When she started photography in 1986 with a project on tabla maestro Zakir Hussain,Dayanita Singh seeking an alternative to the traditional format of exhibiting with a series of single images on the wall,matted and framed produced a book,titled after the musician. The form,she said,made her the curator of the project that put her in control of every aspect,from the font to the accompanying text.
Ever since known as a bookmaker,Singh has,however,continued to experiment with form. Her latest creations are portable museums,where the images move away from the wall and into houses of their own. Each museum,made using wood,is six- to eight-feet tall,has 70 to 140 images of which 30-40 can be displayed at any time,while the remaining are in the structure as the reserve collection.
Singh explains that the museums go beyond the idea of display to create a complete set of spaces that can be used not only for the storage of photographs,but also as rooms for looking,thinking,moving and connecting the visual material. For instance,Museum of Chance comes with its own tables and stools. Museum of Photography has its own benches. There is a Museum of Machines,Museum of Men,Museum of Embraces and so on, she says.
Now,eight of Singhs museums will be part of an exhibition at Londons Hayward Gallery next month. Titled Go Away Closer,the artist says this showing is part-retrospective and part-prospective. The solo exhibition will open on October 8 and the works will be on view till December 15.
The book is my form but it took all these years to find my own way to exhibit works on a larger scale,and,frankly,the confidence to go against what is expected of someone who works with photography, says the 51-year-old artist. The shift away from the print on the wall,Singh adds,started with the collection Sent a Letter in 2008. Essentially comprising a small box of seven accordion fold books photojournals of her travels in India,each dedicated to a specific person that open into seven exhibitions.
This was followed by House of Love in 2010,her first structure,where Singh made a book cart to sell her books to people who came to see her exhibition. The cart had copies of the book a photographic fiction in the form of nine short stories,done in collaboration with writer Aveek Sen but each had an individual cover that she had made for a certain person.
Singhs work,in fact,has close ties with other forms of art such as literature. When I read Italo Calvino or a writer such as Geoff Dyer,I study how he finds a new form,for each work; that is an inspiration. I think I understand precision from reading Vikram Seths poetry,restraint from Michael Ondaatje,rhythm pacing and the value of the silent note from the years I travelled with Zakir (Hussain), she says.
Another source of inspiration are archivists. Given the special relationship she shares with paper as an analogue photographer in the age of digitisation,Singhs File Rooms became an archive of archives that documents,and reflects on,the nature of paper as material and symbol in the work of making photographs and books. It was at its showing at Frith Street Gallery,London,last winter,as File Museum,that Haywards director Ralph Rugoff asked me if I would exhibit with them, says the Delhi-based artist.
Apart from her eight museums,the exhibition will also include Singhs earlier works,namely Myself Mona Ahmed (her acclaimed project on her friend,eunuch Mona Ahmed),I am as I am,Go Away Closer,Blue Book,Dream Villa and House of Love.
In tandem with the philosophy behind them,the need for a fluid form of showing images,the museums will continue to grow over the years. Singh intends to add more images to each museum as well as create newer ones. In future,she also intends to build each museums catalogue. Currently,however,Singh is working on a museum of saris.