How Close is Closer? Dayanita Singh: Go Away Closer.

Hayward Gallery, London, 8 October-15 December 2013. 


mona6_0I first came across the work of Delhi born artist Dayanita Singh in an exhibition and book, Myself Mona Ahmed (2001), a photo-essay about an aging eunuch transsexual (hijra)  living in a graveyard in Old Delhi.  In this extraordinary body of work – the book contains various different kinds of text alongside the photographs) –  one sensed not only compassion, but a collaboration between the person in front of the camera, and the one looking through the lens.  The photographs are black and white, their arrangement sequential, telling a dramatic story, but also portraying a life of poverty and loneliness. More than a sociological record of the role of eunuchs in Indian culture, it is a serial portrait, but its conceptual and material framework seemed to be that of the documentary photographer or of photojournalism: to tell by showing.  I have, since then, sporadically followed Singh’s work, returning to it in my recent research on ‘the archival turn’ in contemporary art. I was interested in the projects Go Away Closer, House of Love and Sent you a Letter, which gave me a broader picture of a more idiosyncratic and keenly individual photographic practice. But none of these individual sightings of Singh’s work does justice to the sweep of her vision and the innovative uses to which she presses photography.

Go away closer, 2Dayanita Singh: Go Away Closer at the Hayward Gallery in London, is the first comprehensive presentation of this artist’s work in the UK. The paradoxical title, where proximity and distance converge, is a spatialised instruction, one that reveals what so many photographers desire, a gap and a closeness all at once. This instruction sets up a relationship between the photographer and her models on the one hand (even if those models are inanimate: rooms, windows, views, objects) and the photograph and its viewers on the other. It is in this spatialisation that Singh’s photographs come into their own. Not that the photographs individually are not works of great beauty, great mystery, great humanity. But it is in their spatialisation that a new medium emerges. Dayanita Singh calls it ‘photo-architecture.’ The photographs – and for Singh, these are the images captured using ‘old fashioned’, non digital cameras, initially printed on contact sheets – are the component parts, the building blocks of this new medium (as paint is the medium out of which those cultural artefacts we call ‘paintings’ are made). The individual photograph is just the beginning.

sent a letter

Dayanita Singh’s preferred mode of presentation for her work is the book. ‘The form of the book,’ she says, is a very intimate form. To me, it’s the best way to look at photography. I would rather give up on print quality, but I cannot bear the glass that comes between the print and me. So I love the book’ (all quotations by Dayanita Singh, unless otherwise stated, are from the book catalogue of the Hayward exhibition). The placing of the image on the page is always studied. She sometimes prints on the full page of the book, or more provocatively (and also more frustratingly) runs the photograph across the gutter joining two pages. On her website, she calls herself  a ‘bookmaker working with photography.’ Looking at the works I have already mentioned, Go Away Closer (2006) is a novel without words, a mysterious, non-linear narrative constructed out of paired photographs: clothes, paintings, books, empty spaces, a street slick with rain, an occasional human presence – all sharp and still; you feel that the sequence is of the essence, but the book withholds any sense of a direct or literal or obvious meaning, so you can’t rephrase that sequence into words. The meaning, rather, seems poetic, dream like, intuitive. It leaves you not so much with a concept as with a feeling.

Sent a Letter (2008) is comprised of seven small photo-diaries held together in a plain box designed by the artist. The notebooks document her travels in India. These travels, she tells us in a fascinating and highly informative interview with curator Stephanie Rosenthal, were in the company of ‘friends with great minds – some of them not even friends, just great minds.’ Each book is a diary with particular, personal, coded allusions to a time shared; each is a letter sent to the travel companion, and its interlocutor is an intrinsic, if veiled, part of its meaning. ‘Secret’ is one of the words Dayanita Singh loves.

House of Love (2011) is a work of ‘photographic fiction’ produced in conjunction with Aveek Sen, the writer and the photographer following parallel trajectories, with the recurring motif of the Taj Mahal, that transcendental house of love (and loss). Singh sold the book herself, taking a cart through the art fair in Delhi, and this additional journey adds to the nuances that the notion of spatialisation takes on in her work. (In interviews, she has regretted not having been able to take a cart to the Venice Biennale this year, where her work was shown in the German-Pavilion-at-the-French-Pavilion, alongside that of Ai Weiwei, Romuald Karmakar and Santu Mofokeng). In the book, she gives a new twist to the Anaïs Nin’s notion of a spy in the house of love. Nine sets of colour and black and white photographs are arranged as interconnected ‘stories’, and again, the narrative is oneiric and digressive rather than coherently linear. The images fill the entire, square format; often penumbral or nocturnal, they slyly elicit the collusion of the viewer. We too become lovers here. Perhaps ‘seduce’ would be a better word than ‘elicit’, since they issue an invitation that is never properly fulfilled: the invitation to knowledge.

