Ellen Cline is an intern in the ImaginAsia family program at Freer|Sackler
Being an intern in Washington, DC, often means spending your day answering phones, running for coffee, and providing Washingtonians with plenty of fodder for intern jokes and stories.
I can say these things because I am a DC intern, but my own experience at the Sackler couldn’t be more different. From my first day at the museum, I’ve been immersed in hands-on experiences that range from rummaging through artifacts in storage rooms to helping children make art during the ImaginAsia family programs.
When I arrive at the museum each morning, I usually take the stairs down one level to the ImaginAsia classroom, not so much for exercise, but for the feeling of grandeur I get when I descend majestically (backpack notwithstanding). A few weeks ago, I was headed for the stairs when I walked by artist Rina Banerjee installing her sculpture in the Sackler pavilion. As a sculpture student who had been eagerly anticipating Banerjee’s exhibition, I wanted more than anything to duck under the black stanchions and watch the artist at work.
I soon had the opportunity to do just that—and more. Stephen Eckerd, head of ImaginAsia, told me to go upstairs and see if Rina Banerjee needed any help with her installation. “Tell them you’re from ImaginAsia,” he said. He didn’t have to ask twice.
A true child of my generation, my first impulse was to post something on Twitter. Instead, I took the stairs two at a time and then tried to cover my excitement with some level of professionalism as I walked over to Banerjee and curator Carol Huh. I introduced myself and was immediately put to work.
Art and art-making in particular have an incredible ability to create instant community. This was certainly true of my experience assisting Banerjee. Her group of helpers ranged from the curator to museum conservators to young interns—all gathered around one evolving work of art. Some of us high-fived as we untangled portions of the piece; the conservators and interns swapped recommendations about DC art exhibits; and Banerjee supervised with humble, unassuming authority.
In a way, this joining of forces, even around something as simple as the addition of threads to a rope, added meaning to Banerjee’s already rich work. The installation focuses on environmental losses, cultural changes through global movements, and rivers in their life-giving and life-threatening nature. As we worked, Banerjee talked about the river’s vital role in communities. How appropriate, I thought, as we worked quietly, that we, too, are gathering around this symbolic and reimagined river.
Banerjee’s piece, A World Lost, and various elements of the work suggest more foreboding notes, like the pieces of coral that allude to the environment’s negative effect on coral reefs. Helping the artist enriched my thinking about endangerment and loss. If we are to counteract global losses, we must make small, steady actions, and repeat them without losing hope: like threading a needle, running it through a rope, and then doing it all over again. Focused on the individual actions, I didn’t immediately see how much ground we covered that morning—all working together, hundreds of threads forming a hair-like covering, the strands intertwining and indistinguishable from one another.
Watching Banerjee’s piece come together before my eyes was educational and inspiring. It’s often said that learning is best achieved by doing. By kindly letting me into her process, Rina Banerjee allowed me to learn about art installation firsthand. From her patient demeanor as well as her flexibility throughout the process, I also learned the value of humility and approachability.
A World Lost, like all of Banerjee’s work, is filled with textures, objects, and associations. It now carries a special, personal association for me as well. This site-specific installation will be on view through June 8, 2014. If you come to see it, consider taking the stairs down to the museum’s other exhibitions. You may see a short, dark-haired intern heading toward another unexpected adventure at the Sackler.