LOW TECH FAMILY VACATIONS
is a series of works made as the result of a residency at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute by Thukral and Tagra, the young art design duo from Northern India who have quickly made an international impact with their dreamlike visions of the proliferation of consumer culture in contemporary India. The works are rich with a surreal register of images drawn from the artists’s own conscious present and subconscious past and are infused with a unique humour and imagination.
If one were to identify a single defining trait running through the work of Thukral & Tagra to date it is surely that of collaboration. The very act of working as a creative duo has ensured that the collaborative spirit always remains an integral part of their practice. From the inception of ideas, through the technical processes of making art, to the task of presenting and explaining it, throughout their short and meteorically successful career, their work has taken the forms of projects, commissions, residencies and interventions, so that rather than propagate the traditional bohemian ideal of art production, in which the work is conceived as the result of an artist’s unique creative vision, their practice is more concerned with the application of a pre-conceived aesthetic and symbolic language in a variety of contexts, constantly expanding and evolving a unique expression and exploration of their internal and external perceptions.
As artists working together, reference is routinely made to similar established couplings, in particular the British artists Gilbert and George with their photographic codifications of a world revolving around them as a besuited duo. In fact, despite various successful pairings, this way of working is surprisingly rare among artists and has been far more common in other creative fields such as architecture and advertising, where partnerships have proved more advantageous in tackling formal and logistical considerations. Indeed, while the collaborative and interactive patterns in Thukral & Tagra’s practice may not be entirely surprising, far more unique are their explorations of interior realms of memory and the subconscious, themes that are usually associated with a very individual mode of expression. With similar middle-class upbringings rooted in the north-western Indian state of Punjab and over-lapping education, the taste and cultural outlook of Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra are based on many shared experiences, but it is really a remarkable friendship that allows them to live and work together in the same house along with their wives, also both artists in their own right. Such a unique basis for an artistic vision is almost impossible to fabricate and has been a major factor in the originality of their work.
The partnership of Thukral & Tagra was founded while the pair was working together in the creative department of the New Delhi offices of the international advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather, an environment which allowed them to hone their technical skills while opening their eyes to the mechanics of marketing and branding. Before arriving there both artists had spent time studying fine art as well as commercial design, leaving them well placed to draw on techniques and ideas from both worlds, blurring the boundaries between vocations which had traditionally remained very distinct. In the world of advertising creative partnerships are commonly seen as a way of finding imaginative solutions in a pressurized environment. Thukral & Tagra have carried this ethos into their art practice and consequently have always looked for challenging commissions or projects that will push them to expand their range of both technical and aesthetic possibilities. This process of continually upping the ante was very much a feature of their residency at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute (STPI) and the resulting works, with their marriage of handicraft and technology, deliberately challenged expected procedures.
The tension between digital and hand-guided techniques of art production explored encapsulates an important aspect of Thukral & Tagra’s art. They have evolved a rigorous working method, designed to create an unusual merging of the two disciplines. A preliminary sketch or maquette is rendered digitally by using sophisticated graphic software. Once completed, this preliminary version of the work is then meticulously transposed onto a canvas using traditional painting techniques. In terms of skill and technique, no corners are cut and the process is not only time consuming but also demanding of the highest levels of skilled draughtsmanship and brushwork. The process, like so many other aspects of their work, encapsulates an ideological ethos in which high art and low art meet, generating the kind of paradoxical tension on which they thrive. Their slick photorealism and meticulous application of paint act as an illusory device that cocks a snook at anyone doubting their fine art credentials on the basis of their advertising background and enthusiasm for the digital world. These principles were further elaborated in the STPI studios where the incorporation of sophisticated technical solutions along with a focus on the organic qualities of handmade paper and the physicality of manual printing processes are very much an expression of this commitment to paradoxical tensions in their art.
Considering their substantial body of work and the sophistication of their visual aesthetic, it seems remarkable that it was only in 2005 that Thukral and Tagra’s art career began to take shape. There could not have been a more fortuitous moment to emerge onto the art scene in India, when a young generation of artists, such as Subodh Gupta, Sudarshan Shetty, Jitish Kallat, Shilpa Gupta and others, began to attract the attention of an international contemporary art community which for decades had ignored the work of Indian artists. Younger than many of their peers, Thukral & Tagra showed a readiness to dive straight into the deep end. An installation featuring their T-shirts, vinyl wallpapers, a video documenting the process of making the work and a flavored vodka to serve at the opening at Nature Morte, New Delhi in 2005 launched their unique aesthetic and received instantaneous accolades from both the commercial and critical communities. Each subsequent exhibition or project has seen them working with the same basic transformative ethos and willingness to test their ability to apply their ideas in new and challenging ways. Rarely, if ever, are they focused on the individual art work. Instead they seek opportunities to make works that will engage with a space or an idea. While they have always hoped for the patronage of an institution or collector to maintain the unity of these installations and interventions, they have been savvy enough to ensure that its components function as individual works in their own right, whether it be as a painting, a sculpture or as a branded accessory.
