Those seeking a break from today’s busy world and its rapid-fire imagery will enjoy the languid, floating forms of Ranu Mukherjee’s Phantasmagoric, a three-channel hybrid film specifically commissioned for LACMA’s Stark Bar. While on the one hand the film offers a meditative respite from daily life, Phantasmagoric is layered with rich, symbolic imagery that offers a subtle commentary on contemporary capitalist culture.
When viewed carefully, Phantasmagoric compels us to reflect on the physical evolution of our environment, from raw materials to commodities that carry specific cultural meaning. The film does this through its exploration of gold—a substance long coveted for its luster and malleability, associated with magic, wealth, and power in society from ancient times, and still an important status symbol.
As the title implies, Phantasmagoric is a dreamlike sequence of constantly shifting forms and colors: the film begins in blackness, then shapes appear in rich, saturated hues that collide and fly across the screen, like geomorphic particles of a mining blast, or the kind of cosmic event that leads to the formation of gold as an element. Man-made objects crafted from gold—jewelry, watches, coins, and ancient artifacts—emerge slowly from this interstellar space and overtake the composition until another blast occurs, dissolving all objects to specks of gold dust. Out of the dust, the spectral form of a coyote appears and wanders through a barren landscape. The coyote is not only a poignant reminder of the environment at risk, but a creature associated with trickster figures as a spirit animal in Pre-Columbian and Native American cultures.
Mukherjee has long been interested in the shifting meaning of symbols and the cultural residue of objects. An artist based in San Francisco, she draws heavily upon the history of the California Gold Rush of the mid-19th century for inspiration in her recent work. This period, which brought fortune seekers and pioneers by the droves to the West, transformed California’s natural landscape through the mining industry that grew around what came to be known as “The Golden State.”
In ancient Chinese alchemy, gold was highly valued as a precious metal that was ingested together with cinnabar—this pink fluid occasionally oozes into the frames of Phantasmagoric—as an elixir of immortality. The Chinese played a crucial role in the Gold Rush, as thousands seeking refuge from a lengthy civil war at home came to California to take jobs in the mining industry and in construction on the Central Pacific Railroad. A more expansive installation by Mukherjee currently on view at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco delves into the themes and imagery that pervade Phantasmagoric even further, and more directly addresses the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that prohibited immigration of Chinese laborers until its repeal in 1943.
Much of this cultural history has been buried beneath the surface of our daily lives. In this sense, Mukherjee’s work emulates the process of mining, uncovering remnants of the past that have retained their cultural residue, and reconstituting them in a poetic elegy to what has been lost by time.
Ranu Mukherjee’s Phantasmagoric is on view at LACMA’s Stark Bar through July.
Visit her concurrent solo exhibition at San Francisco's Asian Art Museum, Extracted: A Trilogy by Ranu Mukherjee, through August 14.