Some of the most interesting art that the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery has shown over the past decade has been seen before you get very far into the building. Now in its 10th year, the “Perspectives” program has used the underground museum’s entrance pavilion, just steps inside the front door, to showcase the creativity of several top-notch contemporary artists from Asia, typically with a single work or a single body of work. My favorites have included Simryn Gill’s swirling floor installation featuring chili peppers and old silverware (2006-07), a monumental mirrored sculpture by Anish Kapoor (2008-10), a suite of moving photographs by Hai Bo (2010) and surreal video by Lu Chunsheng (2011).
The latest contribution to the series is a sculptural installation by Rina Banerjee that centers on a large structure hanging from the ceiling like a giant Christmas ornament festooned with animal horns. Featuring an old-fashioned scale carrying painted ostrich eggs, it hovers above a meandering trail of cowrie shells, coins, plastic cups and fraying red rope that traces a riverlike path across the pavilion floor.
Banerjee’s path to the art world is almost as circuitous. Born in Kolkata, the New York-based artist moved to London with her family as a small child but eventually settled in the United States, where she studied polymer engineering at Case Western Reserve University and worked in the plastics industry before going to art school at Yale. Her work’s title, “A world Lost,” is an abridged version of a much longer, poemlike passage of text that, like the work itself, meanders from image to image.
One visitor to the museum stopped in front of Banerjee’s sprawling installation the other day and pronounced it a “Rube Goldbergian contraption.” He wasn’t far off.
Not that it actually does anything. Unlike Goldberg’s imaginary machines, “A world Lost” just sits there. Much like Goldberg’s kinetic art, however, one thing does lead to another.
The starting point is the natural environment, specifically our water supply. Banerjee’s piece is meant to resemble a river system as much as the human circulatory system (the latter allusion underscored by the red rope and threads). That sets up an equivalency between the water we drink, swim in, bathe in and our lifeblood. The plastic cups, which are collected in little “cities” that cluster along the path of the “river,” drive the point home even more, suggesting the devastating impact of pollution and waste on our planet’s health. Coins — along with the scale — hint at the economic engine that drives that development and that drives the have-nots further from the haves every day.
The clear implication is that it isn’t just money that the poor lack but also, in many cases, water. Also, as most devastatingly hinted at by the scales, justice.
It’s a hard-hitting artwork, but it doesn’t hit you over the head. Banerjee’s methodology is subtle yet powerful. According to the artist, the central, domelike pendant — a recurring image in Banerjee’s work — is meant to evoke many things: a house, a temple and the human head, as well as an inverted mountain, its ice caps melting away. As she noted in a talk about her installation, it also resembles an upside-down funnel, which in Flemish painting is a symbol of madness.
There are blunt and finer points to “A world Lost.” It’s the kind of art that makes a statement: Banerjee is in favor of clean, available water, and she’s opposed to the commodification of a natural resource. It’s a message you can get almost while striding to the museum’s elevator.
But the more you look at it, the more you see. There’s so much going on with Banerjee’s installation — references to alchemy, commerce, the transience of life, indeed, to our very place and purpose in the universe — that it stops you in your tracks.
As you visit “A world Lost,” look very closely at the floor. Along with the thousands of cowrie shells and coins — both of which have historically been used for currency, another allusion to the interconnectedness of the global financial market — you’ll see clusters of miniature ceramic animals and human figurines, meant to suggest man’s interconnected relationship with nature.
Some of the human figures, purchased by the artist on eBay, are what’s known as Frozen Charlotte dolls. Made of china, they’re so named after a folk tale about a girl who went out for a winter sleigh ride but whose vanity about her beautiful outfit led her to dress inappropriately. When she arrived at her destination, she had frozen to death from exposure.
The dolls are easy to miss but not the point: Selfish, shortsighted thinking can have disastrous — and sometimes permanent — results.
— Michael O'Sullivan