Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Accidental Perfection - Mrinalini Mukherjee [Conversation/ Review - Nature Morte]


Palm Scapes, an exhibition of Bronze sculptures by veteran artist Mrinalini Mukherjee at Nature Morte, New Delhi [October 29th – November 23rd 2013] compelled me initiate a conversation with the artist.  Appendages of a Palm tree crafted so precisely, where every line of its delicate ridges appeared as though liquid bronze had been poured over a live specimen, aroused my curiosity. How was this perfection achieved?

Surrendering the knowing of the intellect in deference to the inner voice, which paves the path for perfection, is ancient wisdom. Often referred to as happenstance, it is not coincidence, but humility allowing perfection to manifest. But, rarely do artists say it just happened, in quite the way Mukherjee concedes.

The exhibition comprised a handful of bronzes from the Palm series and two works - ‘Bouquet’ I and II, from an earlier body of work. Palm Scape-V [49 x 39 x 30 inches, 2013] was a majestically crafted limb of the Palm, reclining as if on its spine. Its knee-like flexibility allowed it to bend and rest its ‘foot’ on a pedestal, appearing almost human. Placed in the centre of the basement gallery, the expansive space around it, created an aura of authority. In part, it evoked the ‘Machli Palm’ morphing into something that had little or no resemblance to the Palm species at all, but seemed akin to “fossilized trophies dug from a prehistoric swamp or the robotic armour of an alien orchid creature.” 

The ‘head’ of ‘Palm Scape-V’ opened up gladiola-like in full bloom. It’s sensuous, but rigid petal formations stretching themselves, reaching for the skies. The lower section grew into an amply fleshed, leaf-like calyx through which shoots emerged and kissed the table in a quasi reverential way. The leaf-calyx became the focus of attention not just for its placement at the centre of the limb but, because the extremely fine texture, where each fine line was delicately etched to utter perfection, commanded the eye’s focus. I asked Mukherjee how she achieved such replication of this texture. She replied saying this was not intentional: it could have been cast in plaster from an original specimen of the Palm and then in bronze, adding that when she is working, the forms being carved in wax take on the texture of the surface she is working upon and could not recollect exactly what surface created this.

Mrinalini Mukherjee is well-known for her elaborate, knotted and

plaited fibre sculptures. She has also experimented with ceramics, moving onto working with bronze. She carries forward the tradition of working with the hand, which both textiles and ceramics necessitate, and moulds the wax sculpture, before casting it in bronze, entirely with her bare fingers. If any tools are involved, they are only used to remove plaster stuck in ridges and hollow spaces of the finished piece. Here, she uses dentistry tools to extricate the residue.  Working with the hand is important to this artist who needs direct contact with her material. Where, through the conversation between the epidermal layers of her fingers and the soft skin of wax she ‘feels’ the form and its texture into being. 

The transition from fibre to bronze was not seamless but one that generated a great deal of experimentation and capacity to explore different media. Knotting for hours at a stretch, of fingers intertwining with jute to create large, anthropomorphic vegetal forms was laborious and time consuming. A chance opportunity in 1996, found Mukherjee responding well to the immediacy of handling clay, creating large pieces. But she began working with wax to make smaller, less time-consuming work - necessitated by a personal situation, which eventually led to casting in bronze through the lost wax process.  


In ‘Palm Scapes’, which marked a decade of working with bronze,  the work of hands that have felt and touched fibre in a very intimate way was evident -  as if thread had been cast in bronze. I wanted to discuss her experience from Fibre to Bronze. She was reluctant but a brief conversation ensued which was inspiring. Not because she revealed some elaborate secrets, but, for the very simplicity with which she spoke. Of how she had let chance lead her from one thing to the next, undeterred by technical limitations. Allowing this to re-define the way the medium she was experimenting with was going to be used. Mukherjee disclosed that ceramic artist Ray Meeker began his larger-than-life pieces after she had taken the scale of clay onto another dimension. 

Palm Scape-I [20.5 x 62 x 48 inches, 2013] recalls a Palm in flower, however the ‘flowers’ appear hostile and the leafy calyx is menacingly serpent-like. On the opposite end of the flowering tip was a stem extended about three feet in length, with a droopy head-like form at the far end which had a distinct similarity with the male sexual appendage. Despite the traditionally female association of a plant in flower, the form itself carried rather masculine attributes and like most of the sculptures on view appeared androgynous. The voluptuous folds and orifices of Palm Scape-VII [33 x 36 x 13 inches, 2013] could be interpreted as a feminine form, but there was harshness reflected through the use of metal and the grotesque and formidable aspect of the sculptural form. The intensified detailing evocative of a piercing gaze created an otherworldly aura, further fleshing out the masculine. The effect was ambiguous because for Mukherjee, plants have their own sexuality.

Studying these bronzed plant limbs, I was intensely aware of a
persona that was near-human.  Rigid and unmoving – stilled in time, sometimes evoking the vagina, sometimes a penile form and sometimes nothing more than a bouquet of textures, bringing forth myriad ideas  underlying which was a sense of reverence. The sculptures created a sense of awe but, Mukherjee does not speak of either her practice or her observation of palm trees encountered on her drives across the country, with the same devotion they invoke in the viewer. On the contrary, she is very matter-of-fact with words. The interplay of the sensual or erotic and meditative that manifests in the sculptures through attention to detail and intensity of gaze – making a connection that evokes divinity or puja as it were, is not part of her conscious practice either.

Mukherjee records her observations and translates them into her sculptures by neither drawings nor photographs. But driving around Kerala, Goa and other places, she just looked. Different palm forms found their way into each sculpture and it’s hard to say where one began and the other ended or when it took on a character that went beyond that of the palm, or that of any plant-form itself. 


Mukherjee doesn’t define the forms she doesn’t deify them either, but the works exhibited evoked an unseen presence. Some of the creative process is controlled but mostly not. Because she likes to look back at her work with a sense of awe, which is probably why her bronze sculptures bring forth a similar response in the viewer too.