When designers Jiten & Sumir morphed into the artists T&T, many considered it a dilettante moment. But they are Indian contemporary art’s new poster boys in the West, acknowledges Kishore Singh.
A t eleven o’ clock, Jiten Thakral is still asleep though Sumir Tagra, freshly showered and clad in orange jeans, has managed to surface for our appointment. “We were working till four in the morning,” he grins away Thakral’s absence. Outside a house not dissimilar from the Punjabi baroque aesthetic they have been recreating in paintings and installations for some years now lie packing crates waiting to be shipped to different parts of the world. A sculpture of metal portraits of Punjabi migrants bleeds water as the refrigeration intended to coat them in a layer of ice fails to combat the unseasonal September heat outside.
Inside, Sellotaped on a wall, is a printout of an email: “The following works have to be packed & crated at T&T studios next week. 1. Two paintings going to Sao Paulo (one crate). 2. Two paintings going to Max Wigram, London for Frieze Art Fair (one crate). 3. Cabinet sculptures going to Mumbai (multiple).” Tagra, who most people who worked or had work at Ogilvy’s creative shop David thought — wrongly — was a colleague of Thukral’s and an employee of the agency, is insisting that the two artists, who work as the collective T&T, are this year broke because they have been working only on museum projects for Tokyo, Singapore, Brisbane and, coming up next, Sao Paolo.
At David, where they, or at least Thukral, as the legitimate employee, and Tagra, who some believed worked there despite his often long absences — he was actually doing his post-graduation from the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad — rarely did the conventional grind of most advertising sweatshops. Instead, they did mad, maverick things like creating their own portfolios in a 1”x1” inch book, 428-pages thick, that they got the agency to sponsor, or designing its office, even an award-winning website, creating visiting cards and postcards and T-shirts, undertaking freelance assignments, were retained less for their lack of client application than their creativity which was intended to showcase the agency’s powerhouse of talent and won it hundreds of awards.
Even now, a few years after their exit from the advertising space and experimentation with design commissions, public service messaging, products, art and sculpture, it’s difficult to confine them into any one silo. Thukral, long-haired and bearded and, despite a hasty shower, still sleepy-eyed, Tagra with his spiked Peewee mohawk and goatee and smartass one-liners, could be anything: systems nerds, call centre types (they’ll hate this), illustrators — Thukral remembers being interviewed by this newspaper for a job that he got but did not take — but artists? And who ever heard of artists painting together anyway? And then under a corporate branding like T&T?
But T&T they are, making inroads around the global world of art as they address issues of migration, consumerism and an evolving Indian aesthetic, the latter based on the aspiration to flee from the land of their ancestors — Punjab, specifically — for America or Canada. T&T are both Punjabi lads though they hardly fit the stereotype with their almost unusual scrawniness and Big City sophistication, lapsing only occasionally into a giveaway accent or the “neighbourer” phrase. Their paths sometimes crossed, but it was over email that they stayed in touch, curiously enough posting their work to each other, making allowances not just for feedback but also to touch up each other’s projects. And that’s how their first assignment happened, with a Mumbai-based photographer and a Delhi-based writer, and a show at Hype Gallery in London.
“We bullshit each other a lot,” Tagra says.
“Critique,” adds Thukral.
“Sit together,” Tagra interjects.
“Bounce ideas,” agrees Thukral.
They’re like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, taking up for the other, completing each other’s sentences, picking up a thought and running with it, more spouse, or siblings, than colleagues, drinking buddies challenging themselves over absurdities, creating, after one such binge, the unlikely label Bosedk which, in a responsible newspaper such as this, can best be explained as a particularly potent, if anglicised, north Indian abuse. Having coined it for their T-shirts, they then used it as a label for their installations, alongside portraits of wannabe migrants complete with American-style bandanas pasted on Hershey’s bottles, and the logo on assembly-line merchandise, a reflection of their concern over growing consumerism, though they might have failed to convince many of the gallery footfalls to their point of view, if the question, often repeated, was any indication: “Very nice, beta, when are you going to launch these products in India?”
