Installation view of THUKRAL AND TAGRA’s "Bread, Circuses & TBD,” at the Weston Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2019. Photo by Peter Cook. All images courtesy the artists and Yorkshire Sculpture Park. 

Bread, Circuses & TBD

Thukral and Tagra

Yorkshire Sculpture Park
India UK

The art market, like other industries, often assimilates current trends and makes products of them. When it comes to contemporary art in an age where social and political engagement—or at least an appearance of it—is in vogue, this can be troubling. So much of today’s cultural production assumes the veneer of sociopolitical criticality without any substance: a little theory, a tangentially related cause, some element of interactivity to generate currency in the experience economy, and an ex post facto explanation of how it all fits together constitutes many works. At a glance, Thukral and Tagra’s “Bread, Circuses & TBD” might have been dismissed as more of the same, but was in fact a highly considered, deeply researched, and engaging project.

THUKRAL AND TAGRA, C. Economy – Bread, Circuses & TBD, 2018, paint on canvas, in two parts, overall 170.2 × 175.3 × 6.4 cm.
THUKRAL AND TAGRA, C. Economy – Bread, Circuses & TBD, 2018, paint on canvas, in two parts, overall 170.2 × 175.3 × 6.4 cm.

The show occupied Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s new Weston Gallery with many disparate themes and elements. The core topic was the trials that farmers in India face. This was tied into kushti, a form of traditional wrestling that is practiced across the country; game theory; and the effective silencing of the socioeconomically disenfranchised. The duo tackled these threads through a series of colorful canvases mounted mainly on the gallery’s walls; a round wrestling mat placed in the centre of the space; a collection of documents; some diagrams; and a booklet of instructions for performing various kushti poses. That such a smorgasbord would form something substantive, let alone politically effectual, seemed unlikely, and yet Thukral and Tagra pulled it off, providing novel ways of thinking and talking about their subject matter, where mainstream political and media discourse appear to be largely silent.

THUKRAL AND TAGRA, F. Human Factors – Bread, Circuses & TBD, 2018, paint on canvas, in four pieces, overall 121.9 × 119.4 × 6.4 cm.

Play was at the foundation of the works. On one wall of the gallery was a list of the top 100 issues that farmers face, including “land ownership,” “rural-urban migration,” “inflation,” and “climate change,” to name a few. These are grouped into categories, such as socioeconomic, human and agricultural, which correspond to segments on an adjacent pie-chart-like diagram. This diagram was in turn reflected on the circular wrestling mat on the ground. Visitors were invited to take to the mat and try the kushti poses listed in the accompanying booklet by planting their limbs in relation to the numbers that were printed on the mat, like in a game of Twister. The result is a unique way of mapping easily abstracted or ignored information onto the visitor’s own body, provoking a visceral way of engaging with a faraway situation. As with some learning methods that employ physical stimuli, the method plays on non-verbal modes of communication to foster understanding and stimulate discussion. Highlighting why this kind of approach has value by way of contrast was a knee-high stack of reports documenting the difficulties of Indian farmers placed nearby, from which no suggestions were enacted and which are no longer available anywhere, even online.

The surrounding canvases were shaped according to the segments demarcated on the wrestling mat and the corresponding diagram. Among several colorful layers, each has uncolored, apparently unfinished pictures of wrestlers, suggesting the “to be determined” nature of the situation, echoed in the “TBD” of the exhibition’s title. The paintings are largely illustrative, but not to the detriment of the conceptual force of the piece.

The exhibition also included a huge amount of reading material, and video footage, screened on a tablet, of a recent protest staged in favor of farmers’ rights in India. Thukral and Tagra explained that much of their work is currently focused on fostering debate, without necessarily forcing consensus. “Bread, Circuses & TBD is not itself dialectal, and rightly so, but it does the job of good visual art: to provide insight and interest in a phenomenon in some way verbal language cannot. It is relatively rare that art is deployed effectively in the political space, and “Bread, Circuses & TBD” was a notable exception.

Ned Carter Miles is ArtAsiaPacific’s London desk editor.

Thukral and Tagra’s Bread, Circuses & TBD is on view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park until September 1, 2019.

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