The exhibition “Put it On” at Bose Pacia New York in 2006 was geared towards raising HIV awareness and featured custom-made flip flops, underwear and bedding. “New Improved Bosedk” at Chatterjee & Lal in Mumbai in 2008 featured a monstrous painting of battling dinosaurs flanked by vitrine sculptures containing chocolate syrup bottles branded with the images of Sikh emigrees, images that were also on the wrappers of custom-made chocolates handed out at the opening of the show. In 2009, these motifs were reconfigured into a giant pink dinosaur constructed from all manner of disposal plastic bottles for a show in London. It is unfortunate that more of Thukral & Tagra’s large scale installations have not been preserved, as they most surely will be in the future, as more opportunities are offered to them.
The artists have always shown an acute awareness of the alchemical potential of projects and commissions which promise to take their work outside of the usual art world parameters. They have enthusiastically embraced commercial commissions ranging from the decoration of the offices of Conde Nast in Mumbai and their collaboration with Swiss travel firm Kuoni to their designs for a limited edition can of Pepsi, Benetton tee shirts and a line of Puma bags. They feel no discomfort in delivering a deeply felt critique of a consumer culture that is gnawing at the fabric of society and individual expression, while at the same time admitting to an infatuation with the very same commercial world. The inherent paradoxical tensions that such contradictions generate inform all their work, challenging the viewer to get beneath the surface and explore a rich symbolic content.
Arch manipulators of conventional perceptions, the cartoonish world which Thukral & Tagra have created takes the viewer on a trip where fragmented perceptions compiled from past, present and future merge together into a freshly assembled dream logic. Stylistically they draw on popular Indian graphic arts, children’s books, and pictographic educational posters, blended with the aesthetics of Japanese science fiction and marketing media. It is an image of intensified and almost surreal innocence and as such can be inherently sinister, bringing to mind the evil fanged smiles of the benign Hello Kitty characters often seen in the work of Takashi Murakami, the Japanese artist for whom Thukral & Tagra have regularly expressed their admiration. In fact, their propensity to look east for certain aspects of their aesthetic places them in an Indian tradition that dates back to Rabindranath Tagore and the Bengal Rennaissance. The need to counter-balance the overwhelming cultural pressure from the United States and Europe has elicited a wide variety of responses from successive generations of artists in India. If such cultural accretions still represent a valid response to the occidental hegemony, there is no longer the sense of nationalistic duty once implicit in the search for a genuinely Indian aesthetic worthy of independence, replaced now, if at all, by a more localised expression of identity.
The succession of images that float through Thukral & Tagra’s works are hallucinatory constructions of people, places and objects from their collaborative subconscious and, by extension, the subconscious of the sub-continent. They merge their childhood memories with contemporary observations and future projections. The psycho-geographical nexus of their lives is in fact an ancient one. The Grand Trunk Road connecting Delhi to Jalandhar, the respective birth places of Tagra and Thukral, is one of the world’s great highways, connecting Bengal in the east to the Khyber Pass in the west. Their images of a Punjab of the mind, both their ancestral homeland and their cultural sub-community, are traveling along the same route of transmission that brought the arts of the ancient Greeks, the Buddhists and the Mughals into the heartland of India.
Images relating to childhood and adolescence are key components to Thukral & Tagra’s art, with its function as a kind of repository of both future dreams and recollections of the past. A recurring motif in their work has been the everyday detritus of the middle-class Punjabi family home, trinkets and bibelots collected to commemorate important events and foreign achievements, displayed in dusty arrangements that have long ceased to impress relatives and guests. Plucked from their subconscious, these souvenirs and decorations form sentimental picture-scapes. Old radios, toasters, flocked wallpaper, artificial flowers, vacuum cleaners and other domestic artifacts, survivals of a child’s wonderment, still carry potent auras as keepsakes and memories. The connection with childhood imagination and the ambitions of youth are themes which the artists have regularly explored, presenting a personalized association with the developing nation of India and its own coming-of-age onto the world’s stage.
PUNJABI - BOYS
The material culture of the Punjabi middle-class household is one of the more pervasive sources for Thukral & Tagra’s imagery. A typical mediumsized town in the Punjab, like Jalandhar where Jiten Thukral grew up, has seen a mass exodus to Canada in particular, so much so that the influence of the emigrees is palpable and visible. The promise of a better life hangs over those who have not gone out of India, tangible in the kind of material goods that their relatives bring back, whether it be the latest gadgets or the kind of edible treats of which India has been deprived of until only recently. Thukral & Tagra have created a number of installations for museum exhibitions that have examined the dreams of escape to the U.S., Canada or Europe harbored by many Punjabi adolescents. Portraits of departed family members are another common feature in most Punjabi households. Thukral & Tagra show them with their mirror shades, turbans and football shirts, the boy racers who got away. The foreign treats sent back, such as bottles of Hershey’s chocolate syrup and designer clothes, assume an almost mystical aura for kids brought up in India’s protectionist trade years, dreaming of a cold Coke as they sip Thums Up cola.
