Delhi-based photographer Dayanita Singh’s exhibition “File Museum” saw her constructing a new architecture of display while returning to the black-and-white format she is best known for. Of the 140 shots taken at various archives in India, the majority were on view; the rest were filed away inside a large teak structure, placed at the center of the spacious gallery, that vaguely recalled Tony Smith’s description of Die (1962), a six-foot black cube that was neither “monument” nor “object.” Singh’s structure can be pulled apart and reconfigured, much like her earlier bookworks. Sent a Letter (2008) and Chairs (2005) were both printed accordion-fold, for example, while Blue Book (2009) consists of 23 postcards.
On the exterior of the L-shaped configuration that I saw, the photographs were mounted on what looked like moveable screens, and jostled for breathing space in their rows of three and columns of five. In contrast, the cabinetlike interior seemed empty; only two photographs were displayed in smallteak boxes, with the rest viewable upon request. A third box had migrated to the wall of the gallery’s smaller space, where it contained the inspiration for the series, a photograph from 2000 taken at Kerala’s Trivandrum Museum Library.
Like the eerie nightscapes captured on daylight color film in “Dream Villa” (2010), Singh’s last exhibition here, the images in “File Museum” are largely unpeopled. Exactly 39 of the displayed works show the archival custodians alongside the documents in their care, and all were arranged in three parallel rows on the left wall in the large space. The others feature Singh’s characteristically emptyinteriors, so redolent of human presence yet so oddly abandoned-looking. Amid the disintegrating paper documents stuffed into boxes or bags and piled high on cupboards or shelves, we find vague allusions to sanitation and revenue, to polls and governor generals, even to war. Some of the documents are dated as early as the 1860s, others as late as the 1950s; true contextual specificity falls by the wayside. Here the artist assigns priority to viewing conventions engendered by themuseum and the book—two categories she treats as interchangeable.
Indeed, the prevailing sense of archival depersonalization in “File Museum” marks a shift from earlier, more compelling works such as Myself Mona Ahmed (2001), Singh’s beautifully personal account of a eunuch who lives in a New Delhi graveyard and dreams about building a marriage hall there. “File Museum” also dispenses with the keen sense of social nuance in Privacy (2004), in which Singh turned her camera on the secret familial world of India’s elite. Memorably featured in the Serpentine Gallery’s “Indian Highway” (2008-09), the former photojournalist will also be exhibiting with Romuald Karmakar, Santu Mofokeng and Ai Weiwei in the German Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale. Her inclusion in this group feels very timely: working from the ascendant margins, Singh deals with the globalized condition without capitulating to the documentarian impulse.
View of Dayanita Singh's exhibition "File Museum," 2012; at Frith Street.