by Meghna MehtaSep 03, 2020
A regular, rhythmic, swooshing sound greets the visitor on entering the Kunstverein Ludwigsburg. It recalls the breaking of waves and is accompanied by a deep, uniform hum. A look around the exhibition space reveals the origin of the sounds. Seven large wooden planks cover a significant part of the floor. On them hundreds of orange table tennis balls move – first in one direction, then back again; driven by the wind that is produced by fans at both ends of the planks. It’s a constant to and fro. The visitor cannot escape the rhythmically changing sound; it has a meditative effect. It is not for nothing that Thukral and Tagra have titled their installation Lullament2 – a word they have coined from the words ‘lullaby’ and ‘lament’.
“The repetitive motion alleviates anxiety, suggesting a smooth therapeutic feeling of pleasure,” say the artists. “Lullabies typically soothe people through the waking/sleeping transition, and similarly can soothe people through the life/death transition.” If one looks more closely at the installation, other associations are triggered. The long parallel planks remind one, for example, of a bowling alley. And even the tennis balls evoke the world of sports and games. In fact, both the artists have been using this pictorial language for many years as a point of entry for their dialogue with the public. On the one hand, because everyone can make some sort of connection with it, and on the other, because in both games and sports there are certain rules by which all participants abide. In that sense, the game is also the ideal metaphor for the system of rules that governs our society.
If one applies that to the installation described above it could imply that the orange balls, which represent an individual in a society, are constantly following the rules of the societal game, being pushed from the outside in one direction or the other. On the whole they follow this main movement: some rashly, others more hesitant. And sometimes some of the balls fall outside the alleys. They are no longer part of the game and, therefore, are so to say, no more a part of society life.
Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra are based in their studio in Gurgaon (near Delhi), and have been working as an artist duo since the turn of the century. They are well-versed with the socio-economic issues in India. In exhibitions such as Bread, Circuses & TBD, which opened at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in April 2019, they made a direct reference to these topics. In focus is the disastrous financial situation of Indian farmers, which have, in states such as Punjab, driven many farmers to despair and even suicide. The fight for survival by the farmer and their families is made tangible here using the example of kushti, a traditional form of wrestling, which is closely associated with Indian farming communities.
However, the issues are not visualised in a reportage but in a large installation, in which the visitor becomes a player in a game. By adopting different poses, he is invited to fight against an invisible force and learn through different manoeuvres about the challenges that farmers are confronted with.
Thanks to this approach, issues that at first have a certain local context are raised to a level that makes them understandable for outsiders. The aim, according to the artists, is the opening of “a much larger cyclical dialogue, of which we are all part. We want to create something that any person can respond to base upon their own personal experience”. Their ongoing interest in the field of games and sports are based on their need to make the complexity of societal issues more tangible and to rekindle exposure to them. As part of their artistic strategy they also employ a method that is widespread within the field of computer games: modding. The abbreviation ‘mod’ stands for modification, and in the gaming world it denotes the free-of-cost change or extension of a game; they are created by non-professional game developers and are made available to the community. “In the context of gaming, a mod celebrates and acknowledges an existing game,” explain Thukral and Tagra. “This game already has a community of people who know it and understand its finer points”. That is why a mod has power: “It disrupts the familiar frame that exists around a known game, by rendering it in a new format.”
A modification can apply to different fields such as education, artistic practice, research, marketing and management. For artists the first motivation perhaps lay in “layer poetry over an ordinary surface”. Akin to found footage, found sounds and found objects, the modding practice in art refers “to a found game which is then re-contextualised to become a very specific intervention”.
What that can concretely mean is demonstrated by a few exhibits in the Ludwigsburg exhibition. Twelve drawings printed on vinyl sheets depicted pictures that clearly recall table tennis tables, but interpreted them in a completely new fashion. These tables are undulating, folded or bent and formed landscapes, sawtooth roofs or stairs. One is folded like a book; another had a groove running through it. But despite their differences, they followed the same principle. They are transformed formally so that in a fictive usage, the rules of the game would be changed.
According to Thukral and Tagra, modding thus becomes a playful principle and can create great changes, “As we do this, we begin to mod something. We mod the system that we inhabit. Soon, we notice that everything and everyone has decided to redraw their relationships with us because we have decided to become an active modder.” They continue, “our moves could also change the game itself. This is because making a move sets off a whole set of chain reactions. These chain reactions become the play, which shakes the status quo”.
Thukral and Tagra regard this playful intervention in the existing system of rules as an effective tool. Piece by piece they set about changing the entire game. Thus, the language of table tennis—which is easily understood by everyone—becomes a metaphor in the works of the artist duo, which demonstrates the principle of modding, and thereby the power of playful intervention in artistic processes. At the same time modding also refers to a mediatic transformation: whether painting, sculpture, installation, video, performance, product or graphic design; for Thukral and Tagra the boundaries between the genres are fluid. Themes and motifs that run like a common thread through their practice are adapted to the local, spatial and cultural conditions of the exhibition space. Often, in the process, there is a change of media: drawings become installations, videos become performances and paintings are turned into games. So, it is completely conceivable that the black and white prints of the modified table tennis tables from Ludwigsburg take on the form of interactive sculptures in a future exhibition – similar to the examples simultaneously on show in the Astana Art Show 2019 in Kazakhstan.
