Prerna: Bureaucracy and Superstition

A conversation with the 2023/24 MCAD–Jerome Fellow on how her sculptural practice explores the aesthetics of bureaucracy, language, legibility, and contradiction through family archives and repurposed materials

Person hanging in cocoon of braided fabric with only legs and crossed arms visible
1Prerna, Stretched, 2021.

Melanie PankauYour artistic practice engages with themes of bureaucracy and institutionalism, but you often juxtapose these topics with more personal materiality of the home. In a recent project you used your mother’s handwriting from an old journal as a starting point. I’m curious if you could tell us more about how you transformed or were influenced by this family archive.

Prerna Given how governmental and bureaucratic my work can be, it can feel quite heavy and alienating to work with that content and feel driven to see it through. In the pandemic, I had the opportunity to rethink how I choose to spend time, and I chose to spend it with my mother–not literally because she lives across the world, but through a family journal, old sarees, and this crusty, ziploc bag full of family negatives that I took back with me when I last visited Mumbai in 2019. These items were a doorway into spending time with the things that mattered most. It was a visceral experience: the crackling texture of the book from being oil stained, the smell of mothballs in the sarees. The images I scanned would just jolt me into the past and allow me to reminisce and hone in on my craft–culminating in a hand crocheted swing made out of 12 sarees and sewn in paracord armature, around 200 feet of fabric.

I have always been the person that holds onto things; it’s as if I am preparing myself to miss this moment in the future. This journal was the only journal my family ever maintained. My sister and I learned to write in it, my mother wrote down family recipes and knitting patterns in it, my grandmother did budgeting in it, and nestled in between all of it were also some romantic Bollywood songs written phonetically in English. Who was in love? I couldn’t tell you. It was just the perfect slice of history, the correct amount I needed to fill in the blanks or to make up false memories. I move these artifacts around as if they are pieces to a large puzzle, waiting to be clicked into place, if only for a little while before they get shuffled again.

Transparent photos stuck through on edges by metal rods
Prerna, Falseiling, 2023.

MPYou grew up learning four languages simultaneously: English, Hindi, Marathi, and your mother tongue, Tamil. How has language and text influenced your work? Can you tell us more about a specific project or piece?

PLanguage and text become a tether to versions of people (my mother, in particular) I am no longer aware of or never knew (versions of her from before I existed). They become opportunities to connect over shared interests, ancestral histories, generational recipes, kolam (floor drawing made from rice flour) patterns, forgotten language, superstitions and lore–all of which have been an integral part of childhood. I am most interested in how language disguises itself as something you can understand, despite the fact that in my experience this is often not the case. Particularly in navigating bureaucratic documents and governmental systems, complete transparency is met with utter chaos.

I harp on the materiality of language, and try to intuit the ways in which handwriting can take up space and depict density of information without readability. For instance, in the height of pity, the word “pity” is cnc-routed, multiplied, and stacked, nestled between the architecture, only showing the curves of my mother’s handwriting. It depicts a dimension of her handwriting I would not otherwise experience, and only reveals its meaning from the very top which you are unable to see. As I begin to forget my mother tongue (Tamil), I am interested in where the learning and loss of a language meet. What idiosyncrasies of Tamil does my mind gravitate towards, and how might that reflect my first experience of learning it? 

In Tamil, the word for pity and the word for sin is the same word: pāvam. It’s an incredibly transgressive word, and its connotations are understood implicitly by many who do not even speak Tamil. You cannot pin its meaning down and I find that so incredible. I create these sculptures that depict pāvam in many variations, honing in on handwriting and materiality, finding ways to make it unreadable/unrecognizable by collaborating with material, architecture, and script.

Text etched into white drywall reads "You are no longer a subject of government"
Prerna, Today, we become, 2019. Photo: Rik Sferra.

MPThe aesthetics of bureaucracy informs your content and process. How do you navigate through these aesthetic spectrums or temperatures–the cold institutional space vs the warmth of the personal human experience?

PI think this is something that often comes up as you engage with my work–that it may read as sterile, minimal, or cold at first glance (descriptors that are often not associated with someone who looks like me). It is a tension I hold close. These disparate things–bureaucracy, superstition, memory, and intimacy–are actually quite woven together in my experience. I think of the bureaucratic aesthetic as the container to hold the warmer, more tender artifacts. The content at heart, particularly for the Jerome exhibition, is warm; it’s about a forgotten memory, or space or ritual or instance that I recreate to fit within the systems I now navigate. Maybe the bureaucratic aesthetics are crucial in situating the work in my life as I now live it, holding the truths of time. In the husk of a swing, I collect handwriting, recipes, artifacts, and memories, like a filing cabinet sunk down to the bottom of the ocean. In these newer works, the surface texture of reflectivity/transparency is critical in mirroring an experience that feels somewhere between a shadow and a mirage, looking into the past and reflecting a fuzzy silhouette of the present. My work is the venn diagram of where all these seemingly random things intersect.

Rectangular metal frame suspended by chains, with transparent photo illuminated by a bar light below
Prerna, The husk of a swing, 2023. Photo: Jaysen Hohlen.

MPYou mentioned your interest in the contradictions of legitimacy and legibility. Could you describe how you explore these contradictions in your practice?

