Thukral and Tagra are multi-disciplinary artists, who work in a range of media—installations, sculptures, painting, websites and videos. They delight in irony, an ingredient common to all their work. The biggest irony of all, however, is that their sophisticated kitsch and their slickly packaged takedowns of consumerism are now so popular that these Punjabi lads have themselves become irresistibly saleable commodities.
Sotheby's and Christie's periodically auction their pieces for crores of rupees, the cult design magazine Wallpaper named them among the 101 top emerging designers in the world, and GQ has hailed them as style icons for their natty "new-age retro" suits which they design themselves. They've also made exclusive lines of bags and clothing for Puma and Benetton, and designed the packaging for an international batch of Pepsi cans.
A dinosaur assembled from custom-made cans
Their art has found favour with celebrity collectors too: Elton John trekked all the way to Sydney to purchase a steel dome painted with nostalgic childhood references, part of their 'Somnium Genero" series. Hedge fund billionaire and influential collector Steve Cohen bought two pieces from their 'Immortals' series, mock-trophy busts of Punjabi lads bedecked in luxurious foreign baubles.
Goods favoured by the "foreign-returned", like whisky and chocolate syrup, feature prominently in their supermarket-style installations, labelled with the pair's fake brandname, Bosedk. That, true to their style, is a mock-anglicisation of an unprintable Punjabi swear word that refers to the female genitalia.
Thukral and Tagra's work is eagerly consumed by those towards whom their irony is directed: a nouveau riche visitor to their exhibit in Delhi's Gallery Nature Morte in '06 came away with a cheeky "pen chor" T-shirt stuffed in a jar. Later, he phoned to find out when their funky Bosedk "branded" products would be retailed. And various malls have eagerly phoned to find out whether they might be able to acquire the pink mall-dinosaur, which mocks consumerism's monstrous mascots, for children to play on.
"People love our work, even if they don't always understand it," says Sumir Tagra, with an indulgent grin. "But we can't explain everything!" If they did get around to offering explanations, though, the titles of their work would be a good place to begin—they seem to specialise in giving lofty Latin names to societal maladies. For instance, their project titled 'Effluvio', or escape, refers to young Punjabi boys who desperately hanker after foreign shores and foreign goods. 'Somnium Genero' (Dream Generator) refers to nostalgia, childhood and the subconscious. 'Adolescere Domus' (Adolescent's House)—their installation for the prestigious Art Basel festival in 2007, depicting an adolescent's room—shows the importance of brands in a teenager's construction of his identity. And 'Dominus Aeris', or flying houses—wedding cake confections inspired by their own neighbour's house—is a tongue-in-cheek depiction of the denatured, hotchpotch architectural style that's come to be known as Punjabi baroque.
Thukral and Tagra met in their college days and developed an instant artistic and personal rapport. All their projects are constantly revisited and reinvented. For instance, Jiten Thukral, who grew up in Jalandhar, and whose father is a one-time wrestling champion, spotted photos of an old friend while trawling a social networking site. He was struck by the sight of his once-puny friend posting portly, snow-flecked pictures of himself in Canada. That inspired the duo to add a new element to their Effluvio project—a trophy bust hooked up to a compressor; gaunt and dour-faced at room-temperature and ecstatic when frozen.
Thukral and Tangra profess great admiration for conceptual artists Damien Hirst and Subodh Gupta. But in their layering of pop-culture references, their blurring of distinctions between high art and kitsch, and representation of their own selves as slickly packaged statements to go with their work, they're closer to American sculptor Jeff Koons and Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami. Koons is known for his oversized kitsch sculptures and attentiveness to his brand image. Murakami's artistic style blends references to underground culture, consumerism and fetishism—and can be purchased in Louis Vuitton stores in the shape of the Murakami bag.
Thukral and Tagra make local tongues speak an international language with such effortless fluency that their diaries are booked all the year round. Over the coming months, for instance, they'll hit Tokyo for a Mori Museum show, then London, Miami and New York, followed by Berlin and Singapore. Visiting relatives from Punjab, agog at their passports covered with multicoloured, multilingual stamps, often push their kids forward and say, "Here, take him along. I'll pay you." Perhaps that'll be inspiration for yet another installation.