Dayanita Singh’s museums
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
Anyone who has had to confront officialdom or bureaucracy in India will be familiar with backrooms full of dusty ageing files, still present in an age of computers and automation. (Would it be presumptuous to speculate that the bureaucracy is a British legacy, an offshoot of that other parting gift, the civil service?)
The photographic artist Dayanita Singh, who was born in New Delhi in 1961, has admitted to “an obsession with archives”, eloquently expressed in the Museums sequence of her exhibition Go Away Closer, at the Hayward Gallery (until December 15). Archivists, she says, “design their own structures, whether it be metal or wood, and most of the time also design their own catalogue systems. So there is great individuality there, and I love that”.
As the Director of the Hayward Gallery Ralph Rugoff writes in a foreword to the accompanying book, Dayanita Singh has “also chronicled the end of an era in the information age, by photographing bureaucratic archives in India that are filled with piles of disintegrating paper documents”. Geoff Dyer, in his introduction to the book, says of the file pictures, “what cries out to be described as Dayanita’s most ‘substantial’ body of black-and-white work, File Room [is] a documentary record of documents!”
According to the curator of the exhibition Stephanie Rosenthal, “her images are meant to be read, not simply seen; they demand the sort of active looking that engages the mind as much as the eye . . . the images are rarely given captions, since Singh believes that factual information gets in the way of the viewer’s experience of the image”.
"Zeiss Ikon 1996"
There is a poignant sequence of photos of “her greatest friend”, the eunuch Mona Ahmed, who has gone from “being a diva to becoming an outcast among outcastes, living in a graveyard . . . . She asks God, ‘why did you make me like this?’ and tells us: ‘ no one becomes a eunuch by choice. We are not like men trying to be women, we are the third sex’”.
Singh creates “Museums”, beautiful wooden structures, folded like Japanese screens but containing sequences of photographs (nearly all black and white). Thus we have the Museum of Chance, the Museum of Men (which includes a photo of a quizzical-looking Günter Grass in a side street, possibly in Delhi . . .), the Museum of Embraces and so on. Of her Museum of Machines Singh says, “these are not just machines, these are sculptures. There is something organic about them”.
In an exhibition leaflet the visitor is told that the "Museum Bhavan is a collection of museums made by Dayanita Singh. Permanently installed at Vasant Vihar, New Delhi, the museums will, however, travel to other venues . . . . The design and architecture of the museums are integral to the images shown and kept in them. Each large, wooden, handmade structure can be placed and opened in different ways".
For me, the most striking image (not available for reproduction) was that of an indoor swimming pool at night (Singh has talked of working at night, “with the ‘wrong’ film and the ‘wrong’ exposures”), the overhead lights playing on the surface of the black water, while large arched doorways, their shutters pulled back, open on to the darkness outside with a couple of lights in the distance; there are three small starting blocks and, just visible in frame, a diving board. The whole scene is pervaded by a sense of mystery.
Go Away Closer occupies the upstairs gallery of the Hayward. Downstairs are the Cuban American artist Ana Mendieta’s earthy and blood-soaked images, which Judith Flanders reviewed in the TLS of October 14.