Hide and seek in the Metaverse

Artists Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra through their recent works raise existential questions on nature and the digital world
Hide and seek in the Metaverse

In the 17th century, Anglican Bishop and philosopher Dr George Berkeley questioned whether a tree falling in a forest will make a sound when no one is around to hear it. Four hundred years later, 40-something Delhi-based artists Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra raise a similar question:

“If a tree falls in the Metaverse, and no one is logged on, do we hear it? Does it echo and shake the earth? Do the birds cry in mourning?” This poignant query is raised amidst concerns of technological overreach with the launch of pioneering AI software ChatGPT and its copycats. It plays out in visual form through their recent solo show, Arboretum, at Delhi’s Nature Morte gallery.

Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra
Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra

The pandemic may be receding in memory, but it was during the lockdown when Thukral and Tagra connected with each other digitally, sharing photos of nature, in an attempt to stay positive. They saved their digital library in a folder called ‘Arbor’. “Though we were connecting with nature, we were relying on digital means to engage with it. Some sort of algorithm was created in the digitisation of the picture, and similarly, our data was collected in the act of taking the photograph, saving and sharing it on our phones, and we too became digitised,” says Thukral. At the same time, they noticed the apparent divide between individuals who could retreat to the safety of the digital world and people who were on the Covid frontlines.

These abstract series of thoughts led the two-man team to paint framed naturescapes using photo-realism, as viewed through a window. Yet, each pretty picture is disrupted with large blocks of pixelated lines and squares. Tagra shares, “When we zoomed in on our phones to an image of a bougainvillea plant, we saw a pair of pixelated eyes looking back—perhaps it was a kitten or something else. It struck us that both nature and technology are watching us. Do we have any escape from being seen?”

The artists have sought to highlight the technical glitch, or the “functional failure” of society when it draws distinctive boundaries that separate people or define who they are. With the increasing adoption of digital means,  these boundaries are, however, becoming porous, and a dystopian future previously only imagined in books, movies and art, could be the imminent reality.

Keen to build on the technology-as-art conversation, Thukral and Tagra shun the unidirectional NFT talk and prefer to focus on where this knowledge is heading. Sharing their reservations, they declare, “A lot of incompetent stuff comes out in the digi-art space, so on what basis do we judge it all? We ourselves are trying to make sense of it. The rise of AI like ChatGPT provokes an interesting thought: can we use a self-trained modality to train us?”

Therefore, apart from the large-sized works, two installations consist of a number of small paintings recreating scenes of nature in a series of disjointed pieces, causing an unnerving effect of being inside a digital metaverse. The artists describe the act of creating their detailed works as a meditative process. It was a catharsis they needed after the last few difficult years, and the emotionally heavy projects they were immersed in before, such as documenting the travails of poor farmers. Hence, for the first time in their 20-year history of mixed media art, they have dedicated an entire show to paintings, after having worked with diverse mediums like sculpture, installation, interactive games, publishing, performance and design.

Despite sticking to a single medium, putting the show together presented a unique hurdle. Thukral highlights, “It was incredibly challenging to paint the pixels into a photo-realist painting without taking away from the surroundings. Some of them had to be painted three times till we finally cracked the technique to make it look real.”

Fortunately, the result makes for meaningful art. “It has been incredible to see the effect of our work. A few days ago, someone reached out to us on Instagram to share that our work made them feel hopeful. We feel it’s important to show positivity through our work. We also enjoy hearing varied interpretations of our work,” says Tagra, adding, “Somebody thought our pixels were meant to hide something, while our view was the opposite because we used them to show more of what was hidden. Ultimately, paintings should have the potential to compel a person to sit and contemplate. We are hopeful that through Arboretum, we have achieved that.”

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The New Indian Express