Sometimes certain words are dropped into a conversation and they just seem heavier, bigger, and more complicated than all the other bits of exchanged language. These words sink quickly into your memory, with the deadweight of an anchor, leaving that conversation forever moored in meaning to those few hefty words. This is what happened when we went to visit Ranu at her studio in the American Industrial Center in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood. Ranu was welcoming and fully engaged, and immediately we were in the thick of talking about her art, influences, and her own personal history. Because of her multidisciplinary approach, Ranu’s work is not necessarily the most straightforward— it takes a while to not only digest the different embodiments of her work (which includes prints on textiles, video, and ink paintings on paper) but the conceptual territory it covers is also wide and sweeping. Which brings me back to those weighty words.
Ranu said a lot in our conversation. Because she had to. Because of the scope of her work, it does necessitate explanations, examples, descriptions, narration… yes, it demands language and lots of it, and yet it’s hard to pin it down with words. But there is one word that Ranu used that manages to do it: creolization. This is the word that anchors my understanding of her work. This is the word that my memory circles around. This is the only word that can fully express the claustrophobia of her aesthetic— seemingly disparate images, cultural references, and fragments crowd and push into her pieces, inhabiting space equally, spreading, moving, mixing, and overlapping, continually vacillating between familiar-ness, otherness, and newness. Much like the process of creolization, Ranu’s work culls from various sources to create something new, replacing prior forms, boundaries, and perceptions with unique amalgamations influenced by different histories and experiences. Beyond its investigation into the complexity of modern identities and our ever-increasing global exchanges of cultural resources, what I find most compelling about Ranu’s art is its awareness of motion and time, both literally and metaphorically. Her work never seems to flinch away from just how fast the world is turning and changing, or how unfixed our perimeters, histories and selves are… there is a sense of the constant spinning and the endless hum of our own momentum propelling us forward as we zigzag into the future.
How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
I am curious about how we can perceive vast geophysical and cultural transformation through the fragmented view of our everyday, and how we perceive otherness within ourselves because we can identify with temporal scales that are beyond the scale of a human lifetime— we catch glimpses when we slow down and take time to look, and feel what is around us. We perceive complexity through fragments.
I am very interested in speculative fiction and my work is related to that genre— it is driven by the prevailing narratives we have about the near future. I think many artists, myself included, are dealing with excess. Every narrative produces physical and material affect. I think my work operates as a conduit between the liminal and the social, through the pictorial. It is an energetic body.
The work comes from a mixed aesthetic heritage and embodies creolization or cultural hybridity. Creole refers to language and describes the way in which elements from disparate languages sometimes flow together smoothly and at other times are kind of jammed together awkwardly. This is a very good way of describing the kind of aesthetic language I am developing with my hybrid films and with some of the new textile work. The progression of a post-colonial world and questions about how it plays out for art making globally is huge. I have made lots of work around the figure of the nomad in the past few years.
Ranu Mukherjee’s hybrid film piece from 2012, entitled Radiant Chromosphere (move towards what is approaching).
What mediums do you work with? You employ a vast array of materials, how do you go about choosing them?
I think the mediums I work with are all chosen for their ability to bring together disparate elements— I think the vast array of materials you are referring to might actually be the source material. I gather and produce source material and then compose it. I employ the tools or materials I need to make the source material: painting, collecting images from people, making photographs, making collages or cutting things out from magazines and scanning them, talking to people, making audio recordings , doing research and reading the I-Ching. Each body of work demands a slightly different process of gathering the resources I need to make the pictures.
The surfaces of the pictures themselves are in the end simple I think— projections, ink on paper, ink on silk or cotton fabric. Occasionally, I also make more collaborative projects— recent examples include a radio station, a listening park (audio installation with hybrid fruit trees) and a procession. I think a lot about the materiality of the work and there is something about the way certain materials can really address a kind of movement between physicality and the ephemeral that I respond to.
I don’t paint on white paper; my ink paintings are only on colored paper. I enjoy the way the color acts as a really active part of the picture, just as the ink is; it’s like a living environment rather than a void and something in me resists the idea of the white space of the paper as being neutral or nothingness. The colors bring the archaic back into the image somehow—I don’t know how it works but it becomes a context for the objects even if they are floating. I am happy that I have found a way to make paintings again that I can accept.
My hybrid films are sometimes difficult to define. I combine animation and photography, and sometimes a little bit of video. I had to make this name for the medium because I felt there were not adequate terms to describe the work— (it isn’t really video art which I associate with performance- and it isn’t really animation.) The name I have chosen also allows me to describe where the material of the work and its cultural basis come together.
