What’s Left of a World


The title of artist Rina Banerjee’s immense, detailed installation at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is a mouthful. “A World Lost: after the original island, single land mass fractured, after populations migrated, after pollution revealed itself and as cultural locations once separated merged, after the splitting of Adam and Eve, Shiva and Shakti, of race black and white, of culture East and West, after animals diminished, after the seas’ corals did exterminate, after this and at last imagine all water evaporated … this after Columbus found it we lost it imagine this” is deliberately unwieldy, says Carol Huh, assistant curator of contemporary Asian art. “Her works tend to have these amalgamations of words, as if you’re kind of wandering through language.”

There’s also a wandering effect in the exhibit itself. Banerjee uses the form of a river basin to explore issues of commerce, ecology and immigration — rivers being the epicenters of those areas of study. The exhibit itself is transient, too: It’s on display until June, but then will vanish, since it was specifically built for the Sackler only.

It’s a surprisingly accessible piece of modern art: Banerjee uses everyday objects that exude familiarity. Juxtaposing items large (a giant, horn-studded thing) and small (vaguely creepy dolls, coins), the piece communicates some big ideas.

Topping Out
The focal point of the installation is a giant nestlike object suspended from the ceiling. The horns jutting out get at the tension between the natural world and the mass-produced one: They’re a natural form, but not a natural materials. “You have ceramic horns that were handmade in Japan,” says Carol Huh, the museum’s assistant curator of contemporary Asian art. “Natural forms, but clearly handmade.”

Color My World
The red threads that dangle from the largest piece in the installation “add color to a composition that is a bit darker and a bit more monochromatic,” Huh says. The threads also call to mind veins in a body’s circulatory system — man-made materials again suggesting a natural phenomenon.

Down Below
“A World Lost …” winds an imaginary “river” through the pavilion. “On the floor, at lot of those [materials] are actually fish vertebrae or shells,” says Huh. The natural materials are interspersed with man-made objects like plastic cups, signifying the intersection of the natural and the constructed.

Scattered About
The small objects Banerjee places throughout the installation include coral, pebbles and a lot of tchotchkes. “She tends to include objects she finds in tourist shops, things imported from elsewhere or something that is an antique replica of something else,” Huh says. Rivers, after all, are historically commercial hubs, so the piece deals with “this constant traffic of goods. Horns from Japan and horns you’d find in Pottery Barn.” As its title suggests, “A World Lost” certainly ponders what’s left after various factors influence the natural world. But the installation is like the rivers it alludes to — winding toward multiple interpretations.

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1200 Independence Ave. SW; through June 8, 2014, free; 202-633-1000. (Smithsonian)
Kristen Page-Kirby covers film for The Washington Post Express.
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