Artist attempts to sum up the world in Philly exhibit

Rina Banerjee's first major retrospective at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is called "Make Me a Summary of the World."

"The World as Burnt Fruit..." is the shortened title of a work by Rina Banerjee in the exhibit, "Make Me a Summary of the World" at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts. (Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts)

“I’m interested in the maximum experience, not the minimal experience,” said Rina Banerjee, wearing large plastic eyeglasses while sitting in a gallery at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

In saying so, the Indian-American artist with a large, traveling retrospective, “Make Me a Summary of the World,” echoed – perhaps inadvertently — American icon Dolly Parton: “Less isn’t more. More is more.”

Banerjee is not making a bid for an American mindset; if anything, she has positioned herself on a global level, pulling ideas and materials from around the world – as far as cybershopping will take her. The monumental-sized sculptures in “Make Me a Summary of the World” are often messy and chaotic as they trace cultural identities that actively blur in an increasingly cross-pollinated planet.

One of the galleries at PAFA has been given over to an introduction to Banerjee’s approach. An entire wall is painted with a list of the hundreds of different materials she uses to make her work — including animal bones, copper wire, feathers, doll heads, dried mushrooms, glass beads, Chinese altar lamps, steel mesh, blueprints of building ventilation systems, apple gourds, etc.

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It’s a kitchen sink of the sacred and the mundane, depending on where you are standing in the world.

“A lot of things are not considered art, which is high art in other places,” said Banerjee. “There is discontinuity and disagreement where things do not translate.”

Among her materials is kumkum, a colorful powder derived from turmeric often used for face markings during religious ceremonies in India. There are also lots of cowrie shells, once used as a form of currency around the world. Materials that have strong meanings for some can mean little or nothing to others.

“I think one piece that people instantly describe as being childlike or familiar in terms of playfulness is ‘Burned Fruit,’ ” she said, referring to a huge sculpture of a reptile skull gripping a small globe in its jaws, jutting out of a dome lined with cowrie shells.

“The piece has a very dark message, as well as talking about a very particular mythology between India and Africa that has to do with a gharial, a kind of alligator,” she said. “This is a very serious mythology. There’s this whole language of animals that are ancient, merging with cultures and particular religious beliefs.”

The gharial – an endangered species – is closely associated with the Hindu goddess Gaṅgā of the Ganges River. The skull in “Burnt Fruit…” is not real bone, but fabricated with resin.

Most of Banerjee’s works are given extremely long titles, and “Burnt Fruit” is only the informal title. It’s officially known as: “The world as burnt fruit – When empires feuded for populations and plantations, buried in colonial and ancient currency a Gharial appeared from an inky melon – hot with blossom sprang forth to swallow the world not yet whole as burnt fruit.”

The name of another recent work begins, “Viola, from New Orleans…” and continues for about 150 words in a stream-of-consciousness ramble on the history of Creole culture and economic survival in the face of European colonialism.

The titles do little to clarify the work they represent. Trying to navigate Banerjee’s complex and abstract installations by taking cues from the wall text is futile. In a museum world where patrons can often spend more time reading wall text than looking at art, Banerjee developed a strategy to trick people into thinking critically.

“The non-knowing allows people to interpret. They are forced to do the work of interpreting,” she said. “I’m forcing them to enter a different space. They have to make sense of it with their own history. They are participating. They are a maker themselves.”

PAFA has given Banerjee the run of its entire historic Frank Furness building, installing her art among the permanent exhibitions.

Many of the works involve string, rope, tubing, and other materials that tend to snake around, like tendrils. And  the effect is a sense that PAFA has set a contagion loose in the timeline of established history of American art.

That conceit is upheld by her most recent work included in the show, “Infectious Migrations.”

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