Dayanita Singh is an artist who uses photography in order to reflect and expand on ways in which we can relate to photographic images. Her interest in archiving and publishing have allowed her to draw from her whole history of photography to create mobile museums and archives.
Much of her inspiration comes from archiving. Her more recent works are drawn from 30 years of photography and is also known as the Museum Bhavan. This is a fold up or pop up exhibition where the artist is able to manipulate the space by moving the wooden panels, holding the photographs. These are interconnected bodies of work that are replete the both poetic and narrative possibilities. Each set of wooden panels contains a ‘museum’, holding a collection of photos based around one topic. These include the Museum of Files, the Museum of Little Girls, and the Museum of Machinery. The Museum of Files was the first to be created and has been described as ‘an elegy to paper which will decay in time’. The inspiration of archiving and museums has also come from the places that which she took many of her photographs.
The museums, in the wooden panels, can be manipulated within the exhibition space in order to show hidden connections. In one exhibition, the Museum of Photography and Museum of Furniture were placed next to each other, creating an individual conversation. The wooden panels themselves contain storage systems, allowing more photographs to be kept than is displayed. These storage systems also create some coves, gaps, and places of privacy. The portable museum also comes with its own boxes, stables, stools and benches, which can also be placed in specific places and manipulated to change the audiences interaction and conversation with the piece. Within this piece, the act of book making and museum making are inseparable, both of Singh’s inspirations in her practice. This work has gone on to single exhibitions, including that of the Museum of Machines, in 2016, as a major new exhibition in the Mast Gallery, Bologna.
“I have a visceral response to places like that,” says Singh. “To paper factories, old bookshops, people’s private libraries. I find the thought of the secrets and knowledge contained in all that paper deeply moving. I have long conversations with my publisher that are about nothing but paper. I carry the stuff around with me all the time, because I never know when I’ll have an idea for a book.” – Telegraph
Not only is archiving an inspiration and a large part of Dayanita Singh’s practice, but also publishing and the act of book making is too, found in the British Journal of Photography. The books that she publishes are often without text and are used to experiment on alternate forms of producing and viewing photographs. The first collaboration for a book that she did was with the publisher Steidl, which allowed the beginning of a new format in which her photographs create new narratives and follow new sequences. This boo was called Privacy and it portrays the wealthy India and the interiors of. However, for the first time, it also portrays a bourgeois, upper-class India, which openly declared Singh’s interested in this topic, which is both anthropological and archaeological in equal measure. This book also allowed Singh to distance herself from the photographic colonialist gaze, which was popular to direct at her country and also character of photography.
In another book, Chairs, she explores the subject area similar that to Museum of Furniture. The photographs that are collected for these books and the book making process are also used in the museums in her exhibitions. Chairs explores the sense of inanimate objects, spaces, evocative emptiness, and the latent time of them. This allows the reader to connect to the way Singh explored her sense of these subjects. The history of individuals, families, and that of generations of old culture that develop ‘once more after independence seems to manifest in these chairs and furniture, in the stillness of these objects’, is also a subject area that is explored within the book.
As documentation is a large part of Dayanita Singh’s practice and inspiration, it is surprising when in Go Away Closer, she steps away from this process in order to develop an essayistic view and function within her photography. This allows a ‘photo-novella to be pieced together without words to shape internal and external life, society and personal history, presence and absence, fullness and emptiness, reality and dream into a fragmented whole, a new and unique body of image and poetry’ (British Journal of Photography). This is a performative element that is slowly creeping into her photography, and has also manifested in her exhibitions with the mobile museums, along with the furniture, carts, and folding screens, allowing her photography to have continual, flowing and new forms wherever it goes. This also discloses the new meanings of the photographs.
“She displays the world of the archive as a living shadow world, a world of paper, of paragraphs, of files, which are bestowed a milky, pale illumination under the glow of old strip lights and which appear to perish, rot, disintegrate, yet paradoxically seem also to be alive and cultivated.” – British Journal of Photography
What should stay the same?
The art of slow conversation.