Gurgaon, the burgeoning satellite city in the neighboring state of Haryana, just south of New Delhi, represents the fast track to everything that was for so long unavailable in India. Its rapid growth has been emblematic of India’s economic boom and has followed the emergence of a new upwardly mobile, professional middle class in India, empowered with disposable income and readjusted aspirations. Every week in Gurgaon sees the opening of another shopping mall, each one bigger than the last, temples to a professional class that can afford to consume on a level that only a decade ago was unimaginable. This construction bonanza has seen the usual clusters of mirror-faced office blocks along the highways but it is in the residential districts that the novel localized style of architecture known as Punjabi Baroque has taken hold.
Characterised by a bizarre melange of Indian and western motifs, these buildings are the subject of a considerable degree of fascination for Thukral & Tagra, being one aspect of the new urban fabric that has not been copied slavishly from western models. Once considered a vulgar aberration, these wedding cake creations represent part of the vernacular culture of the new towns of north India, their gaudy eclecticism symbolizing the aspirations of the nouveau riche. Like giant airships supported on clouds and entwined in bouquets of flowers these buildings float across the sky blue backgrounds of Thukral & Tagra paintings, such as “Dominus Aeris - The Great, Grand Mi - rage” (2009). The vulgarity and confusion of their jumbled architectural identity is reborn as beauty and grandeur in the light of Gurgaon’s repositioned aesthetic register.
Thukral & Tagra’s residency at STPI has been, in the admission of both parties, one of the more challenging projects that either has undertaken, a journey outside the comfort zone that has, in its final inception, produced a body of work of which everyone involved can be justifiably proud.
It might seem almost willfully perverse that the model Thukral & Tagra brought to the table as a starting point for the project was a simple cell animation from a children’s book. Not even made of paper but of transparent vinyl, striped with vertical bars, it rendered the impression of a moving animal when drawn across a background on which a number of images of the moving creature have been superimposed. The technology, though simplified, is essentially identical to that used by Eadweard Muybridge in his pioneering stop-motion photographic experiments of the late 19th Century, which laid the foundations for the perforated film strip and, ultimately, motion pictures.
To render this on a large scale with an incorporated mechanized component, while retaining a tangible focus on the qualities of the specialised printing and paper-making processes on which the institute’s work is traditionally focused, was a daunting task. For the artists too, with their preference for a hard-edged photorealism, the kind of subtle gradations of surface textures and the delicate bleeding of colored inks which the artisans of the studio are uniquely capable of rendering, must have seemed alien to their own agenda. Nevertheless, after the initial visit the solutions began to fall into place and the resulting works have managed to combine two very disparate sets of aesthetic interests in an ambitious and mutually rewarding dialogue.
The series, titled “Low-Tech Family Vacations,” includes six core works measuring six by five feet each (1.9 x 1.5 meters) designed with an inbuilt “mechanised acrylic structure” driving the animated cells. The pervasive theme of the series is the fast food culture of globalization, or “McDonaldisation,” as Thukral & Tagra have dubbed it. The title of the series refers to the way that Indians have traditionally regarded Singapore as an exotic holiday destination, where shopping can be combined with family activities within a sparkling clean environment. The works each have a central panel in which are animated silhouettes of nuclear family groups at play. On each one the slogan “Six Days a Week” is prefixed by a different phrase of service industry rhetoric: “Open 24 Hrs,” “Home Delivery,” “Call 1800 Bosedk,” and “Children Eat Free.” Promises of improved services designed to consume the unaware families, mantras to recite to the gods of convenience, disposability and mindless recreation. The overall aesthetic draws also on fast food menus and place mats, often printed with children’s games and other kitsch trivia. Household products, electronic goods and commodities float through the sky blue backgrounds, as if putti in a dream, while a proliferation of avian species alludes to Singapore’s famous bird park, a popular holiday destination. The artists found much to be pleased with in the final realization of the works. Without straying from their basic color register, the extra dimensionality and tactility which the layering of handmade papers and various printing methods impart brought a level of complexity and sophistication to their works, hitherto unseen.
In Thukral & Tagra’s inimical style, the superficially happy scenes and bright colors of these works mask an altogether more sinister underbelly. Blissfully unaware, these families are trapped behind the bars of their cages, a commentary on the closed culture and deceptive sense of freedom that pervades Singapore’s closely controlled society, one which could not be further removed from India’s chaotic social fabric. Once again, it is a paradoxical tension which animates Thukral & Tagra’s works. The artists both celebrate and critique a consumer culture in which we are all inexorably trapped, guilty of both pleasure-seeking and failed responsibilities, condemned by our own desires and chained to life.