Extracted Trilogy

(Breach, Elixir and Oracle Bones)


Extracted Trilogy , 2005-2006 , HD video, 13:32 .

three hybrid films; Breach, Elixir and Oracle Bones

score by Mike Maurillo

This moving image work is the centerpiece of Ranu Mukherjee's three part exhibition 'Extracted', on view at the Asian Art Museum San Francisco November 2015-August 2016. In Extracted, artist Ranu Mukherjee weaves together histories of the gold rush and the Chinese Exclusion Act, with mythologies derived from the ancient text ‘Guideways of Mountains and Seas’ into a constellation of images in moving image, painting, drawing and cloth. The project was commissioned for the Asian Art Museum’s 50th anniversary, and curated by Marc Mayer.

Extraction, the process of pulling things from beneath the earth’s surface, is the subject of Breach, the first film in Ranu Mukherjee’s Extracted trilogy. The state of California, referred to as “Gold Mountain” after gold was found in the Sierra Nevada mountains in 1848, attracted many prospectors, including thousands of Chinese in search of riches. Breach surveys the landscape near a Chinese mine along the Yuba River’s south fork and focuses on a cave created by a hydraulic mining event. Romantic notions of Gold Mountain are blown apart, much like the earth after such a hydraulic blast. In Mukherjee’s video rocks, minerals, and sediment are violently dislodged, releasing waves of energy. Radiating colors—gold, cinnabar, jade greens, rich blues— the debris clumps together in abstract forms, slowly creating the mouth of a cave, a prospecting site. 

The second film in the Extracted Trilogy, Elixir, features an ancient money tree from the collection of the Asian Art Museum. This funerary object was placed in a tomb with the hope that the soul of the departed would have wealth while residing in the paradise of the Queen Mother of the West. The tree also suggests a soul’s path from birth through life to the afterlife: the soul ascends from the earthly ceramic base towards the heavenly paradise at the top of the tree. Mukherjee’s film animates the money tree, revealing it’s function as a device used to gain immortality. Gold, along with cinnabar and mercury which are byproducts of gold extraction were boiled in the metal vessel at the top of the tree, rendered down, and sublimated into an Elixir of Immortality. The steam was meant to take the spirit to the afterlife. Here the process is reversed- the tree begins to shake, causing the viscous liquid to spill. It evokes a visceral presence as it oozes down to the base of the objects, covering an accumulated range of gold objects, collaged from digital images of consumer and luxury objects, before turning to dust and smoke. The piece is meant to reflect on speculation, wealth, object hood and notions of the sacred. 

The title Oracle Bones references the earliest known mention of the Queen Mother of the West in oracle bone inscriptions of the Shang dynasty (1766-1122 B.C.). Inscribed into bone is Western Mother (xi mu), a reference to an archaic divinity residing in the west. Oracle bones were used to divine the future and similarly Mukherjee projects the viewer into the near future, inquiring about the awareness and the legacy of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Through the lens of the Western Mother, the artist considers the role of the matriarch. Oracle Bones features five Chinese American women, each descended from families directly impacted in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by this legislation. The women walk across the screen one by one at a hauntingly slow pace, evoking a procession. The figures seem to float above shifting backgrounds which include Angel Island Immigration Station, the Chinese gate marking the Chinese section of the former Golden Gate Cemetery (now the Lincoln Park Golf Course), and Chinatown’s Great Star Theater previously known as the Great China Theater. Through the stories of Andrea Dewi Yee, Connie Young Yu, Marisa Louie Lee, and Paulette Liang, Oracle Bones attempts to hold the residue of this history materialized through the descendants who carry it with them.