Deconstructing contemporary myths through a video game
With 'Upon Your Bones This Temple', multidisciplinary artist Sahej Rahal extends his art practice into the medium of video games
In Upon Your Bones This Temple, a video game created by Mumbai-born, Delhi-based multidisciplinary artist Sahej Rahal, the player is dropped inside a forbidding, disorienting virtual structure without any instructions or backstory. Painted almost entirely in varying shades of red —from its geometric walls and pathways, to the almost sandstone-like desert floor far below—this virtual space is infused with a sinister, otherworldly ambience. This is further amplified by the game’s ominous background score, a soundtrack that hints at arcane rituals and extraterrestrial origins. I later find out that Rahal has intercut heavily manipulated samples of devotional music and the Gayatri Mantra into the music.
As the player navigates the game world, she stumbles upon two rooms. One contains an inverted shikhara—the rising tower that is commonly found in north Indian temples—which floats above the ground, occasionally throwing up clouds of red dust as it touches the floor. In the other, surrounded by a number of pillars, stands a grotesque three-legged monster, an amorphous, rough-skinned apparition straight out of a Lovecraftian nightmare. With no narration (at least not yet) and no game lore to speak of, Upon Your Bones This Temple invites the player to contemplate these sculptures and try to intuit where they come from and what they signify. The space they are placed in itself defies categorization, an archaeological dig site that could be—as the name of the game implies—a temple, a museum, or something else entirely.
“The whole idea here is not to give you one definitive narrative of what’s going on, but to invite you into this playground where you can find your own connections and create your own interpretation," says the 29-year-old artist. Rahal created the game in response to Ghosted (2018), curator Tegan Bristow’s open call for submissions to web residencies conducted by Stuttgart-based international artists-in-residence programme Akademie Schloss Solitude and ZKM, a cultural institution based in Karlsruhe, Germany. The Johannesburg-based curator had invited artists, hackers, audiovisual producers, subaltern archivists and “southern healers" to look at non-Western explorations of cultural capital.
A graduate of the Rachana Sansad Academy of Fine Art in Mumbai, Rahal is widely recognized as one of India’s most exciting and innovative young artists. He has participated in major group and solo exhibitions at Glasgow’s Centre For Contemporary Arts (2017) and the Liverpool Biennial (2016), amongst others. He also won the Forbes India Art Award for best debut show in 2014.
The objects that populate Upon Your Bones This Temple are 3D scans of sculptures from his earlier exhibitions, as well as works from the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya and the Bhau Daji Lad Museum. These are recontextualized by the virtual reality they’re placed in, stripped of their historicity and made to perform new roles as the artefacts of an emergent fictional mythology. The game is meant to mirror the way truth and untruth are being juxtaposed and weaponized to create new contemporary myths, whether it’s the cult of alt-right shamans like Milo Yiannopoulos and Jordan Peterson, or assertions about “Vedic science".
In that sense, the video game is only the latest instalment in what can be described as a large, interdisciplinary project of world-building that Rahal has been engaged in since 2010. Using performance art, sculpture and video work, he has crafted a constantly evolving narrative that draws influence from sources as disparate as Indian and Western mythology, anime, science fiction, pop culture and the city of Mumbai. History, religious traditions and exotic futures collide in this narrative, which is populated by “absurd beings" from a fictional civilization, and the tools and artefacts they have left behind.
In the three-part Brahmana series of performances, he dons the personae of furry shamanic beasts and turbaned warrior-bards—wearing costumes he has fashioned himself—that wander around the city, engaging in mysterious ritualistic behaviour. In his 2015 film Adversary—the centrepiece of his second solo show at the Chatterjee & Lal gallery in Mumbai—he charts the rise of a fictional empire and its king, who boasts of a 56-inch chest. His sculptural work largely consists of found objects that he refashions into uncanny architectural objects and strange, mutated creatures, such as the crawlers of indeterminate origin that he calls “walkers".
“Everything that we touch has this physical history embedded in it," Rahal says of his fascination with found objects, which play a central role in much of his work. “So you start thinking of it as a kind of building block, getting it to pretend like it’s something else. Then it becomes like a negotiation of meaning, of different histories. What stories does this object tell? How much of it can I hide with glue and wax and cement, and how much does it ask to be presented?"
At its heart, Rahal’s body of work is an interrogation into the many ways we manufacture meaning, and the role myths play in that undertaking. He believes myths—both the grand narratives of religion and ideology, and the smaller, everyday myths we create for ourselves—are central to how we make sense of, and navigate, the world around us. To that end, the story he is telling us is a kind of meta-narrative, exploring the dynamics of how we construct myths by demystifying the process of their creation.
For Rahal, who was involved in the #NotInMyName protests last year, this task has become more urgent and immediate given the political and social upheavals taking place all over the world. “Right now we find ourselves in this place where there’s literally this collapse of meaning," he says. “This mythology that I’m creating becomes essentially just a way of making sense of that. Not making sense of the mess we find ourselves in, but, rather, to intuit the grammar of that mess. How does something like this come together? Through rumours, these fragments of ideas that you get, and then they slowly gain critical mass. That’s something that I’m really interested in."
Rahal’s interest in video games dates back to his school days, when he planned to study engineering as a precursor to a career in game design. Even art school was originally meant to pave the way for getting into video-game concept design. So when he came across the open call by Akademie Schloss Solitude and ZKM, he jumped at the opportunity to finally make that happen. “I almost see my practice as things that are part of this game world, they’re toys or props," he says. “Open world games (that allow the player to roam freely) are also postmodern on arrival, because you’re literally taking the reins from the author. You have the freedom to circumvent the entire narrative that the author has presented to you, to create your own path through the text. Which ties back to my larger interest into how we make meaning."
The first episode of Upon Your Bones This Temple is available for free download, and playable on both Windows and Mac. Rahal plans on adding content through the year, including new arenas, objects and a voice-over based on “internet shaman figures like Jordan Peterson". He also plans on cross-referencing the video game in his offline work. “I have some ideas about how that might happen," he says. “And if I get the funding to work on a larger project, I might even work with an architect to kind of build this space in the real world."
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