Nestling in a sheltered space with spectacular views over the rolling hills of 500 acres of the YSP, The Weston Gallery sustains its 18th century heritage of picturesque landscape gardening. Bauhaus meets Scandi, as this new building exudes an aura of craft through eco-sensitive materials and mindful lighting. Such echoes of the socialist William Morris's beliefs in handmade production and affinity with nature propose an ideal context for Thukral & Tagra's scenario about agricultural dilemmas.
Under the saw-tooth roof lights, the scene is set for a ceremony...pomp and circumstance or tournament? Elegant curved paintings frame a circus arena prepared for possible stunts. Game is the key word in T&T's practice, played in a literal and metaphorical sense of its diverse fields: sporty or gambling, competitive or entertaining, strategic or improvised. Their aim here is to use the popular game of kushti (wrestling), practiced across India by farmers, in order to illustrate/simulate the afflictions suffered by the Indian agricultural community within the present oppressive climate.
As so much of their work has been formed by game theory, my desire to grasp the essence of this installation led me to a google search. Struggling through four videos narrating the Prisoners Dilemma left me feeling like a prisoner of my own dilemma: a total lack of logic. Such a challenge to my reasonable intelligence forced me to explore their strategies towards enlightenment. The exercise bore fruit with the aid of their prodigious production rate, revealing density of research in both ethnographic and technical terrains.
The storyline of Bread and Circuses has been consistent ever since T&T’s first ventures into game playing. The original inspiration comes from Roman practices in political power gaming by simultaneously providing free wheat and hosting spectacular games. Such a provocative reference point signals the concurrent imperious threat to survival for those not participating in the game. Kushti therefore is used as a social construct for 'sport' on the playing field/ 'akhara' of the community in Jalandhar, home of Jiten Thukral and site of his fieldwork into the farmers’ difficult lives. This resulted not only with art works but also (and perhaps more so) with a community kitchen run by the farmers’ families. So far so good-willed and well-intentioned; using a sharp metaphor for a grim predicament, the aim is to raise consciousness and involve the viewer via participation.
Within the cool new gallery of Weston Gallery at YSP, the display named Farmer is a Wrestler invites viewers to participate by entering the ground circle and trying out seven traditional wrestling manoeuvres on a mat that echoes the game of 'Twister' (worth videoing to compare the comic contortions of the players and curious contrasts of contexts). Instead of colours the vinyl mat has numbers with labels describing the problems faced by farmers in India. This proves tricky for the wannabe wrestler since she is obliged to carry a leaflet illustrating the positions to adopt according to different numbers. She must read the drawings to understand how to replicate the positions whilst reflecting on the significance of each number. For example by landing on 50, the message is to think about global warming. Whereas this may be a familiar task for the average museum-goer, other numbers, such as 35's issue of 'rural-urban migration' or 70's of 'Inherited Indebtedness' might prove laborious. The manoeuvres to reach each number or point of reflection are unbelievably complex, tougher than any choreographic instructions. Consequently, the game becomes satirical, its vocabulary a fusion of Situationist idealism and Dadaist 'non'sense.
An earlier game in four parts called Lullament explored the idea of play from a cultural and psychological perspective mixing Hindu mythology and the terminology of ping pong. It set out to explore Kalki, the coming of the dark ages, by using the joint sound of lullaby and lament as a form of therapy enabling resilience and restoring calm. Such lexical references to sacred and profane recalls Bataille's use of transgression towards liberation. Game is also play, or lila, once described by Hoskote:"..play as a serious principle of construction, play as the first move towards the creation of a parallel reality" The game here is ludicrous and dangerous, a game of survival, and yet T&T's fusion of lullaby and lament in Lullament is a brilliant marketing spiel that would sell well with funeral directors, possibly more than with arthouse directors since the overall scenario is too overwhelming to perform 'live'.
This is the problem with Bread and Circus at the YSP. Perhaps through performance by trained dancers its message could transpire but as it stands we remain in a frustrated state that is however transformed by gazing at the paintings. These are richly complex works combining digital and graphic linearity with meticulous brushwork, all handcrafted by T&T. The delicacy of skill and technical rigour is worthy of comparison with the best contemporary miniature painting coming from Lahore (one example in particular is the work of Faiza Butt who also treats the theme of popular wrestling). Dominating the series of tableaux is the striking contrast between the drawing and the details. A deadpan, neo-classical style for the human body, commonly observed in yoga instructions, proclaims a healthy storyline through youthful masculine bodies exercising in cosmic space. Whilst this spins a sporty yarn, the devil in the details tells another story by interrupting the status quo through its hints and tints of eroticism. This is fascinating to examine on its own, yet its distance from the game at play risks acting as a form of talismanic protection, not unlike Tantric coded language used to occlude any clear understanding for the uninitiated.
T&T have described their use of game theory as ' a challenge to preconceived notions of cultural matter as pedantic knowledge', yet any social construct exists not in objective reality but as a result of human interaction... and that seems sadly missing in Yorkshire.
The exhibition is on at The Weston Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, March 30 - September 1, 2019