houseoflove3It is not that Dayanita Singh withholds knowledge. Rather, in her acute sense that our perception of images is affected, altered and indeed conditioned by the structures through which we view them (books, vitrines, drawers, files, albums), she presents the subject of her photographs as never entirely knowable in a coherent or definitive sense. Go away closer. And the fascination with archives, as both containers and as systems for the categorisation and storage of things made of, or printed on, paper – is palpable. Yet one feels, all the while – in the photographs of heaving bookshelves, piled surfaces, bundles of stuff – the extent to which the archive as a conceptual structure strains under its own categorical rigour. In the words of art historian Sven Spieker, ‘the grid and its trash, the archive and what it stores, emerge at the same time so that one cannot easily be subtracted from the other.’[1]

File roomSeveral contemporary artists have worked with this notion: Hans-Peter Feldmann, Susan Hiller and Jeff Geys spring to mind, with historical precedents in the work of Aleksandr Rodchenko. But in diverse ways, Singh makes of the archive not only her subject, but also her form. The first (archive as subject matter) we see most clearly in the recent book project File Room, ‘an elegy to paper in an age of the digitization of information and knowledge.’ With the bookmaker’s love of paper, Singh visits the labyrinthine archives of Indian courts and municipal offices, and presents us with a range of images that seem like the realisation of a Borgesian dream (or nightmare), where despite all efforts at organisation, categorisation and ordering, the world of paper, like that of nature, tends to disintegration and chaos: entropy, in a word. It is, of course, also a portrait of the bureaucratic underpinning of a society in transition, possibly in permanent transition, between the obsolete and the modern.

The second (archive as form) is materialised in the exhibition itself. One extensive space in the Hayward Gallery is given over to the Museums, custom built wooden storage-and-display shelving structures, free-standing bookshelves into which where black and white photographs are slotted according to themes: museum of furniture, museum of machines, museums of men, museum of chance, museum of photography. Altogether, there are seven Museums, and Dayanita Singh is running with the idea. ‘Now with the Museum structure, I’ve made what might be called a giant book, but I am unwilling to fix it at that.’ Taking as her point of departure the fundaments of editing (selecting images and finding the sequence in which to run them), Singh finds structural – and yes, architectural (‘I would hesitate to use the word “sculpture”, she says) – forms in which these ‘books’ might be presented to a wider public. Each Museum contains a larger number of images than might be displayed at any single time, and so each display is simultaneously curated and impermanent.

But there is more. Where Orhan Pamuk created a fictional Museum of Innocence in Istanbul in order to give material ‘proof’ of something that never existed (the narrative it traces is a fiction fashioned by Pamuk himself, published prior to the institution of the museum as the novel The Museum of Innocence, 2008), Singh plans to bring these museums to her own home, to live among them. She plans to get rid of some of her existing furniture. The idea of merging the home with the work of art has its own history (Kurt Schwitters springs to mind, but many others have been charted in a recent book by Kirsty Bell[2]), but again, Singh brings to it a style and sense that are her own.  This house/archive/museum will entail constantly excavating and re-configuring the archive of her own work, opening it to the public at each full moon. ‘Every month or every week you can invite someone to re-edit, say, the Museum of Chance… The Museum keeps changing the images it shows you, but you always know there’s more.’ She plans an ongoing catalogue with an editor, and, she adds, ‘my bedroom could accommodate an archivist-in-residence.’ (It is not everyone that wishes for an archivist in residence in her bedroom). The re-editing and re-purposing of photographs, allowing them to wander from one context (book, display, Museum) to another hyperbolises the notion of impermanence and re-contextualisation.Dayanita Singh installation shot

