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.
Rich displays of the recent work of Dayanita Singh, the internationally esteemed Indian photographer, were on view earlier this year in Mumbai and New Delhi. The generous gathering of C-prints (40 in New Delhi, 26 in Mumbai) made clear that this artist loves the night—for what she can do with the available light, certainly, but even more for the powerful sensations it can conjure of mystery and potential threat, of suspended time, aching melancholy and solitude. Her current technique is to shoot with daylight color film in low light conditions, most often outdoors at night, which results in chromatically warped, deeply saturated color photographs.
Made in locations across India, Singh’s “Blue Book” and “Dream Villa” series, both completed in 2009 and shown in Mumbai and New Delhi, respectively, are a significant departure from her trademark black-and-white work. They shift from the more sober interiors, portraits and somewhat autobiographical imagery for which she first gained recognition toward subjects that feel less specific, and more evocative and disquieting. Like the previous series, they have been published in handy small-format books by Steidl.
Concentrating on vacant factories, hulking structures and machinery seen from both far away and close up, “Blue Book” feels like an elegy to a passing industrial era. Unlike the Bechers’ objectivizing, typological homage to industrial architecture, Singh’s images are a kind of mournful love song, with buildings lit by the moon, or by light bouncing off water, seeping in through windows or reflected from rooftops. Using this limited illumination to define form, she relies on darkness to obscure and hide. The very few references to specific locations seem to be intentional witticisms, as in the shot of an abandoned room with a standard vision chart that has both Devnagari and Roman lettering, prodding viewers to reflect on how they read the world—and how they view her work.
In the “Dream Villa” series, Singh plunges further into the distortions and transformations afforded by nocturnal conditions. With super high contrast, areas of slick darkness and an odd palette, these powerful compositions of streets, trees, traffic lights, buildings, backyards and cityscapes could be shot just about anywhere. Anonymous and inhospitable, the places they depict radiate a sense of instability and alienation. The artist told me these pictures come from inside her head rather than from the locations themselves.
Singh cites literature and music as her primary inspirations, and mentions Italo Calvino in particular. True to form, when she is asked about her forthcoming travels in Europe, Singh opens her eyes wide and says she’s going to follow the moon.
Photo: Dayanita Singh: Dream Villa #11, 2009, C-print, 173⁄4 inches square; at Nature Morte.