“I Don’t Care Much About My Opinions Any More”
Sarnath Banerjee on His Project for Deutsche Bank London

A building as a book: For the new Deutsche Bank branch in London, Sarnath Banerjee developed the project “An Encounter with Thomas Browne and other Commonplace Utopia,” a series of illustrated stories that were transferred to wallpaper. On every floor of the building, they speak of longings for a private arcadia—and skepticism about dogmas and populism.
“He fought against these ‘vulgar errors’ of his times and basically demythologized things.” This is how Sarnath Banerjee characterizes the man who inspired his commissioned work for Deutsche Bank: Thomas Browne. The Englishman, who died in 1682, was regarded as a Renaissance man, a universal polymath who was well versed in science and medicine, as well as religion and esotericism. In addition, he enriched the English language with hundreds of new words including “computer,” “electricity,” “hallucination,” “medical,” “suicide,” and “therapeutic.”

Browne was a curious skeptic whose writing is full of wit. In Pseudodoxia Epidemica, his magnum opus published in 1646, he dispensed with the vulgar errors of his time, countering myths, superstitions, and pipe dreams with empiricism and facts. This is why Banerjee finds this early representative of the Enlightenment so contemporary. “Today facts do not seem to matter anymore. So if you say something very factual then I emotionally question your fact. If my emotion is stronger then I am right. Factual debates do not seem to work anymore. Now it’s all emotional—we see that in India with its strong nationalism, in Hungary, in the States or in Britain.” In times of populism and “alternative facts,” Browne’s sober, observant view of the world is very topical.

“As I am getting older I value observations more than opinions,” says the artist, who was born in Calcutta in 1972. “I don’t care much about my opinions anymore. They are usually always wrong. But if I observe things and put them down then this is not about my opinions but something I have seen.” This attitude is reflected in his project. “In your face politics is something I was never interested in. I am not a political artist. I tried to find the balance—doing political comments but in a hidden, personalized way.”

Banerjee views An Encounter with Thomas Browne and other Commonplace Utopia as a “springboard for the imagination.” His commissioned work has transformed the new bank branch in Canary Wharf, a building complex in the heart of London’s Docklands, into an enterable book. For each of the twelve floors he developed a series of single images or short sequences that were transferred onto large sections of wallpaper. These comic-style drawings, which are accentuated with just a few colors, contain trenchant texts and are chock-full of absurd humor. Across all of the floors, a tapestry of independent yet interrelated episodes develops. Banerjee borrowed this structure from renga, Japanese “chain poems” in which the individual stanzas stand alone yet are always linked to the preceding paragraph. Renga were created collectively. The goal was to react spontaneously and as wittily as possible to a verse—to absorb its motifs, and continue or reverse them in a surprising manner. This is precisely what Banerjee’s works do.

Thus on the building’s tenth floor employees and visitors encounter different episodes focusing on the theme of “wandering.” The artist presents various titans from cultural history: Gandhi and Badshah Khan, who march for peace together; or the philosopher and flâneur Walter Benjamin. “The people in the drawings,” says Banerjee, “are like Sherpas who take you to another thought process.” He has Walter Benjamin stroll through today’s Berlin exploring everyday phenomenon with an attentive gaze. Soren Kierkegaard, however, does his rounds in his own living room—introverted, with closed eyes, searching for inner truth. “I have walked myself into my best thoughts,” the Danish theologian once said.

Werner Herzog’s legendary trek from Munich to Paris is also honored. When the director heard that his friend the film historian Lotte Eisner had fallen seriously ill, he went to visit her. In the winter of 1974, he fought his way through snow and rain, firmly believing that by coming on foot he could prevent Eisner from dying. The “miracle” occurred: she lived for eight more years. The world, Banerjee and his protagonists agree, is most accessible to people traveling on foot.

The free-time runners on one of the wallpapers on the ninth floor form a counterpoint to this philosophy of walking and strolling. They are unhappy about the fact that their activity merely serves to promote their own health and thus is pure egotism. A startup company capitalized on their bad conscience. To give running a deeper meaning, the company offers runners the possibility of simultaneously serving as couriers—as an act of philanthropy. Now they hurry through Boston with packages or hams on their shoulders. This scene is one of several ironic commentaries on the lifestyle and neuroses of modern-day big-city residents. Thus Banerjee also invented a bibliotherapist who “prescribes” his clients certain passages in books that they should read to solve their problems. And with “Vegemeatables” he created a new super food that practically unites the qualities of vegetables and meat.

The commissioned work was not only inspired by Banerjee’s readings, and his observations of everyday life on his travels or in Berlin, where he has lived for several years. The project was also spawned by dialog with employees. “The Deutsche Bank team and I had long conversations. Hanging out with artists and curators can sometimes become very sterile. But when you meet traders or talk to the different “Heads” of the different sections or the people in the technology department of the bank they all have very different private passions. To work with these people, who are all very smart, is very interesting. At this stage I prefer working with other people to interrogating myself.”

One theme of these talks was retreats and the desire to drop out of society. This resulted in several drawings of gardens. In this context, Banerjee is not only interested in the idea of a private arcadia, but also in cultural and social aspects. Hence one image is devoted to the so-called ha-ha, a deep ditch that separates a garden from its surroundings and can only be seen from a close distance. With no wall obstructing the view, the owner of an English garden can enjoy the scenery, and the field workers can watch him do that. The divides are now virtually invisible, yet the class system remains.

Rural idylls can even be the result of expulsions. One work recalls the Highland Clearances, when at the end of the eighteenth century tens of thousands of Gaelic-speaking small farmers were driven from their enclosures in the Scottish Highlands. The main reason was the introduction of sheep raising. Yet the nobility wanted to go hunting and restore the natural beauty of the Highlands, which it felt the farms had impaired. Barnerjee illustrates this with a picture of a young nobleman who is sitting on the wall of his castle with a book in his hand reveling in the purified countryside.  

Books are omnipresent in the work of the artist, whose favorite writers include Fernando Pessoa, Jonathan Swift, and Robert WalserAn Encounter with Thomas Browne and other Commonplace Utopia is therefore also a journey through more than a thousand years of literary history, from al-Kindi, who in the ninth century introduced the Islamic world to the writings of Aristotle and Plato, to J. A. Baker, who pursued a very British passion in Essex: birding. His 1967 book The Peregrine combines meticulous observations of nature with incredibly lyrical language. For Werner Herzog, it is  “one book I would ask you to read if you want to make films.”

Banerjee’s project is teeming with cross-references. And he pinpoints complex issues again and again. At the same time, the artist has no need for striking messages. His episodes have no conclusions or clear results. There is no straight path from point A to point B; everything is in flux and meandering happily, like a good conversation in which the interlocutors move from one topic to the next without thinking twice.  An Encounter with Thomas Browne and other Commonplace Utopia invites the viewer to search for traces, to follow references, to free associate, to connect the dots. “The connections between the drawings work on many levels, they work inside you. I have my own connections but also the people who look at it. People can connect everything.”

Achim Drucks