The Scorpion Gesture

Chitra Ganesh

The Kitchen, Rubin Museum of Art

Chitra Ganesh is a multidisciplinary artist and native New Yorker, born and raised in Brooklyn and Queens. From an early age, she navigated both the cultural richness of her Indian background, particularly through its renowned forms of Indian classical music and dance and regular travel to India, while exploring the far reaches of New York City's urban and cultural landscape.

Ganesh’s artistic practice of almost 20 years is rooted in painting and drawing, and has evolved to include large-scale installation, comics, billboards, photography, and collaboration. Her works across media combine a vast array of canons and visual cultures including Surrealism, Expressionism, traditions of African-American figuration, historic South Asian forms like Madhubani and Kalighat painting, and Hindu and Buddhist iconography. Her vocabulary also connects to vernacular visual culture such as comics, graffiti, street art, psychedelic concert posters, anime, Bollywood, and late 19th and early 20th century illustrations. Her studies in literature, semiotics, and social theory have been critical to a steady engagement with narrative, assemblage, and deconstruction, leading her towards new approaches to storytelling, textuality, and the body.

The Scorpion Gesture is a rich and colorful phantasmagoria that plays in the intersections of myth and science fiction. Both forms utilize complex storytelling structures — stories within stories, shape-shifting protagonists, twists and turns — to ask similar, universal questions: Who are we? Where did we come from? What constitutes human? What is the relationship between humanity and justice? How are we to behave ethically and appropriately as citizens and inhabitants of planet Earth?

Inspired by select paintings, sculptures and illuminated texts from the Rubin Museum of Art’s collection of Himalayan art, and influenced by surrealism, sci-fi, early stop-motion animation, vintage comics, and expressionist theater to shape her treatment of photographic and video material, Chitra Ganesh has dynamically woven together scenes that explore concepts of transformation and circular patterns in time. Central to this work is the hand symbol known as the scorpion gesture, which symbolizes unlimited potential for transformation and renewal.

The Scorpion Gesture explores bodies, space, history, and mythologies through disparate visual languages, inviting viewers to seek and consider alternate narratives of sexuality and power — and the untold stories always trying to rise to the surface. The work interweaves elements of five animated narratives that Ganesh created as interventions in the Rubin Museum of Art’s collection galleries, working with animation company the STUDIO NYC to realize her ideas in their fullest form. These animated interventions seek to illuminate and further activate paintings, sculptures, and stories drawn from the life of Padmasambhava, known in Tibetan mythology as The Second Buddha, a figure prophesied to appear in future avatars over the course of millennia at moments when the world stands poised to be consumed by conflict and apocalyptic struggle. With The Scorpion Gesture, Ganesh connects those stories to her view of our contemporary, fraught relationship with technology and politics.

In the context of Times Square, the physical and symbolic center of ever-changing New York, Ganesh’s work empowers viewers to confront change with a sense of optimism that is grounded in both pragmatism and imagination. Viewers will also recognize Times Square in Ganesh’s fictive urban landscapes, which inspire us to consider the effects of city building globally. Ganesh’s piece has a nonlinear form that draws on endless permutations of rebirth found in cultural mythologies around the world. This universality enables the piece to resonate with the diverse populaces that saturate Times Square every day.

“The initial animation I developed for The Scorpion Gesture became a gateway to how I approached the project. I wanted to create a sense of dimensionality and depth within the graphic visual languages. The movement between two- and three-dimensional space is achieved through loosening fragments of the dense visual imagery from thangka paintings and bronze sculpture in the Rubin’s collection, integrating them with my own line drawings, watercolors, and paintings. The resulting animations draw significantly from a range of contemporary languages: aesthetics of vintage comics, video games, music video editing, and filmic dream sequences. For example, I used sequential action and game-like sequences as a visual framework for visualizing a circular flow of time or navigating life’s dangers and dream-like paths.”

- Chitra Ganesh

The Scorpion Gesture is presented in partnership with the Rubin Museum of Art’s exhibition Chitra Ganesh: The Scorpion Gesture, February 2, 2018 – January 7, 2019; and with The Kitchen’s exhibition Chitra Ganesh: Her garden, a mirror, September 12 – October 20, 2018. The Scorpion Gesture was developed and animated with the STUDIO NYC.

“Ganesh’s animations reveal her inimitable and brilliant skill of translating complex narratives — often mythological or epic in proportion — into poetic, contemporary, and lucid visual stories. While this approach is evident in her paintings and drawings, it has been further amplified in her animations.

“Adopting and adapting elements from historical objects for this time-based media, Ganesh takes disparate elements that might all meet the eye at the same time on the surface of a thangka painting and gives them additional narrative and spatial depth. Collaging her line drawings, watercolors, and paintings with elements of historical references from the Rubin Museum's collection, these animations live and linger between two and three dimensions, challenging the conventional limitations of drawing and sculpture. They are markers of transformation that speak simultaneously to the historical past, the sociopolitical realities of our present, and the speculative potential of apocalyptic and far futures.”

