Walking into Jhaveri Contemporary and encountering Mrinalini Mukherjee’s bronzes in the eponymous show ‘Bronze’, one is disoriented; are we on another planet? Not because of a space reorientation in this small, pristine gallery, but by the exhibits, displayed on utilitarian shelves and plinths. Fantastical, writhing objects gleam – what are they? Treasures unearthed from an ancient civilization? Birthing forms that are caught in motion? Hybrids derived from flora and fauna trapped in a lava overflow? Whatever they are, Mukherjee’s sculptures abound; round each corner you encounter more; on the walls are placid plaques, a backdrop framing them all.
If the Bronze Age, three millennia ago, started with using the alloy for functionary tools, here in the 21st century the metal comes full circle. Using the lost wax technique that produced much of the glorious Chola bronzes (9th-12th century AD), these are no dancing Shivas or sinuous Parvatis; Mukherjee’s bronzes combine an ancient casting technique with modernity, inventing unique forms.
Like gargantuan lettuces unfurling their leaves, womb-like they enclose a slender avian neck in the first piece (Bird 2, 2012) encountered. There’s movement in the stasis – one waits for the outer layers to drop away – the anticipation that lies at the heart of a work of art that thrills. This may be bronze, but there’s the fragility and sensuousness of parchment, each layer with reliefs of what looks like pressed leaves, but these don’t have the static fossilized time of ages gone by; they seem alive as layers unfurl, mutating into beauty. On an adjacent wall a flat relief sculpture (Landscape XVIII, 2010) stands in contrast: here material is played out directly as a large unpolished surface; the lower half is overlayered with polished metal that seems poured on and left to dry – experiments in landscapes.
Mukherjee has always been working with material – metal, rope and clay – producing sculptures that defy their more humble beginnings. Rope doesn’t hang or loop like a Sheela Gowda work, but is deliberately knotted and dyed into forms that may be a convoluted mass, but convey the clarity of the artist’s vision in the final articulation. Clay is fashioned into sculptures that seem to have the solidity of metal, building them into ambitious heights – both traditional materials are used innovatively.
The names of present and past works spell out the ideas of the mind landscape Mukherjee digs these fantastical forms from – ‘Lava’ ‘Outcrop’ ‘Cluster’ ‘Forest Flame’ ‘Palm-scapes’ ‘Bronze’ – these age-old geographical terms bring forth strange, proleptic manifestations. The gallery is peppered with them, revealing parts of form that seem familiar, yet left open to conjecture as to the final emergence. Four sculptures, in a cluster by a corner of the gallery, have the feel of Chinoiserie imagery gone wild in 3D – the crafted, organic sensibility shared. In Mukherjee’s delicate rendering and subtle patterning in metal monochrome, one has to constantly remind oneself this is bronze, not clay, or the wax, that she does the initial moulding with.
The largest sculpture in the show reveals a recognizable form, that of a vase emerging, and is slightly out of place here among others that defy identification. Light bounces off the polished surface, dark crevices contrasting with the golden, stuccoed patina, together embodying a wholeness and soul. These are weighty pieces (the sheer weight of the metal) but they belie that; there’s no dour heaviness but a delicate vulnerability in presence. This is a modernist at work – reinterpreting an ancient technique, not influenced by myth or mythology or the ritual, borrowing from nature without overt representation, shaping unexpected forms that defy classification. There’s contradiction within the work – they are both florid and austere simultaneously.
Accompanying the show in Mumbai, Mukherjee has a simultaneous show ‘Palm-Scapes’ at Nature Morte in New Delhi. Larger sculptures, palmfrond-like, caught in molten glory, have the same accomplished, disorienting rendering; both shows imagined together are a landscape of a new bronze age perhaps, of a world mined, the core now the living surface – a leap of faith the artist imagines perhaps, of an ancient alloy crafting a futuristic vista.
(All Images: Mrinalini Mukherjee, Installation Views; Courtesy of the artist and Jhaveri Contemporary.)