Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 8, 2015
Chitra Ganesh: Eyes of Time New York: Brooklyn Museum, 2015.
Exhibition schedule: Brooklyn Museum , Brooklyn, December 12, 2014–July 12, 2015
Chitra Ganesh. Eyes of Time (detail) (2014). Mixed-media wall mural. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum. Photo © Jonathan Dorado.

Chitra Ganesh: Eyes of Time is a site-specific mural installation at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Herstory Gallery, organized by Saisha M. Grayson, Assistant Curator, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. A multimedia artist known for articulating feminist and queer narratives that weave religious, mythological, and popular iconographies, Ganesh (b. 1975) was born and raised in a Hindu Indian family in Brooklyn and Queens. Her wide-ranging practice—which includes drawings, photographic digital collages, text-based works, and collaborations—draws from a vast array of canonical images and historical writings, both worshiped and vernacular, in the pursuit of an expansive and at times dialectical representation of female identity and agency. Eyes of Time explores the South Asian traditions of Shakti—divine female empowerment—and the sacred Indian portrayals of the Great Goddess Devi, also manifested by one of her terrifying, wrathful incarnations or avatars called Kali. Kali embodies the inherent concepts of time, change, and rebirth, symbolizing both the creative energies of the universe and its destruction or annihilation. Ganesh has spoken of the present time as Kali Yuga, a period of darkness according to ancient Sanskrit texts. She also accompanied her wall mural with corresponding objects from the museum’s encyclopedic collection, displaying them as artist-curated vitrines. In mining the museum’s archive for subjects that engage in her “culturally specific” understanding of female sexuality and gender-based power, Ganesh’s installation intended to explore “shared cultural fantasies,” a point emphasized by Grayson on the wall text.

A colossal, fifteen-foot figural representation of Kali occupies the mural’s central focus. Her full and tri-breasted ashen body, with jewels for nipples, showcases a sculpted girdle of slayed human arms and hands—individually casted and sickly, they hang bloodied from the surface. Of her six raised arms, an eye rests on an open palm, another grips a sickle, and another emanates from an open mouth featuring white teeth and a bloodstained tongue. From her golden head, rendered in collage as an antique handless clock, wildly braided black hair cascades and forms simple words, akin to mantras, such as “quicksand,” “rainbows,” and “the haunted.” Her foot resting on a spherical “time machine” evokes planetary and terrestrial revolutions. Flanking Kali are two female portraits drawn as sci-fi prototypes: one beholds a dark cosmic shape cinematically framing her gaze while an assortment of brass gears, clock hardware, and plastic tubes punctuates her companion’s profile. (Ganesh amassed many of these objects during her travels.) Embodying time’s circular and psychic nature, these female attendants offer a metaphysical departure to a futuristic technological plane. Nearby, a pair of bronze statuettes converse: a figurine of Kali from seventeenth-century India clasping her four symbolic attributes, and the lioness-headed Sekhmet, the Egyptian warrior goddess (664–332 BCE), also revered for her formidable powers of destruction and healing. From the wall Kali generates a centrifugal energy whose unfolding may be read as a layered expression of the cosmos through time in a kindred manner to the creative and redemptive relationships of heaven and earth. Radiating wheels, mandalas, and lotuses are imagined here as Buddhist correlations, along with draped banners conceived like thangkas or vertical cloth paintings.

Ganesh’s aesthetic syncretism is a confluent exchange and union between East and West, equally informed by Bollywood cinema, Indian graphic novels, American comic books, and sacred texts. On view in the gallery, although sidelined, is Ganesh’s own trailblazing zine and printed book, Tales of Amnesia (2002), which assimilated through her own countercultural lens the popularized Hindu stories appreciated by the youth of the Indian diaspora. In one sense, then, Ganesh functions as a contemporary translator of South Asian culture for today’s global art world, a position that the artist would arguably embrace and reject. She clearly identifies her cultural and spiritual backgrounds as pivotal constructs in her work, yet her desire to create a flexible visual language is determined less by autobiographical references or critique than by a theoretical reading of gender’s multiplicity and hybridity. Proclaiming her own feminist vocabulary as “junglee”—an Indian colonial term to suggest female transgression—Ganesh adopts in her art complementary strategies reliant on polarities such as purity/corporeality, anonymity/subjectivity, violence/eroticism, and creation/destruction. An aesthetic expression of conflict thus destabilizes gendered categories and ultimately transcends them. Further, Ganesh’s multilingual facility in sign systems is reinforced by her earlier study of semiotics as an undergraduate at Brown. Her representations repeatedly analyze, subvert, and reconfigure signifying modes of social and sexual relations. In doing so, Ganesh separates her personal identity—an indelible mark on the surface of all her images—from her public and creative one.

Ganesh’s additional selection of objects is exhibited together in cases in front of the mural and shown side by side. As a principal idea illuminating her choice, Kali’s powerful “third eye” performs the act of looking and playfully alludes to the Hindu practice of darshan—the experience of seeing and exchanging gazes (traditionally with a divine subject or object). The ocular tracks in Louise Bourgeois’s drypoint Eyes (1996) connects the recurring Surrealist motif as an awakening and female sexual allusion; likewise, the somber female apparitions in a heavily inked untitled lithograph by Kiki Smith, from the set Banshee Pearls (1991), lend gravity. In contrast, the opulent watercolor The Goddess Matangi (ca. 1760) from Rajasthan parades the goddess Durga riding her tiger alongside the dominating goddess Matangi, known as Mahavidyas. This image makes a rewarding bridge to the strident, psychedelic faces duplicated in Relate to Your Heritage (1971), a screenprint by Barbara Jones-Hogu, a founding member of AfriCOBRA. The subtle aquatint Between Vertical and Horizon—Descended Triangle No. 6 (1987) by Japanese artist Shoichi Ida offers an abstract and spatial vision of Kali implicit in geometric structure and in the form of a tantric yantra or inverted triangle, also a symbol of queer identity.

Yet the narrative in this section remains curiously linear, no doubt the unfortunate result of a constrained gallery coupled with conservation concerns that potentially influenced the display of small-scaled objects and works on paper from the otherwise vast selection available. Unlike the mural’s generative powers, viewing two-dimensional objects in flat vitrines produces a reserved exchange of ideas. More than anything, there is something intrinsically reverential and meditative in Eyes of Time, which pays a similar homage to universal stories and rituals as those recounted by Judy Chicago’s female banqueters in her adjacent and monumental The Dinner Party (1974–79). Chicago’s Kali, who takes her place at a table fashioned as an open equilateral triangle, is endowed in her copious seeds and sanguine ribs and flanges with preternatural fecundity and an unquenchable thirst for the blood of demons. The company of thirty-nine female guests (all granted ceramic plate settings), who have symbolically materialized from prehistory to the twentieth-century, appear not only as points of reference in the gynocentric histories of North American feminism but as multiple incarnations transcending geographical and temporal barriers.

Keeping in mind the challenges presented by working in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Ganesh’s Eyes of Time is a significant example of dialogue and exchange in the continually growing discourse on global and transnational feminisms. Through her otherworldly vision of Kali, part mythological heroine and part television warrior, Ganesh successfully realizes a present time where new avatars are possible.

Aliza Edelman
independent curator

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