Dayanita Singh: ‘Go Away Closer’ at the Hayward Gallery

By Emma Enderby

Dayanita Singh  Museum of Chance, 2013. © the artist 2013, Photo: Stephen White
Dayanita Singh pictured with
Museum of Chance, 2013. © the artist 2013, Photo: Stephen White

Dayanita Singh: Go Away Closer
Until December 15
Hayward Gallery

Unless I can make poetry out of it, or a novel, what good is all my vocabulary?
Dayanita Singh

You have until Sunday 15th December, 6pm, to see Go Away Closer, the Hayward’s winter exhibition by India’s most celebrated female photographer, Dayanita Singh (b.1961, New Delhi).

But Singh is not a photographer– she’s a bookmaker.

Go Away Closer is titled after one of her ten published books and beautifully  showcases her understanding of what photography is to her – a tool, a language, a raw material. Photography allows Singh to transform images into text, breaking away from the print-on-the-wall tradition. Her sequences of images– domestic scenes, workers, factories, beautiful houses– create a loose visual narrative that informs her installations, film work and unique mass-produced artist’s books.

This exhibition is the first major UK retrospective of Singh’s work, spanning the past twenty-five years of Singh’s oeuvre. It notably includes ‘Museum Bhavan’ which is a major new body of work which developed from her experiments in book-making.

Envisaged as ‘portable museums’, Museum Bhavan consists of a number of large wooden structures all with with various configurations and each holding 70 to 140 photographs relating to the museum’s subject.

Dayanita Singh, From the series Go Away Closer, 2007
Dayanita Singh, From the series Go Away Closer, 2007

The Museum of Embrace features images of a mother and child, a couple, a sculpture with the figures intertwined. Whilst old, new, expensive and cheap furniture are all present in the Museum of Furniture, and likewise in the Museum of Machines, the machines become sculptures, unused and still.

One of the most interesting, lyrical and rich in narrative is the Museum of Chance. Here ‘chance’ is explored through the everyday and the spectacular, an actress, a group of nurses, affluent homes, a boy in chains. Subtle, unbiased, the images document a multitude of stories which unfolds the notion and meaning of chance– for both the subject and for Singh’s chance in capturing it.

Dayanita Singh, From the series Dream Villa, 2010
Dayanita Singh, From the series Dream Villa, 2010

The  museums all function and behave as you’d expect a museum to, even though it is technically ‘the work’. They are not without the usual museum staff– there is an archivist, trustees, ambassadors and Museum Editor who will publish texts and catalogues.

The museum is currently touring and when it returns home to its permanent display at the Vasant Vihar, New Delhi, where it will be open to the public on the first and second full moon of each year.

Each museum display is not static, but houses a collection of old and new images by Singh. These images are hidden in racks within the wooden structures and can be interchanged. Singh is thus endlessly editing, arranging, sequencing the museums, discovering new narratives, themes, with each new configuration.

Not only do the museums confront and dispel the notion of a single image, and single narrative, they take photographs into the realm of sculpture, of architecture, and the notions of display. It is a ‘living’ museum in all its facets and secretive with its hidden images, and hidden narratives, some that have yet to be even discovered by Singh herself.

The secret is everywhere in Singh’s work, hiding in smiles, in the corners of a room, in the distance, in the moment before the photograph was taken, in the moment after. The idea of the exhibition is also present in Send a Letter, a more intimate, delicate exploration of her experimentation with images.

In 2000 Singh began taking photographs on holiday, each with a particular person in mind, placing the images together as a folding accordion-like booklet. Each an exhibition within itself, a journey bound together by memory and the relationship between person and place. As ever, Singh takes the image not for the end result, but as a starting point, and thus resulting in richer poetry.

Singh’s recent video work, Mona and Myself, returns to one of her first subjects, the eunuch Mona Ahmed. Striving to create a ‘true portrait’ of Mona, Singh describes the film as a ‘moving still’. It is a deeply beautiful and poetic portrait, focused on Mona as she listens to her favourite song. It is both sad and peaceful, with Mona’s eyes looking through the lens then to dart away, singing to the viewer and then falling silent as if taken elsewhere.

Dayanita Singh, 'Mona and Myself', 2013
Dayanita Singh, ‘Mona and Myself’, 2013

As a self-declared bookmaker, the artist’s book is fundamental to Singh’s practice, and all are on show at the Hayward to thumb through. Cleverly, they are displayed alongside a selection of images from the books, blown up, framed and hung in sequences and groups on the walls. This stands to highlight that each image from the book is not singular, but forms a web of images brought together by Singh and published on paper.

Dayanita Singh, From the series Blue Book, 2009
Dayanita Singh, From the series Blue Book, 2009

Singh’s photographs are thus not to be seen, but read, they are not factual stories but a lyrical poem, they are dreams – her work sits as the artist puts it “[at the] time between waking and sleeping”.

The book is the perfect instrument for Singh to push us to consider beyond what we see– but how we see it. Singh was no stranger to the camera; her mother, Nony Singh, was never without her Ikon. As tradition would have it, Nony cared for the home, raised her family, but her domestic life and her children became the focus of her photography.

Dayanita, her first born, was the main subject of Nony’s lens and it was Dayanita, on finding her mother’s negatives, made them into a book. Dayanita Singh was constantly in front of a lens that took photographs for no grander purpose, not for the wall, or the frame. Perhaps it was this that encouraged Singh to push beyond the usual understanding of photography and its display, to investigate and challenge the boundaries of photography as an artistic medium and in that to force the audience to consider how we read and construct stories through a myriad of seemingly simple imagery.

This exhibition is beautiful and rich, with new stories that arise with each new reading of her work, an exhibition that sets to explore the meaning of photography, storytelling, poetry and surprises.

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