Do you see your work as autobiographical at all? How does personal history work its way into your practice?
I was born in the US (Boston suburbs). My mom is of German-Italian descent and from New Jersey and my father was born in India. He passed away when I was 18 months old and I did not grow up being culturally Indian. He was a scientist and I have found many things about him over the years that make me think that I got my interest in science fiction from him, or perhaps my interest in the unknown has to do with the stranger within myself— the part of my DNA that was not reflected in my environment.
A few years ago I started working with Mark Baron and Elise Boisante’s collection of popular Indian mythological images from the 19th century, translating and recasting their elements, abstracting and remixing them using contemporary images that currently seem to have mythic power. The images depict Indian deities placed in European landscapes. They were the beginning of a post-colonial India and also correspond with my own mixed ethnicity. The landscape becomes a stage, the space compressed and
this twisting of what was a realist tradition speaks to me. Their book was in my house as a child and it made a great impression on me, but I had to find the pictures again, later, through a circuitous route.
I am just understanding now, after all this time, how limited the art historical references of my education were— in the US and then London it was all Euro-American but really didn’t reflect the diversity of the population of artists coming up. So, I think my whole nomadic project comes back to this need to reflect the way that culture is mixed and created; really reflect it visually in the kinds of source material I am using.
Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
In 2008 I gave up trying to do anything outside of being an artist and a parent. It was an important moment for me. I have been teaching in art schools since I finished graduate school, in London and now here. Teaching generally means getting to share ideas and resources and more recently it also feels like communicating with a different generation of artists. It also brings me into contact with a lot of other artists who are faculty, who share the same kinds of issues trying to balance different kinds of time commitments. I think I consider teaching to be an extension of being an artist on most days and I just became Assistant Chair of the MFA program. I am also the mother of triplets who are now 6 years old. I don’t think parenting is a day job, but, there are some aspects of it that should be acknowledged as real work.
What are you presently inspired by— are there particular things you are reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
Indian Textiles. I am looking at the use of pattern, technique, and line in different regions and which might be the best region to visit to try to have translations of my imagery made. I’m trying to figure out how to travel there to work with textile artists and how I would frame that kind of a project.
I read Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Wind Up Girl and thought immediately about making a piece directly in response to it because I loved it so much, but I have not figured out how yet.
Extreme Metaphors, a book of interviews by JG Ballard and his older book The Crystal World. My interest in speculative fiction has prompted me to think about how that form of writing always leaves this incredible space for the reader to project themselves into, and is characterized by the best descriptions of urban space, that has even spread to the rural.
Also, I am beginning to work with the I-Ching as a way to understand what is happening in the studio, pictures, exhibition making, etc. This has been incredible. I have two different books which translate the hexagrams in totally different kinds of language— so I read two versions of each hexagram the oracle gives me in response to questions. I pace myself with it- not taking on too many at a time.
Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I am working on finishing up a body of work for my show opening in November. I am making larger scale paintings on paper that remix the images from the 19th century prints and bring together ink and collage. I am making a series of new textile pieces and a new film. I have been painting beheaded people for a remake of a Kali image set in an American Desert (Joshua Tree). It includes images of protesters, fashion models and service dogs. I have been painting suns from the 19th century as well.
How do you navigate the art world?
I take it as it comes, with immense love and support from my partner- lover-husband boyfriend person, Mike Maurillo.
What do you think is the function of art in society? Do art or artists have a responsibility to do anything in particular?
There are many different responsibilities, but I think a few are:
Protecting the unknown or the unexpected from constantly being explained away.
Contributing to visual culture in a way that is not the same as advertising.
Exposing things that are not getting exposure.
Creating work that represents the time in which it is being made.
Making space for the body and for different senses of time.
I think there is and should be infinite ways that artists exist and work in the world. I wish this perspective were better understood and taught from an early age and I think it is up to artists to bring this way if thinking to people. For me, it could not be more important that humans connect deeply with their lives and the world and their energy, and that we can identify with a wide spectrum of matter.
Do you have a motto?
I do tell myself to be gentle on many days.
Ranu Mukherjee’s 2011 hybrid film piece entitled Color of history, sweating rocks.
‘This is Not America; Resistance, Protest and Poetics’ Arizona State University Art Museum
November 6, 2013 – March 15, 2014
Vital Signs, Wichita State Art Museum
September 14-January 19.