Artist duo Thukral & Tagra talk about their socially engaged art practice that subverts the high art-popular culture divide.
Indian contemporary artists Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra started working collaboratively as Thukral & Tagra in 2001. In a video interview produced by Singapore-based Art Plural Gallery as part of their solo exhibition “Windows of Opportunity” (22 March – 25 May 2013), the artists talk about their investigations into the issues and cultural shifts affecting India’s citizens.
A rapid socio-economic transformation has been taking place in post-liberalisation India since 1991, where the flow of capital, knowledge and people within a globalised economy has steadily increased. To add to these significant changes, recent predictions that India will become the world’s youngest country by the beginning of the next decade mean that, as noted by Thukral & Tagra in the interview, government and businesses are thinking about how to cater to this rising demographic. The artist duo create work that critiques the resulting consumerism and homogenising globalisation. “The good part is definitely because there’s things changing so rapidly – the new opportunities, new rich families, more money pouring in – but at the same time, it kind of really limits your thinking process and that’s the most critical thing to move on,” they state in the video interview.
They have a number of projects under their fake label, BoseDK Designs, which the artists use to critique commodification and overconsumption. The artists formulated the brand in 2002 and 2003 and launched their website in 2004. In 2007, they transformed Nature Morte gallery in New Delhi into a department store; the shelves were adorned with BoseDK merchandise and products. It was “more of a conscious decision to make [the BoseDK products] into an artwork sort of a format, where a person comes to the gallery and imagines himself understanding art but at the same time it’s like a department store, he’s in a temporal space and he’s buying, so it was again, I think that was the point when we started our consumerist sort of a dialogue,” they say in the video interview.
According to Marilyn Goh, a writer for online art magazine Daily Serving, “With a name that is a transliteration of a term of abuse in the Punjabi language, the fake label ‘BoseDK’ is an ironic statement on globalisation’s narrative of homogeneity as well as an admission of the commercial trappings of commodification and fickle tendencies of the art market.” The artists have even considered turning an entire shopping mall into an art museum. As Thukral & Tagra explain in the interview,
Around our studio [in the suburbs of Delhi] there were 26 shopping malls, everything you need, you have to go to a shopping mall to buy. […] We thought some day these malls are going to eat you up. […] We thought, those malls are the next museums, because In India there’s no museum culture, so we thought, why don’t we put our art in a shopping mall?
Through their ongoing series “PUT-IT-ON”, first exhibited in 2007 at Bose Pacia in New York and repeated under different names in successive years, the artists endeavour to create awareness about and discussion around safe sex and HIV. In 2009, they founded Foundation Thukral & Tagra and took “PUT-IT-ON” to Indian street markets and shopping malls. Alongside paintings and sculptures, they designed wearable commodities, such as flip-flops and undergarments. The user guides printed on them informed buyers of the importance of safe sex.
For Thukral & Tagra, the project fills in the gaps in knowledge that are created by popular media. As the artists say in the video interview,
You reach a point when you are talking about the real problems, you are talking about the act and that’s what you really have to target. So we’ve been finding different ways to cater [to] that, that’s what the Foundation does. The early works had Superman as a metaphor of a man wearing latex and saving the world. [… ] It brings that iconography which is known to everyone and also it brings the discussion […] and now, with this sort of a metaphor, you can really cross through a lot of barriers.
Thukral & Tagra’s solo exhibition “Windows of Opportunity“, which ran from 22 March to 25 May 2013 at Singapore’s Art Plural Gallery, featured new artworks from their “Escape” series. According to the artists, more than sixty percent of people living in the tiny city state of Singapore are migrants. They chose to show this specific body of work in Singapore because it investigates issues of emigration by highlighting the fantasies and realities of Indian youth – the Punjabi diaspora in particular – who move abroad to be “successful”.