While their content has changed frequently, Tagra agrees that they have “an obvious language” that at least has remained constant ever since, in 2001, Wallpaper magazine picked them among 101 emerging artists from around the world to watch out for. Vector motifs, floral kitsch, obvious clues — all of it makes up the hierarchy of their paintings, a process they say they have learnt from their advertising past, and as before, they work on the imagery on computers, still altering each other’s work before agreeing on the final image, then blowing it up on a canvas to prepare it for the painting.
In a sense the transition from advertising’s Jiten & Sumir to artists T&T occurred when New Delhi gallery Nature Morte gave them space for a show of T-shirts, which they turned into an art event, and then followed it up with their first show of art. This was in 2005, and since then Thukral and Tagra, whose first painting, Skin 1, sold for Rs 80,000, have consistently moved on, despite the meltdown, to occupy a slot in the Rs 25-30 lakh bracket for a work 5’x5’ in size. It has included projects they have undertaken in the area of HIV/AIDS, creating art, installations, underwear and even flip-flops that endorse their message of safe sex, but blurs the distance between art and design. They have shown at Art Basel in Switzerland, turned regular at New York’s Bose Pacia (which has an arrangement with Nature Morte), and participated at exhibitions from Berlin, Sydney, Durban, Seoul and Milan to Vienna, Taipei, Vancouver and Shanghai.
Why this absorption with museums, I wonder.
“It’s good because museums believe in the art you have created,” says Thukral.
“And it’s good because galleries then value the work you have done,” laughs Tagra.
Response, nostalgia, escape, memories — T&T’s growing body of work reflects this. For their 2007 show at Art Basel, Adolescere Domus — Tagra says they like to use Latin names for their exhibitions; another, tellingly, was labelled Effugio — they returned to their familiar playground of Punjabi baroque, setting it in an obviously fake mis-en-scene which curator Peter Nagy describes evocatively. “Visitors,” he notes, “entered an environment where the garments on the characters in the paintings were available for sale, patterns of images traversed from canvas to printed page to tabletop, and the artists themselves adorned their audience with stickers and buttons, effectively walking their images out of the booth and into the world. To present such a plurality of aesthetics at an art fair is to comment on the increasing tendency to see art as part of the entertainment industry, the artist as manipulator of his own image as a product, and the collapse of all disciplines into a cult of celebrity.”
If it is difficult to slot T&T, it is even more so to make out if their concerns are the serious or the ludicrous. Are they laughing at or with their audience? Or is their potent wit intended to drive home a more pertinent point? Are they in it for the long term or as mere dilettantes? Is their work a monumental joke on society?
“But we are part of the society we reflect,” explains Thukral.
“We celebrate that,” agrees Tagra, “we don’t make it into a joke.”
“We are concerned about the mushrooming of new products,” chips in Thukral.
“… and decadence,”
In India, galleries are unsure about how to respond to their eclecticism, in part because T&T have shown as yet little in the country, but more because they refuse to entertain commissions for clients based on their interior requirements. “Curators come here,” Tagra gestures around the room where they work, “to select the projects they want for their curatorial works” — which, given their short life in the medium, is commendable. Within this period, their work has moved from the grammar of migration through the dilemmas of consumption to a documentation of the lack of context in the homes they build “whether in Punjab or in Gurgaon”. Back in the Punjab, the concern with migration is so strong, Thukral — a Jalandhar lad himself — says its residents often design their water tanks like airplanes, and offer toy aeroplanes to gurdwaras in the belief it will help them go abroad. And though Thukral and Tagra might mock the sloping roofs, curving balconies and ice-cream colours of their neighbourhood houses in suburban Gurgaon, but then line a cabinet installation with cloth taken from an emigree’s mother’s Punjabi suit, bringing a sentiment that, despite being mawkish, is uniquely Indian.
“It is a new aesthetic for Western eyes,” says Thukral.
“It’s rural,” agrees Tagra, “and it’s urban.”
“But it’s fresh.”
And it comes with their portraits — each painting, or product, signed by their presence, looking like goblins, or appearing as silhouettes. “It’s a reason,” laughs Thukral, “that the briefs with the safe sex message did not sell” — though the slippers, signed by them, sold as “art multiples” in New York — to which Tagra pipes up to add, “Who’d want someone else’s face on their underwear?” It might not sell their lingerie but it’s created a rush for their art. Now to see whether they live up to that hype — or succumb to it.