Dayanita Singh: “most of my work starts with accidents”

Two artists have exhibitions at the Hayward Gallery at the moment (until 15 December 2013) but the one with the most photographic interest is Dayanita Singh (b.1961). She is particularly interested in sequencing and re-sequencing  images, sometimes as stories but often with a theme and no fixed narrative, or at least a narrative that the viewer themself supplies.

external view of Hayward Gallery

Oh good lord, another gallery that puts on photographic exhibitions and bans photography, so I can only show you the outside. The irony of this never ceases to annoy me!

Dayanita Singh’s photography is not easily categorised, which in my opinion is a good thing (too many labels can hide the photographs!). She refers to herself as an artist working with photography. Normally this would sound pretentious but in her case it is as accurate as we can get. Her early photography is black & white and had a reportage-style so you might think she would take a documentary approach to sequencing her images, but even her early work shows a departure from the straight-forward story-telling approach. she has evolved this into an ambivalence that means we cannot tell where the boundary is between fact and fiction: the unconscious assumption that we are looking at “fact” when viewing photographs must be brought to the surface and discarded when reading Singh’s work.

She likes working with the book as a finished product, though I use “finished” in the sense of being final rather than necessarily polished. Some of her books have a raw notebook quality. Blue Book (2008), containing mostly photographs taken during the “blue hour” of twilight and are printed as postcards before binding into a paper cover – this works. Go Away Closer (2007) takes a more chapbook-like approach with a careful sequence of images that show loneliness and absence even when there should be joy – again, this works.  And her latest book File Room (2013) is a beautiful presentation in images and words of the mountains of paper kept in Indian archives by their archivists – this really works.

Not all of her books are this good (Dream Villa, 2010, is a particular dud, with dark images split by the gutter and printed on glossy paper that seems to reflect every light in the room simultaneously) but that’s the nature of artistic work – some of it can be either misjudged or it just doesn’t appeal to everyone.

Although her books form part of the exhibition, about half of the space is for wall-hung images and the other half is Singh’s latest concept of the mini-museum. In this exhibition we see the Museum of Vitrines, the Museum of Furniture, the Museum of Machines, the Museum of  Men-Recent, the Museum of Photography, the Museum of Little Ladies 1961-present, the Museum of Embraces and the Museum of Chance (phew!)  This last one is the largest, from which I think we can deduce Singh’s approach to photography – take the pictures and worry about how you’re going to use them later! There is nothing new in the fundamental concept of these museums: they are collections of themed photographs. What she has done that is new is put them together in a way that allows for the pictures’ storage and flexible display in a well-made, inventive and functional piece of furniture, hence we find sculpture and photography in harmony.

exhibition signature image

The signature image of the exhibition. It can be seen in several of the Museums. © Dayanita Singh

Photography can be a wonderfully precise tool. It can also be informing, narrative, moving, ambivalent, equivocal, obscure and impenetrable.  Dayanita Singh has examples of all these on display in this exhibition (to cram that many adjectives into one exhibition is a badge of honour for any artist). By the end of it I felt that I had been experimented on rather than simply challenged. At the time I felt exhausted but on reflection this is an exhibition I would recommend to anyone interested in the artistic use of photography. Go see it!


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