In December 2014, the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum premiered Eyes of Time, a temporary, site-specific mural and installation by Brooklyn-based artist, Chitra Ganesh. A vitrine in the same exhibition space showed Ganesh’s Tales of Amnesia (2002), an art-piece zine that the Brooklyn Museum acquired in 2004 for their show, “Open House: Working in Brooklyn.” Seen together, these two artworks illuminated the breadth of Ganesh’s oeuvre and what has come to characterize her aesthetic style. As part of her practice, Ganesh explores the science-fiction implications of the myth-meets-comics genre and produces a rich and unusual iconography within open-ended narratives. Eyes of Time adheres to this visual language, yet Ganesh’s newest work distinguishes itself by emphasizing technologically inspired imagery and materiality.
As viewers entered the Herstory Gallery at the Sackler Center, they encounterd a towering, 4.5-by-12-meter multimedia mural that combines painting, drawing, textile and sculptural objects. From utilizing metalwork to body-casting to her deceased mother’s saris, Ganesh demonstrates her boldest and most complex attempt to experiment with materials. Furthermore, Eyes of Time was arguably the most ambitious use of the gallery space and constituted the largest flat surface that Ganesh has treated as part of her work. The Herstory Gallery is curatorially mandated to converse with Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1974–79), a permanent installation nearby. This iconic, second-wave feminist artwork—a triangular table with 39 porcelain plate settings stylized as vaginas—symbolizes dialogic relationships and conviviality between historical and mythological female figures such as Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of fertility, love, war and sex; Hypatia, the Greek mathematician and philosopher; British wirter Mary Wollstonecraft; American abolitionist Sojourner Truth; and many others whose names are labeled on the table. As its departure point Ganesh’s mural focuses on Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction and renewal. However, unlike Chicago’s installation, Ganesh does not confine mythological characters to a project about reclaiming the past. Furthermore, Eyes of Time departs from depictions of Kali as being a goddess reserved for worship in Asia and its diaspora. Instead, Ganesh approaches Kali as a metaphor for cyclical time. Foregoing the conventional and linear sequence of past, present and future, she deconstructs Kali into three cyborg-like figures that conjure alternative dimensions of time—namely, mythological, embodied and futuristic temporalities.
Of the three cyborgs, the central figure admittedly resembles familiar representations of Kali. The figure’s skirt of severed arms, as well as her blue skin, multiple arms and long, unkempt hair are paradigmatic features of the goddess. However, Ganesh has altered these familiarities in creating the cyborg. In addition to multiplying its body parts—such as legs and breasts—several arms have abject features, such as wounds, sutures, teeth and bulging eyeballs. One arm is dematerialized in a mechanistic, scintillating way. Rather than a solid mass of blue flesh, the arm is composed of tiny fragments, which Ganesh has textured with silver paint, mirrors and gems. These details underscore the artist’s aim to imbricate flesh with the fantastic. Additionally, in place of the deity’s face is a golden clock without any hands to demarcate the time. By mutating Kali’s most recognizable characteristic, Ganesh transforms a classical representation into a broader meditation on how, in ancient times, mythological narratives had once offered alternative modes of recording time.
To the left of this central figure, Ganesh drew a bust inspired by a recent photograph of herself. The bust gazes out at the audience while holding a sparkling black hole to one eye, suggesting the presence of other galactic worlds that exist in the here and now. Ganesh echoes these reflective elements in several long and spiky shards of mirrors that also adorn the figure. Hence, the artist’s presence, as well as the audience’s reflection, is implicated in the mural.
The last figure to the right is almost entirely composed of technical details. Using a simple, metallic purple outline, Ganesh painted the figure’s face and hair in profile. These lines bleed into more mechanical forms that have been bedazzled with jewels. In the pictorial space reserved for the figure’s head and hair, Ganesh installed several custom-made, metal gears that resemble the internal structure of a clock or watch. Through these sculptural elements, which interpret the mind as a technological device, Ganesh gestures towards a post-humanistic animated sensibility that reaches towards futurist imaginations and is immeasurable by conventional modes of time.
Ganesh also explored the transformation of time and perception in a vitrine of artwork that accompanied the mural. In an artist-curator vein, she carefully mined the Brooklyn Museum’s collection to create a unique constellation of works. Ultimately, her vitrine demonstrated how encyclopedic collections—ostensibly limited by linear display narratives—can and must be retooled in order to speak to how a plethora of sources inform contemporary art practices today. Within the amassed works, some objects relate more directly to the goddess while others speak to Ganesh’s broader interrogations. For example, she exhibited two, small bronze sculptures—a Standing Kali from 17th-century Kerala, India, alongside a Seated Sekhmet from 664–332 BCE Egypt—to highlight the history of fierce goddess iconography within multiple pre-monotheistic cultures. From Kiki Smith’s folkloric grotesqueness to Shoichi Ida’s spiritual abstraction to Barbara Jones-Hogu’s 1970s psychedelic honoring Black female heritage, artworks in Ganesh’s vitrine brimmed with narrative, formal and political connections to her mural. As such, the constellation-like vitrine offered a template for how museum displays could reimagine its parameters for the better.