed in an electric pink plastic. Walking inside it is like entering another universe through rose-colored glasses, made of dark wood and red moss.
These works are meditations on the internet as a kind of cornucopia. Objects once prized, colonized, and killed for — such as silks and cowrie shells used for currency — have become banal and easily available. By mixing these materials in such strange, sci-fi-esque sculptures, she resists their potential to fetishize and orientalize.
Pictures reduce these works to the forms they crudely resemble. I didn’t understand their magic until seeing them up close. Standing before them, I’m immediately arrested by their consuming, kaleidoscopic presence. I feel like I’m looking through a microscope: each intricately placed seed, shell, and shred of silky gauze draws me in. The figurative, folklore-ish forms they take on feel like an afterthought. Like an Arcimboldo portrait made of vegetables, Banerjee’s sculptures allow objects to remain as they are. She points to the potential for a metal shard to resemble a rib, or the fantasy of a plastic bead.
By drawing from various cultural histories, Banerjee’s sculptures present a utopian view of globalism. They’re affirmations that people of color will also inherit the future, and will retain traditions — even as the architectures and materials of those traditions shift and meld through diaspora.
Rina Banerjee: Make Me a Summary of the World continues at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (118-128 North Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19102) through March 31. The exhibition is curated by Jodi Throckmorton, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and Lauren Schell Dickens, curator at the San José Museum of Art.