Published on October 4th, 2012 | by Elizabeth Coleman0
Review of Ranu Mukherjee’s “Telling Fortunes”
In her work, artist Ranu Mukherjee explores the idea of the contemporary nomad and how repeated relocation has shaped Silicon Valley through its immigrant population, migrant workers and dot-com booms and busts. Focusing particularly on South Asian, Chinese and Latino culture, she uses images that she “crowd sourced,” collecting images from the public to make her work more meaningful. Taking these often iconic images to represent uprootedness and a new home, she renders them into digitally animated films which discuss speculative narratives of material conditions brought on by global capitalism.
Mukherjee’s latest exhibit, Telling Fortunes, is on display at the San Jose Museum of Art (SJMA) through January 13. As part of its ongoing series, Beta Space, and in conjunction with the 2012 ZERO1 Biennial: Seeking Silicon Valley, the SJMA commissioned Mukherjee to create two hybrid films that explore how Silicon Valley was shaped.
The first hybrid film, “Nearing and Viewing (Production Through Encounter),” featured random moving images from bees and honey, to a cash register and bricks, to jaguars, lemurs and macaws. Mukherjee’s films are unique because the images and animation seem to just melt into each other, changing the scene so subtly that viewers hardly notice. As though in a dream, the film slowly pans over the fading and changing images before cutting suddenly to new scenes. Through the use of disparate and seemingly unrelated images, Mukherjee makes a statement about the cultural coalescence of Silicon Valley residents, inviting viewers to make their own connections to explain how the images are related.
Personally, I found the content of these images to be intriguing, especially the images and footage of animals from San Jose’s Happy Hollow Zoo, a place I used to visit as a child. However, I failed to see a distinct connection between the images and life in Silicon Valley.
Her second film, “Radiant Chromosphere (Move Towards What Is Approaching),” made a statement about the effects of the sun’s energy on the agricultural and economic future of Silicon Valley, weaving together images as disparate as fields awaiting development to solar panels, snake charms, space and a turtle. Though seemingly random, the film was executed better, providing the viewer with a clear trajectory of an idea and theme. For example, solar panels reflecting bright colored lights from the sun are overlaid with orchards and fruit before becoming interwoven into a Tree of Life. The final image is a collage-like pattern of macaws, solar panels and fruit in the branches.
Mukherjee also printed images from her films on silk saris, representing the same themes of her work in different mediums. One of these pieces, “Double Lingham,” is a strikingly beautiful ink on sari work that uses vivid oranges, pastels and greens to represent the lingham and yoni — the union of creative, sexual and spiritual energies as well as good fortune. Mukherjee masterfully layered materials to allow light to pass through the thin saris, elegantly tricking the eye into believing that the images are rising to the surface beneath a luminous sheen. The work was reminiscent of long-lost memories and hazy dreams; though it wasn’t readily apparent what I was looking at, the images were somehow familiar, resonating with me.
The final piece of the exhibit (and the first one visitors encounter) was a soundscape set, “Listening Park,” which is a collaborative installation with sound designer Mike Maurillo. The simulated park consists of a single wooden porch swing, hybrid fruit trees — which produce three types of fruit, symbolizing the tree of life — and speakers. Audio clips of birds and bees are woven together with bits of recorded conversations and Mukherjee reciting pieces of the I Ching. However, random bits of interviews with the zoo-keepers at Happy Hollow Park intermixed with jungle sounds and birds chirping felt ill-fitted and discordant, lacking any sort of melody or coherence. Mukherjee’s melodic voice reciting intermittent recitations of the I Ching at least added some semblance of musical cadence. Even so, the noise of traffic and airplanes taking off from the nearby San Jose Airport often drowned out the audio; but perhaps Mukherjee and Maurillo designed the installation this way on purpose in order to further implicate how Silicon Valley’s tech rise has impacted local nature.
Only after exploring the entire exhibit and watching Mukherjee’s videos did the audio loop in Listening Park make sense, leading me to conclude that better placement of the sound installation would have enhanced my experience of it. Ironically enough, Mukherjee apparently consulted the I Ching for placement of the pieces in the exhibit. Mukherjee also consulted other forms of fortune telling, including a fortune telling machine within the Winchester Mystery House. Printed on a sari for the piece “Distant Lands” is the phrase, “Your life may take you to many distant lands but you will always return home safely again,” taken from the machine. My reaction was to scoff at the obviousness of the fortune, wondering how many cards she had to go through before finally getting that one. It seemed to tie in a little too perfectly to the thematic elements that Mukherjee was exploring, while other areas of the exhibit seemed to hardly tie in at all.
Ultimately, I thought the exhibit was extremely ambitious. Though immigration and nomadic life in the Silicon Valley seems like a narrow topic to explore, Mukherjee’s exhibit proved that it is an extremely rich and diverse theme, drawing on California history and its projected future, the tech industry, and several different and distinct cultures. While Mukherjee’s work displayed these ideas beautifully in her rendered films and images, I wish the connections between the ideas had been stronger to allow for a more unified presentation of thematic elements.
Summary: The artist chose an extremely ambitious theme, drawing on California history, the tech industry and diverse cultures. But though these ideas were beautifully rendered, the connections between them remained weak.