On Thursday, February 28 the Asian Art Musesum launched a new contemporary art program series called the Artists Drawing Club. The Artists Drawing Club is a salon of sorts. Every month a local contemporary artist is invited to use the museum as a project platform, drawing inspiration from the collection, special exhibitions, the building, or the surrounding neighborhood to create an interactive event for the public to engage with museum through the artist’s process. The inaugural event featured artist Ranu Mukherjee and future session will include artists Amy M Ho, Julie Chang, Weston Teruya, Binh Danh, Lordy Rodriguez, Toyin Odutola, and Ala Ebtekar over the next eight months. I spoke with Ranu just before the first event about the project and the process of working at the museum.
Marc Mayer: The Artists Drawing Club grew out of conversations I had with Imin Yeh and other local artists while working on the event at the museum, Taking Up Space which was part of Yeh’s larger project SpaceBi. Knowing the development of this series, what interested you about this opportunity?
Ranu Mukherjee: I was excited about the idea of doing a site specific project in the museum that would respond to the objects and their positioning as historical and cultural artifacts. This opportunity seemed like it would challenge me. It is outside of my comfort zone, yet it also connects with some very core elements of my work. I was sold on it by your enthusiasm and vision, as well as the fact that it felt like such a perfect way to engage the class of graduate students I am teaching at California College of Art (CCA) this semester. It seemed to be a really nice scale of event. Rather than a bigger spectacular kind of proposition, I really liked the sense that the event might be a place to actually experiment with ideas in a public yet intimate format.
MM: What are some of those “core elements” of your work that have a connection to the museum?
RM: I’ve been working with Indian mythological images from the 19th Century for a few years now. I am interested in the way that these images are so familiar and accessible and have become part of popular culture, yet were not addressed in the my art school education, which was based in Euro-American art historical framework. I like to think about and question patterns of cultural influence and how objects embody those patterns.
I think that many of the artifacts in the museum’s collection possess the power of being immediately accessible, even if the specific stories attached to them are not. I am intrigued by the consistent presence of the archaic or ancient in the contemporary moment and the difficulty to imagine a future without these influences. While my reasons for being interested in the idea of Asia have a personal origin, they also engage with current narratives about the ‘rise of Asia’ and how those stories might manifest at the intersection of culture, matter and economics.
MM: Can you tell me more about the class you are teaching at CCA?
RM: The class is a studio lab comprised of 6 MFA students, and part of CCAs Engage program.
It is called ‘Towards a Creole Procession’ and looks at ways that mixed cultural heritage can appear in aesthetics as well as how artists think and work with the idea of ancestry, whether in line with dominant cultural heritage or in contrast. I was excited to work with students to explore the idea of ancestry in relation to contemporary art, because these can seem incommensurable. Framing an artwork as a cultural or historical artifact positions it as a vessel for understanding a larger society and conditions wherein it was produced, while framing work as contemporary art brings the subject of the artist to the forefront. I think good work is always both, yet it matters how the work is contextualized. How does one balance this delicate act, merging the historic/cultural with the contemporary? The class allows us to focus on some of these questions.
The second half of the class will continue a conversation we have started with Leah Gordon, a London based artist, filmmaker and curator. She has been curating the Ghetto Biennale in Haiti with Andre Eugene of the Grand Rue sculptors group, Atis Rezistans. The class will be held at the Luggage Store Annex/ Tenderloin National Forest for the rest of the semester and will culminate in a workshop with Leah and Eugene about the ever presence of ancestors in Haitian culture, tactics used by artists like Atis Rezistans, and ways these artists’ work is received outside of Haiti.
MM: What are you planning for the Artists Drawing Club at the Asian Art Museum this Thursday?
RM: I, along with the six MFA students in the class (Dimeng Brehmer, Jamie Emerick, Maral Hashemi, Laura Arminda Kingsey, Opesanwo Omoifa and Tali Weinberg) will conduct a procession that travels through the permanent collection galleries on the third floor and concludes in Samsung Hall. Each artist is devising a piece that responds to a specific object in the collection. Some performances will be ongoing throughout the procession and others will halt the group to let an artwork unfold. It is an attempt to re-animate some of the objects or images we see in the vitrines or on the walls in the museum. All of us are engaging with distortions of history, personal associations, interpretations and translations to intervene and reimagine these works as artifacts for the future.
MM: What interested you about the concept of a procession?
RM: Originally I had thought of the procession as being a fiction around which we could make artifacts. I wanted to take the format of the procession as the starting point for our studio lab. The procession embodies and honors mixes of culture and heritage. I think the format, especially considering our project at the museum, allows each person participating to work with what is meaningful for them, while tackling some of the complexity around cultural representation in the context of cultural heritage. I also liked the idea that a procession physically maps out a place while also blurring boundaries. The procession can blur the role of audience from spectators to participants. At a most basic level, if you walk with us, you become part of the procession.
MM: What has the process of working on this project been like for you and your students?
RM: We have been working at the museum for the last month. During our first class we explored the collection galleries. Each of us chose a few objects that spoke to us in some way. We narrowed it down further selecting objects that might be more dynamic in the context of audience engagement. During the next class we had the opportunity to research these object in the museum’s library. We also met with multidisciplinary artist Dohee Lee who discussed her performance-based work. As visual artists, we are not as well verse in performance yet it is a skill we need to employ for this project. Dohee’s perspective and insights gave us strategies to help animate the procession.
The process has made me realize that making an ephemeral work in the context of a museum, with all its limitations is going to contribute a lot to the content of the project. It has been really exciting to start the class right in the middle of this amazing collection-outside of a classroom- because we are immediately steeped in the ideas that the course was designed to consider. It has been remarkable to witness the way that these objects affect us in the present, through watching the students’ responses unfold.
For more information about Ranu’s work you can visit her web site.
Mukherjee’s studio research lab is part of ENGAGE at CCA, an initiative merging project-based learning with community engagement. center.cca.edu/engage.