Existing artworks from Thukral & Tagra’s “Escape” series were shown alongside fifteen new works collectively called “Pinball”. In this series, portraits of real people are encased in frames that resemble pinball machines. The artists reveal, in an interview with ARTINFO, that “Pinball” was partly inspired by their time spent in Pachinko arcades in Tokyo. As the viewers enter “Windows of Opportunity” they become, say Thukral & Tagra, part of a game that is also being played by the artists and the subjects of the works.
Running tracks cut across the gallery floor emphasise the idea of competition faced by the migrants, the exhibition’s audience members and the artists alike. As Thukral & Tagra describe in the video interview,
There are [a] couple of things happening in the space: one is the idea of game and how, what is an idea of life for people who we are actually talking about. The entire game of reaching somewhere and the entire process of reaching there really excites us. It’s something really full of stories. […] But for us, I think we saw it like a chain, […] it’s like a mad house sort of a race where you don’t really know what you are trying to do and you’re just moving on ahead with everyone looking at what everyone is doing.
Highlighting the universal appeal of Thukral & Tagra’s work, Frédéric de Senarclens, CEO of Art Plural Gallery, says, “Their art is not only relevant to India, but strikes a chord with all who are living in modern society and moving between cultures.” But can art really bring about social change? During the video interview, the artists mention their time in Australia, when they exhibited their “Escape” project at the 2009 edition of the Asia Pacific Triennial. They say,
After the project, we realised, actually, it is changing people’s lives. […] There was a case study that happened in Australia where kids are getting beaten up, the Indian kids were getting beaten up and there were people who are driving taxis who were migrants from India [who were being attacked]. […] After the show, we were going to different places – restaurants, bars – and people started talking to us. They said, ‘Oh, we started respecting those people [Indian immigrants] after seeing your show’ because they realised they’re also like their family, their kids, going out to other countries, so like the same, Indian people are coming to Australia, they also come from good families and good backgrounds. So I think art has changed peoples’ views.
For over a decade, Thukral & Tagra have worked in a wide variety of media including painting, sculpture, installation, video, music, and graphic, website, fashion and product design. Their signature style, dubbed “Punjabi baroque” by Jérôme Sans (Founding Director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art until 2012), presents traditional media in new ways. “Two people working together, we like to do overdone sort of things,” (Video Interview Part 10, 1:40) the artists say of their profusive artistic output. Their attempts to create completely immersive experiences for their audiences are “a magnetic feast for the eyes,” says Zheng Yan, UCCA Art Department Director. “Their product-driven voice, firmly anchored in the transitional and complex society of their birth, flows through the circuits of our international consciousness.”
Thukral & Tagra regularly travel outside of India to work with unfamiliar materials and learn new techniques. In the Art Plural Gallery interview, the artist duo mention two March 2013 projects: working with porcelain during an artist residency in Meissen, Germany and sculpting in bronze in Verona, Italy. Despite regular international travel, they will always remain in India. “We’ve been thinking for a really long time to have a space in Berlin […] because it is international, right in the middle of Europe, […] [and] the artist community, it is much more open, but the base would be definitely where we are right now [in India] and we don’t want to change it at any cost,” they say.
This article was written by a participant in our art writing diploma programme. Do you want to write for Art Radar, too? Click here to find out more about our Diploma in Art Journalism & Writing.
- Keeping it clean: Indian artist Krishnaraj Chonat on changing histories – video interview – September 2013 – Chonat talks about his obsession with the effects of rapid urbanisation
- Incredible India? Artist Gigi Scaria video bite – The Guardian – May 2013 – Scaria talks about his exploration of the socio-cultural hierarchies created through architecture and city planning
- Artists Navjot, Wu Mali discuss links between art, social change – museum talk – November 2012 – the artists’ discuss their projects and what inspires them in a museum talk
- Filipino migrant workers in Hong Kong recreate urban spaces – ARCO interview with Marisa Gonzalez – March 2012 – Marisa González captures how Filipino migrant women construct unique social communities
- Anti “commercial” art, Luk Tsing Yuen comments on corporate greed: video – August 2010 – the video offers viewers a chance to share space in Luk’s studio
Subscribe to Art Radar for more on Indian contemporary art