“Photographs on their own are just not enough. They come alive in a physical form and that form should be changeable,” reveals India’s most renowned photographic artist, Dayanita Singh in a new book Go Away Closer, which accompanies her first UK retrospective, currently on display at The Hayward Gallery. Singh is certainly no stranger to evolving the language of photography; in fact, her lengthy career reads as a habitual search for new ways of reading and presenting images, rendering the classic print on the wall practically archaic.
It all began with a love affair with the artist book. Singh was quick to reject the coffee table art book culture for more delicate, highly-collectible and, most importantly, accessible publications. Mass produced publications of hers such as House of Love (2011) and Sent a Letter (2008) - a box of mini photo diaries of her travels in India that open out to accordion folds, line the walls of two gallery spaces in the Hayward. In Singh’s world, book is as important as print - the copy has as much status as the original. Indeed, Sent a Letter sows the seed for self-contained, portable world for photographs, as if her entire career has been leading up to this point – her own photo museum.
Displayed in eight 7ft tall, dark wooden structures, called Museums, each cabinet refers to a theme including Chance, Embraces, Men, Furniture and Photography, inviting viewers to engage with the black and white prints contained within, that are each culled from different eras and focus on different subjects.
In these spaces, scenes of abandoned factories take on a life of their own, abstracted Bollywood film stills are bestowed with new meaning, crumbling Indian bureaucracies carry a more universal poignancy and surreal faces emerge from photographs only to be rephotographed. We see men at work, two prisoners passing the time, the Indian upper classes in their illustrious domestic spaces, all the while Singh is the transcendent entity that witnesses the before, the after and the in-between. She exists beyond the perpetual passing of time. She is there filing, organising and archiving memories birthed from her own inner fictions. Fleeting moments become archived, museum display merges with the secretive and Singh’s intuitive editing, sequencing and storytelling reveal an interconnected, unending narrative within these somewhat separatist and categorised structures. “This is what my work really is,” she says, “it’s the dream, it’s that time between waking and sleeping when things collide.”
The book, which is essentially a comprehensive documentation of each Museum, includes an essay from renowned writer Geoff Dyer. In one passage from the text, he ventures the following: “Singh treats her images like living entities in perpetual conversation and re-evaluation. The pictures are the time overlooking each other, glancing over each other’s shoulders.” In other words, hidden within each of the structures are images that lie dormant waiting to surface and it is wholly appropriate that as the exhibition runs, Singh will constantly rearrange their ordering.
Perhaps her interest lies in the museum’s ability to harbour these hidden worlds? Or perhaps she is trying to remind us that her photographs are in constant evolution, offering us messages if we so wish to find them? In one Museum, a young boy holds a book of the title ‘What is photography?’ and elsewhere the subtitle in a Bollywood film still reads, ‘Could you leave everything and start from zero again?’
As such, Singh states that her homes for her photographs offer her more creative freedom. “If no museum is interested in my work, I still have my own structures. I will always be able to find some museum that will be happy to have my structures or I can give them to a library.”
After their London sojourn, these travelling ‘memory banks’ will return to Vasant Vihar, New Delhi to be permanently installed, with a resident archivist to oversee them. They will be open to the public, somewhat ceremoniously, on the first and second full moon of each year.
Singh’s highly sophisticated preservation of the medium certainly speaks to the precarious identity of the photograph in our information age. Never a slave to categories, institutions, or the form of the image itself, Dayanita Singh seems to be forever edging towards a new world in which photography to reside.