- Beth Citron, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Rubin Museum of Art

The Scorpion Gesture makes a dynamic complement to the work that Chitra will exhibit at The Kitchen. Entitled Her garden, a mirror, this exhibition of new works in printmaking, sculpture, and video will continue Chitra’s exploration of gender and power in a futurist imaginary, taking as a point of departure the utopian, feminist, sci-fi novella from 1905 called Sultana's Dream by Bengali author and social reformer Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. For a key element of the exhibition, Chitra worked with Durham Press on a large-scale series of linocut prints, a technique used to great effect by German Expressionists during the early 20th century — and now by Chitra — to reimagine the roles of the individual and the collective during periods of societal turbulence.”

- Matthew Lyons, Curator, The Kitchen

The Scorpion Gesture (2018)
animation by Chitra Ganesh
Courtesy of the artist, developed and animated with the STUDIO NYC.


Chitra Ganesh (b. 1975, lives and works in Brooklyn, NY) graduated from Brown University in with a BA in Comparative Literature and Art-Semiotics, and received her MFA from Columbia University. Ganesh’s work has been widely exhibited, including at the Brooklyn Museum, Queens Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego La Jolla, Berkeley Art Museum, Bronx Museum, the Andy Warhol Museum, MoMA PS1, and Baltimore Museum. Ganesh’s work has been widely exhibited across Europe and South Asia, including at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, the Saatchi Museum, MoCA Shanghai, Kunsthalle Exnergasse, Kunstverein Göttingen, Gothenburg Kunsthalle, Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts, Princes of Wales Museum in Mumbai, Devi Art Foundation, Travancore Palace, and the Dhaka Art Summit at Shilpakala Academy. In 2013-14, she was Artist-in-Residence at New York University’s Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program, and in 2015-2016, she was a Robina Foundation Fellow for Arts and Human Rights at Yale University Law School. Ganesh is the recipient of numerous residencies and grants, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, and her works are held in the public collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, San Jose Museum of Art, Baltimore Museum, Whitney Museum, and Museum of Modern Art.

Rubin Museum of Art is an arts and cultural hub in New York City’s vibrant Chelsea neighborhood that inspires visitors to make connections between contemporary life and the art and ideas of the Himalayas and neighboring regions, including India. With a diverse array of thought-provoking exhibitions and programs — including films, concerts, and on-stage conversations — the Rubin provides immersive experiences that encourage personal discoveries and spark new ways of seeing the world. Emphasizing cross-cultural connections, the Rubin is a space to contemplate ideas that extend across history and span human cultures.

The Kitchen is one of New York City’s oldest nonprofit spaces, showing innovative work by emerging and established artists across disciplines. Programs range from dance, music, performance, and theater, to video, film, and art, in addition to literary events, artists’ talks, and lecture series. Since its inception in 1971, The Kitchen has been a powerful force in shaping the cultural landscape of this country and has helped launch the careers of many artists who have gone on to worldwide prominence.

The STUDIO NYC is an award-winning production and animation company based in New York. Founded 3 decades ago by Mary Nittolo, its mission is to bring strategic vision, imagination, artfulness, delight and clarity to the world of communication. In addition to being a trusted production partner to Fortune 100 brands, the STUDIO NYC has partnered with major non-profits such as amfAR, Coalition Against Trafficking In Women, World Refugee Fund, CFDA, and ADCOLOR. They have produced graphics for installations for Tribeca Film Institute and web videos for The Metropolitan Museum as well as for the Rubin Museum of Art’s collaboration with Chitra Ganesh. Other projects include animated collaborations with award-winning documentary director Emily Kassie and an animated short, “Take Me There,” with Brooklyn artist Philomena Marano.

“As a lifelong New Yorker, for as long as I can remember I have experienced Times Square as one of the most iconic embodiments of this city’s energy and pulse, where creativity and chaos are beautifully co-mingled. From the 1980s onwards, the attention to and cultivation of Times Square as a visually rich site has exemplified New York City’s commitment to a dynamic and heterodox amalgamation of aesthetics and formal approaches drawn from advertising, film, documentary, and fine art. For me the Midnight Moment program is an amazing and innovative initiative in its exploration of how these disparate visual languages can coexist in public space side by side.

“As someone who has worked with a predominantly two-dimensional painting and drawing practice, having the opportunity to share my work with such a diversity of audiences — many of whom are experiencing this city and its art for the first time — is thrilling. I’m an artist who draws from multiple traditions and visual canons, so it’s of paramount importance to me to cultivate diverse audience engagements with my work — something which I would have never been able to achieve at this level, in such a historically trafficked public site, without Times Square Arts’ support for and exposure of my work.”

- Chitra Ganesh