PLegibility is crucial for legitimacy. When something is illegible, its legitimacy is questioned. This has been critical in my experience of navigating the immigration process in this country. It’s also been true when it comes to my own hazy memory of my childhood and how it has adapted over time of being misremembered. Within the green card process, there is weight given to substantive evidence and how it amounts to proof of time and commitment. The system is designed to incriminate you, to question your abilities and in my case my commitment to my marriage. Simultaneously, as I reach into my own past and work with these family archives–caught between the destroyed negatives and my doctored memory–it’s hard to create a sense of truth. Inevitably the legitimacy of my memory is in question. It’s like bureaucracy and I are trying to corroborate the story. Maybe it’s the ultimate collaboration.

In past work, I have used materials like glass blocks (legibility) as metaphors for institutional text (legitimacy). I made a glass block wall with laser etched letters on one side to create a word find using the glossary of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services website (USCIS). It’s impossible to find the words given the nature of the glass block and how it reflects light. I am pushing what it means for things to be illegible. Glass as material is understood as transparent, but glass blocks are meant to create privacy. I enjoy this tension between the meaning of a word and the subsequent clash with its materiality. The material at its core challenges the legibility of the text with little intervention from me. 

Tall partition in a gallery made of glass blocks
Prerna, The weight of definition, 2022. Photo: Easton Green.

My new work will focus on the concept of evidence—photographic, romantic, bureaucratic, historical, and ancestral. The work will compare and contrast a desire to learn more about one’s personal history with a system designed to incriminate. It will explore how bureaucratic requirements leave me with unexpected questions about who I am. Does bureaucracy know me better than anyone else?

MPYou often use construction and repurposed materials in your work. I’m curious if you could talk about your relationship and your process of working with these materials. Do they choose you or do you choose them?

PI work very intuitively. Sometimes it feels like I am completely unaware of aesthetic and material decisions being made, but I know they feel right. That said, I am very interested in spending time on craigslist to find the things I am looking for and I LOVE to shop for free things and good deals. I also really enjoy driving to far away distances in my no-seats minivan. It helps validate my decision to buy a minivan in the first place! Driving helps me process things. Besides being in the shower, driving is the only time I get to really think about what I am doing. So I gravitate towards buying second-hand materials even when it means driving out of the way; it allows me to digest and process my decision to get 8 sheets of pink insulation foam, and figure out why it makes sense for my work. It feels like I am moving towards something without knowing what. Materials are the ways in which I think; they are like words or a language for me to understand what I am doing. Without this tactility I would never understand how to proceed within my own work.

Other times, it feels very obvious how the building materials come into play. While the aesthetics of bureaucracy inform my content and process, I often juxtapose them with the more personal materiality of the home. I think of nearly all of my practice as one large life project, and naturally as time passes, it causes me to disagree with past decisions and even disagree with myself. When that happens, the only way I can seem to move forward is to reuse the materials from my work and remake the work so it makes sense to me in the current moment. I am creating a kind of internal lexicon within the scope of my work, with these recurring materials I use. 

Materials pretend to be one another in my work. Fabric pretends to be paper, foam insulation disguises itself as a structural column, plastic tries to be mortar, paintings resemble sheets of paper, and clay mimics fabric. Their pretending helps me push their materiality, and unlock a mode of communication with my work that I would otherwise be unable to.

MPWhat is the most challenging part of your practice?

PThe most challenging part is that I have to learn a new skill each time I make something new! Sometimes (rarely) I think in words and my entire being has to figure out (between my many driving trips) how to realize those words and concepts. The best part of making art is thinking about something and being able to realize it. It’s such a great privilege but also the most difficult task at hand. Most recently I have been haunted by this notion that bureaucracy and superstition are two sides of the same coin—a curiously grounding sense of authority is materializing as the crossover. Now to make that thought into a sculpture, that is my greatest challenge. Sometimes it’s hard to reckon with the fact that these disparate phrases or philosophical notions may not be so easily made into something to engage with. So I fail a lot, but it makes me really good at finding new ways to fail.

MPWhat have you been working, processing, reflecting on or thinking about since winning the MCAD-Jerome Fellowship?

pI have been thinking about swimming a lot.

I am learning to swim for the first time, which is a very scary thing to do as an adult. I am surrounded by children at the pool and working with childhood memories and archives. I think there is something in being in the depths of an unknown element for the first time that screams repetitive visits to the DMV or the social security office, arguing with them that Prerna Unknown is the same person as FNU (Family Name Unknown) Prerna, and Prerna LNU (Last Name Unknown)–but the computer doesn’t understand. My fate feels out of control and not in my own hands. Swimming has allowed me to take control and look at this with a new perspective. The simultaneity of learning to swim and making this work allows me to think of transparency and subsequent resistance.

Coming up for air suggests a clarity or a relief, but coming up for water depicts murkiness at every level, one that feels more authentic to this new work about the murkiness of memory, naming, bureaucracy, and evidence. 

How do I spend time with memories as a physical space? How can text and image act as substitutes for each other using transparency, extrusion, the negative, and negative space?

Where do bureaucracy and superstition meet?

Chrome vinyl on white wall of segment of illustration with horses and circles
Prerna, Mirage of the Mahabharata, 2023. Photo: Jaysen Hohlen.

MPIf you could describe your work in one word, what would it be?


Melanie Pankau

Melanie Pankau is a visual artist and arts administrator. For over 20 years, Pankau has held positions in the arts at various galleries, museums, and foundations. She has been the Associate Coordinator for the MCAD Gallery, the MCAD–Jerome Fellowships for Early Career Artists, and McKnight Visual Artist Fellowship programs since 2016. Pankau received her BFA from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 1999, her MFA from the University of WI-Milwaukee in 2011, and studied at the Bauhaus …   read more