As you walk the halls of the Museum of Dubious Splendors, you’ll find yourself immersed in an impossibly lush world of color, awash in gorgeous sunlight. You’ll hear serene instrumentals in the background as you wander the halls, examining seemingly commonplace items against beautiful backgrounds. Then suddenly, the scale of the place will explode–tall ceilings that make you feel small in view of the legacy of the art. Open a door to explore the museum further, and find it is raining inside, giant faucets looming in front of you, next to you and from the ceilings. Another door, and you’re confronted with giant apples, glossy and ripe, suspended in thin air despite their massive size. This is the world created by Studio Oleomingus–full of immense beauty, driven by mysterious narratives, and replete with imposing surrealist imagery.
It’s a world that you can visit and appreciate right here in Chicago at the Video Game Art Gallery with their newest exhibition, which is the first showing of Oleomingus’ work in the US. Studio Oleomingus: Notes in the Margins of History is a beautiful, mysterious and layered exhibition curated by the VGA Gallery’s own Chaz Evans that speaks to the history, culture and mythology of India and how it’s being eroded. It aspires to show its beauty just as it shows the violence of action inherent in gentrification and colonization.
The Museum of Dubious Splendors is just one part of an anthology known as Somewhere, based off the work of (fictional) playwright Mir Umar Hussan. The series of games are meant to open the player’s eyes to the history of India, both pre and post colonialism, and to speak to the beauty of India as well as its injustices. All four of the works we saw on display at the VGA Gallery share the same sort of beautiful surrealism, and a complex balance of intense detail and almost violent surrealism.
Sometimes, this surrealism speaks to the injustice of colonization–a beautiful pastoral native landscape, created with great attention to detail and interrupted with a giant pair of scissors or a rotary phone–some color stripped away, suddenly strange and foreign. But sometimes, this same surrealist sensibility makes regular, even “dubious” objects, unmistakably noticeable and important–and gorgeous.
Studio Oleomingus’ aesthetic is one that draws you in–use of color, light and detail are impeccable, and once you’re in the world, headphones on, reading the stories and exploring room by room or page by page, there’s a sense of wonder. It’s hard to know what will be around any corner, and the narratives, though lyrical and folkloric, don’t shed too much light on things, though once the door is opened, more becomes clear.
Gameplay is intentionally simple–you’ll move through a place, turn a page, or in some situations, complete an action. You’ll decide what rooms to enter in what order, and whether you’ll leave or stay. In the case of The Indifferent Wonder of an Edible Town, you’ll even literally chew up the scenery–but gameplay still takes a back seat to the narrative and exploration.
When we attended the opening of Studio Oleomingus: Notes in the Margins of History, we got a chance to hear from Druv Jahni, who represents one half of the two-man studio who put these pieces together. Jahni spoke passionately of his desire for the work to convey just a bit of the abrasion of his culture’s language and image, and the gentrification and imposing nature of the outside world.
“We belong to our past.” Jahni said–“It is here that the most profound battles for our time were fought and where our ability to arrive at the present was challenged and maintained. “
“We belong to our past. And it is here in between the now present and the now past—that we are attempting to intervene with all our extant work and all our proposed creations. It is here that we are simply trying to find out if there is still a way to write and tell and celebrate the dissemination of folk tales. “
“What have folktales to do with protest? What have they to do with the record of history,” you might ask?
And I would reply : ‘Why they sit at the very juncture between the two. They are the cleverest method that we might use to mythologize our reality and become authors of our own consciousness.”
In his talk, Druv went on to talk more about preserving folklore and the oral tradition of his country, and why it is so important. Folklore for him isn’t solely stories though–it includes objects and language as well–things that others may see as disposable or unimportant, but make up these dubious splendors. Some of the conversation was around what others coming in find important versus what is really important. This is something Chaz Evans, the curator for this exhibit, echoed when we talked to him–that even museums can incorrectly color or twist the narrative. An object that seems mundane and worthless to the outsider’s eye can in fact be a cornerstone of everyday life, just as something that seems very important or very authentic to the area can be of no import.
This is another reason that Druv Jahni and his partner Sushant Chakraborty choose games as a medium. Just as folktales often don’t have a singular author, and are changed and retold various ways through time, in this way “revoking authorship,” the medium of games allows the replacement of the author with the player, who can shape the telling of the story by where they go and what they do.
If all of that seems like a lot to take in, it is. There are layers upon layers to the work done by Studio Oleomingus in the works on display at the VGA Gallery in this exhibition--In the Pause Between Ringing, A Museum of Dubious Splendors, Timruk and The indifferent wonder of an edible town (a part of a larger work called Langoors in the Labyrinth).
However complex the underlying themes seem though, they’re made much more clear in the experiencing of them through the games. All you must do is sit down and play them, which boils down to the willingness to explore a culture you might not fully understand, and that, if you do, you will love seeing so wonderfully and almost worshipfully preserved in this beautiful, twisted way.
The artwork in all of the games is stunning, and combines more traditional Indian motifs with an almost Escher-like surrealist imposition. Things loom large in front of you, light streams in from unexpected places, and there are questions to be answered quietly in your own head from piece to piece and game to game. The stories themselves are wonderful, full of life, humor and whimsy–gods complaining and inventing, great warriors and wise elders, It’s a storybook world punctuated by otherness, that lets you explore at the same time it makes you look. It’s provocation and argument, commentary on what gets erased and what needs to be preserved, and what has changed the face of a country. And–it’s beautiful art, and a serene, interesting experience in the form of several unique videogames, beckoning you to dive in to something you might not understand or care about and see if you come out differently. We certainly did, and recommend a trip to see this compelling exhibit before it’s gone.
In addition, if you’d like to experience the work of Studio Oleomingus for yourself, A Museum of Dubious Splendors, Timruk and In the Pause Between the Ringing can all be downloaded on itch.io.
Studio Oleomingus: Notes in the Margins of History is on display at the VGA Gallery, 2418 W. Bloomingdale, through December 15. Admission is free, and the gallery is open Thursdays from 5-8 pm and Saturdays from 12 to 5 pm.