The manner in which the motifs run through different media and get transformed in the process can be seen in two paintings that hang on the walls of the Kunstverein Ludwigsburg — not flat but moving within themselves, which gives them a sculptural quality. The fact that they are —as far as the content goes — table tennis tables is indicated by the white demarcation lines of the playing fields. The large surfaces are simultaneously also used as the support for two motifs or groups of motifs. In one of the two pictures, the crossline, which divides the two playing surfaces, forms a bow. The long line on the other hand transforms itself into a horizon, on which an iceberg float. It is reflected in the green ground, which can be read as the sea, and which turns reddish on the right side of the picture — perhaps an indication of rising temperatures. In the opposite picture, both the lines of the playing field are bolt upright — just what one expects from a ping pong table. However, here they appear like crosshairs, on which an organoid form lies. It seems like a picture within a picture. Different motifs can be seen in it. The iceberg reappears but before it lays a number of different objects: for instance, a turbine, a wheel or wooden slats that perhaps belong to a stranded ship. The hands of a half-sunk clock indicate ten past one and a few black-and-white checked flags point to a race, which had perhaps taken place here. Some of the elements in the picture appear surreal and seem to float like small celestial bodies, other objects have acquired moss and have perhaps not been used for quite a while. On the whole they evoke themes such as travel, transition and transience.
There are also some stripes that lie in front of the motifs. They appear like distracting chains of pixels. Is it perhaps a mediatically conveyed view from the future back into the past? And has the digital picture suffered because of aging? The blue-green background with its perfect course appears like a faraway ocean from which icebergs have long since vanished. The reference to the hot socio-political issues of our time is obvious. It is about the melting ice at the poles and the question of how we react to climate change. To prevent global warming, as the picture with the meandering line and the largely intact iceberg seems to suggest, a huge change is needed in the system of rules. Only then will it be possible to stop these events. Business as usual, which is manifested in the conventional lines of the picture with the fragmented objects, will inevitably lead to catastrophe. This ominous scenario alludes to another motif, which often plays an important role in Thukral and Tagra’s works: in Indian mythology, with the expected arrival of Kalki, the 10th and last incarnation of the God Vishnu, the advent of a “dark future” is anticipated. At the end of the Kaliyug, our epoch, Kalki will appear on a white horse and purify the world with a sword and restore Dharma, the social and cosmic order.
Even when Thukral and Tagra avoid direct references to Hindu mythology in Ludwigsburg, one can interpret the works shown here within this context. This series of works, Lullaments, both the artists write, “considers the meditative aspects of play, while simultaneously trying to illustrate Hindu mythology through the terminology of Ping-Pong”. The aim is to challenge “the preconceived notions of cultural matter as pedantic knowledge”. The interrogation of mythology leads to many basic questions. For instance, in the case of the #Hypothesis diagram shown in the exhibition, it depicts a table tennis table with two ping pong rackets, a ball and a net. Different symbols and terms explain the individual elements as in an experimental set up. Thukral and Tagra sum it up: “The ball is an unsettled being, an individual, a speck in the universe. The net is a threshold of consciousness. It stands between the two forces and demarcates the areas of the test. The table is the site. The game is the lifespan. The players on either side are the negative and positive forces”.
The game of ping pong here—in the form of a hypothesis—also becomes a metaphor for human existence. With it, things come full circle, along with the installation described at the start. Here too the human being becomes the “ball”, caught between opposing forces. The visitor to the exhibition takes on the position of a viewer, in front of whom the “global game” spreads out in its complete mediatic variety. But he is not just an observer: The large mirror at the end of the room ensures that the viewer himself is visible in the installation. As an integral part of the exhibition, he is called upon to take a stand in the true sense of the term. For Thukral and Tagra, their multi-layered, multimedia, and often participatory environments are not about conveying fixed ideas. In fact, they see their exhibitions as an offer to viewers to engage in a dialogue and their reactions form a part of it.
At the same time, by doubling the room with the help of the mirror the dual principle of the table tennis table is applied to the entire exhibition—a reason why Thukral and Tagra have inserted ‘square’ (the power of two) in the title Lullament and have the same title for the central installation as well as the entire exhibition. The metaphor emerges—in keeping with the language of the game—at the next level: it becomes a holistic picture for human existence caught in the field of opposing forces, in which the observer is directly involved. In the swelling and decaying sound structure that fills the entire space, these contrasts are in a sense averaged out. Thus, at an aesthetic level, lullaby and lament, joy and sorrow, life and death actually coalesce and become one.
The exhibition began on July 18, 2019, and is on display till August 29, 2019.
(Translated from German to English by Meera Menezes)