Between Blue Rocks
By Aveek Sen
Dayanita Singh – Dream Villa 40 (2008), C-type print. Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London.
To approach photography through the gates of poetry is to complicate the relationship of both to what we call the Real. It is to look beyond that comfortable division of labor by which poems dream while photographs document, or literature is expected to lie but photography must always tell the truth. It is to let in ambiguity, play and unease. So, I am grateful to the curators of the recent exhibition of photography from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, currently on view at the Fotomuseum Winterthur in Switzerland, for taking the first part of their title, “Where Three Dreams Cross,” from TS Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday”: “This is the time of tension between dying and birth/ The place of solitude where three dreams cross/ Between blue rocks…”
These lines make up a short curatorial note in verse. How can three apparently distinct dreams “cross” one another? What kind of terrain is created by such mysterious traffic? Dreams happen inside us, behind our eyes, while crossings imply real space, land and borders out there in front of our eyes. But once inside and outside are confounded in a dream-crossed terrain, what results is a twilight world of uncertain boundaries and porous borders. This is a realm of inwardness, a rich psychic terrain, where collectivity, what we hold in common with one another, is lived out, or played out, in the singularity and opacity of dreams. History and psyche “cross” each other in this continuum – even cross each other out – to form a plurality of nothings, beings turning into becomings, creatures in passage between blue rocks, ghosts and shadows in and out of time and place. They are nothings in a no-man’s land, which, in our more lucid, anxious or unforgiving moments, we call photography.
An X-ray image shows illegal immigrants in a lorry held up at the border between Mexico and Guatemala. It is a chilling contemporary document and a disturbingly beautiful allegory of photography’s relationship with human presence, its sinister yet alluring transformation of the invisible into visual evidence. These human beings hidden in a lorry are not only moving from one place to another, but they are also attempting to become something else altogether. To migrate is also to mutate – a transformation of identity that must take these travelers through the experience of turning into nothing before they become something else. This movement is literally arrested in this image by a paradox of identification that freezes the immigrants’ fugitive identities, but removes all identifying marks of personhood. They are reduced to the fact of their X-ray-obstructing bodies. Blurring into one another, as in Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, these bodies – at once material and immaterial, present and absent, Everyman and No-man – become part of the mystery of human identity in its relationship with place as defined and marked out by modern nation-states. At a moment like this, to be without an identity – without one’s identification papers – is to be reduced to being absolutely dislocated and unfree. It is to become King Lear’s “unaccommodated man.” Yet, framed and hung in a gallery as part of a show called “Borders and Beyond,” which was organized by the Swiss Arts Council and toured the world from 2001-07, this same X-ray photograph also arrests the viewer with the beauty of human bodies reduced to their most fragile, ghostly essence. And the illusory liberation from the weight and trappings of identity reduces the border itself to a ghostlier demarcation, a shadow line.
We are perversely close here to the realm of Art, for could not this dreamlike state of flesh-and-blood nothingness and nowhereness, of surreal identitylessness, also make the immigrant held at the border the negative of a certain kind of Modern artist? Is not the artist an everywhere-and-nowhere, everything-and-nothing creature too, turning globalization and its virtual double, the Internet, into his very own media? It is only when the possibility of the movement of bodies, wealth, information and fantasy across the borders threatens to become limitless that borders and limits, and therefore identities, begin to be guarded more anxiously, insidiously or aggressively. And the artist, like the immigrant, has an ambiguous and elusive role to play in this simultaneous – hence somewhat schizophrenic – opening and closing of the borders.
This ambiguity is captured in the relationship between the two parts of the title “Where Three Dreams Cross: 150 Years of Photography from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh,” which brings together, but also keeps apart, two distinct ways of imagining terrain. A terrain that allows not only for dreams but also for the mysterious crossing of dreams could well make redundant the maps and boundaries that define territorial entities like Pakistan, Bangladesh or India. This is not simply, or even not quite, a question of the dissolution of national borders in the great good republic of Art. It is the specific question of the feasibility and relevance of keeping a diverse and evolving range of photographic practice yoked to territorial identities like Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Indian. The title therefore keeps in view the cultural and political needs, habits and assumptions that compel us to do this yoking from time to time, while also keeping in sight the equally compelling need to look beyond talking about Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Indian photography. We could then, say, link Pakistani photographers, not with their Indian and Bangladeshi counterparts, but with Peruvian and Parisian photographers, thereby reconfiguring photographic history not through national identities, but by a Borgesian interest in looking at the world in terms of places beginning with the letter P. The show becomes a screen upon which two different maps of photography – a fixed map and a fluid map – are projected on top of each other. These two create, together, a layered and complex grid that baffles the links we might try to make among photography, place and identity.
Roni Horn – This is me, this is you (1998–2000), detail, 96 photographs, 32 x 26 cm each. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.
This double projection was played out for me at another level while I was working on this essay in Calcutta. My writing was continually interrupted by two parallel activities. First, applying and waiting for and then collecting the Schengen visa that would let me into Switzerland (where the show has traveled from the Whitechapel Gallery in London). A nervous-making part of this process was getting the visa photo made according to the official instructions. Everything was fine with the photos I had made, except that I looked completely different in them from how I looked in my passport photo. While this was going on in the high Indian summer, annoying and hilarious in turn, I was reading and looking at the work of Roni Horn. I got absorbed in her grids and sequences of seemingly identical but minutely different portraits of people, places, birds and objects. They were reminiscent of, yet turned upside down, the rules of official identification photography, and played with the conventions of portraiture. So, Horn and the Schengen visa were each playing a different game with faces, places and photographs, with who we are, where we are and where we want to be. Together, they showed me how photographs fix identity, but can also enable their makers and subjects to forge, fabricate, elude or escape it altogether. This playfulness undermines some of photography’s cherished certitudes: the distinctions between documentary and art photography, reality and fiction, true and false.