If Dayanita Singh allies herself with photographers whose principle vehicle is the book (the exhibition Home Truths, curated by Susan Bright for The Photographers’ Gallery and The Foundling Museum and running simultaneously to the Dayanita Singh show, includes the book work of Fred Hüning, making no concession to the exhibition format), the notion that she is ‘not a photographer’ or that, as she claims, photography represents only ten per  cent of her practice is, perhaps, a little disingenuous. Each of her photographs evinces a manifest, almost bodily delight in composition (especially in what is excluded from the frame), in the evanescent quality of light, in all that photography can bring to view that may not be seen by the passing ‘eye’, so to speak. There is composition in even the most apparently casual work (and not one of these works is truly casual), and there is always a sense of the emotional temperature that each photographic image can generate.Go away closer

dayanita singh by her motherThis is not surprising, since Dayanita Singh has always lived with photography. One of the things this exhibition shows us, in its incorporation of documentation not as supplementary, but as inherent to the idea of the exhibition itself as a medium, is that Dayanita Singh’s mother, Nony, was a consummate photographer. Nony Singh documented her family’s life, dressing her two young daughters up for the photographic event, charting the hotel rooms she visited, observing her sister and cousins, excavating found family photographs (most intriguingly, her husband’s girlfriends before he met her).[3] Her daughter’s exhibition at the Hayward pays homage to her, shines a light on her and publicly accepts the baton, a little like Vivan Sundaram’s The Sher-Gil Archive (1995-7) and Re-take of Amrita (2001) acknowledged a dynastic link (Sundaram digitally reworking photographs taken by his grandfather, Umrao Singh Sher-Gil), while disturbing the dividing line between family archive and installation art.

It is perhaps not entirely random that these different practices are geographically associated: Singh points out that in India, archives are often custom designed and custom made. In a cultural context that still boasts rich artisanal traditions, the storage and display of objects is not standardised. There is also what art historian Geeta Kapur has described as ‘the poetics of displaced objects’, whereby installation art in countries ‘of the Third World as opposed to the cool signs thrown out by Western artists,’ is marked by different, arguably warmer traditions of spectatorship, and is connected with traditions of handicraft, but also of magic.[4] But of course with photography’s continued address to ‘the real,’ magic is touched upon, glanced off, returned to: it seems that Dayanita Singh constantly re-invokes that ‘making strange’ that excellent classic photography has always done, enabling us to see the well-worn and familiar in a new light, as if by magic.

Noni SinghThe exhibition ends where my journey with Dayanita Singh began, with Mona Ahmed. Dayanita Singh has produced a video portrait of the eunuch, for twenty five years her friend and model. Here is an excerpt from the wall text: ‘For some time now, I had been playing with the Mona work, trying to find another form for the work, something that could be a true portrait of Mona. I always felt that in almost twenty five years of photographing her, I had never been able to do her justice, [to] her uniqueness. Finally I found the form with the moving still image, which is a still … portrait of Mona, listening to her favorite song. At first she appears like someone who has just woken up, then she gets the song and finally she becomes the song.’ In the twenty five years that Mona Ahmed and Dayanita Singh have known each other, Mona has become a famous hijra, perhaps herself a tourist attraction. In black and white, and with the movie camera fixed on the prone head of Mona Ahmed as she lies fairly still, we watch for the smallest inflections on her face: listening, recognising, following, singing along.

The titles of the works are telling: against the earlier Myself Mona Ahmed (where the photographer identifies with her marginalised model), we now have the equally weighted binary Mona and Myself: terms that are separate (go away) but yoked together (closer). Although it is still always Dayanita who aims the camera at Mona and not the other way round, this work reveals the mutuality of the two protagonists. There is no doubt that what we see is a trusting exchange. It is a portrait of great intimacy, and such intimacy chafes against such huge public projection in a way that remains interesting rather than problematic. Where, it asks us, is the boundary separating a private photographic record (a private photographic act) from the public display warranted by a work of art?  The huge projection occupies a stairwell: we see the pores and individual hairs and light falling on the skin of the aged Mona Ahmed, the oddly fleshy, asymmetrical mouth, the cupped hand – all this we see filmed with the precision of one of Singh’s still portraits of her. This (literally) moving portrait, this portrait-in-time, is heart stopping for  the way in which the protagonist colludes with the artist, preventing our empathy and compassion from slipping into pity, but disallowing any prurient exploration of her private life.


mona and myself



Ruth Rosengarten © 2013.


[1] Sven Spieker, The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy, Cambridge, Mass. and London, England: MIT Press, 2008, p. xi.

[2] Kirsty Bell, The Artist’s House: From Workplace to Artwork, Berlin and New York: Sternberg Press, 2013.

[3] See Nony Singh, The Archivist, with texts by Aveek Sen, Sabeena Gadihoke and Nony Singh, Delhi: Dreamvilla Productions, 2013.

[4] Geeta Kapur, ‘Dismantling the Norm,’ in Apinan Poshyananda (guest curator), Contemporary Art in Asia: Traditions/Tensions, New York: Asia Society Galleries, 1996, p66.