In Horn’s grids and sequences, faces become enigmatic things-in-themselves, as well as subtly different moments, states or positions in a continually shifting web of relationships with the artist, the viewer and the place. It is Horn’s use of this last entity – place – that became the most seductive counterpoint to the way I was being made to think about photography and place by “Where Three Dreams Cross.” Inseparable from her identity as artist and writer is Horn’s ongoing engagement with Iceland, a country she discovered early in her career, and to which she keeps returning in a series of willed repetitions, making identity and place, or identity in relation to place, an endless process of invention. Interlaced with the making, unmaking and remaking of her own private Iceland is her preoccupation with still and moving water as “a solvent for identity.” For Horn, water is the “master chameleon” that “is always discretely itself.” It allows her art to be extended out and into the world, so that the relationship between placing herself and being placed by others becomes one of spiraling complexity.
So Iceland, or the river Thames, is an entity whose locatedness is minutely explored, researched, responded to and documented. But each becomes a “location of change” or “landscape of possibilities,” places of perpetual flux, so that the artist’s identity is never allowed to crystallize or congeal around them. For Horn, place is “something that is evolving not only in itself but as a product of your relation to it.” It could be a country of the mind that you come upon or desire, and in that, it is your own and not your own. It pulls identity to itself like a powerful vortex, but offers no resting place or defining form. So, to ask whether Horn’s engagement with Iceland makes her an Icelandic artist, or whether she remains an American artist in spite of this engagement, becomes futile, even when questions of identity are central to the work. Iceland teaches Horn “the value of nowhere, the idea of nothing.” She describes the “loss of nowhere” as one of the most frightening things she could imagine: “To my mind and even by definition, nowhere is one of the rarest, most fragile, and most delectable of experiences. To be nowhere. Can you say you have achieved this experience?”
Pablo Bartholomew – My Parents Richard and Rati at Home, New Delhi (1975). Courtesy the artist.
To move from the X-ray image of immigrants hiding in a lorry to Horn’s Iceland is to move from nowhereness as nightmare to nowhereness as achievement. It is to move from privation to privilege, from the limbo of dislocation to the utopia of unlocatedness – from the Home Office to the Departure Lounge. Having started with the immigrant’s desperation to get to a place, we have come now to the artist’s need for going away from one, to having – in Vikram Seth’s words – “the heart to leave.” It is through this idea of repeatedly going away – the enigma of departures – that Horn’s notion of “the value of nowhere, the idea of nothing” brings me to Richard Bartholomew and Dayanita Singh. The distance and disorientation that come into their art give an ironic and complicating turn to the “placing” of photography in its countries of origin in “Where Three Dreams Cross.”
For the art critic, poet, painter and photographer, Richard Bartholomew (1926-85), whose adult life began with a catastrophic departure from his native Burma during World War II, followed by total estrangement from homeland, parents and family in a terrain where he would always be, and look, the outsider, the idea of a stable and located self anchored in life, love, art or writing must have felt unreal or, at best, surreal. His wife and son cannot remember hearing from him any details about the past he had left behind in Burma, and a great, cold silence lies around the first and last things of his life. In between lie the luminous years of writing and photography, during which he never allowed himself or others to sentimentalize his existence into a state of exile.
Both: Richard Bartholomew, courtesy Estate of Richard Bartholomew and Photoink, New Delhi. Above: Moonlit night, Old Delhi (c. 1956). Below: View of the kitchen, Old Delhi (c. 1959).
Bartholomew quotes Giacometti in an essay to convey a sense of how poetry, art criticism and photography become inseparable from one another in his attempt “to make, to perfect, to unmake, then to remake, to re-perfect and to re-unmake.” But the “attitude to art must be antiseptic,” he writes in another essay, and, quoting Braque and TS Eliot, he identifies this attitude with the “extinction of personality.” Yet, it is not in his invaluable archive of photographs of contemporary Indian artists in their studios, nor in his American photographs of the early 1970s, that Bartholomew’s preoccupation with disappearance and extinction is most hauntingly expressed, but in his private photography – the tender, humorous, yet inscrutably disturbing photographs of himself and his family made in their various homes. Bartholomew’s invisible presence pervades these photographs of his family, blurring the difference between being there and not being there. In his poetry, it is the life of the Buddha that provides him with the images and voices for giving a narrative form to this “inner necessity” to depart, to make oneself absent from the familiar and the familial.
But Bartholomew practiced no religion at all. Art, literature and music had usurped that place. Yet, two photographs he made in the 1950s are suffused with an unearthly light that gives to their transcendence of place an almost mystical quality. One is a night scene that has the expanse and depth of a landscape by Poussin. Usually, in Poussin, what initially seems to be just a landscape becomes a mythological painting when we discern tiny human presences placed where we are least likely to notice them. In Bartholomew’s photograph, too, we see two figures draped in white far into the background. And because of the long exposure, these figures are ghostly, disappearing into the margins of the landscape as we try to fix them in our gaze.
The other picture is that of a room, the kitchen in one of Bartholomew’s homes in Delhi. Its receding vista leads away from the viewer to the door. The light coming in through the door seems to have pushed all domestic clutter towards the walls, clearing out a dazzling emptiness in the middle. Yet, each object in the room suggests human presence and attachment. The picture is like an Annunciation in reverse, announcing a departure rather than heralding an arrival. “Light leaves no footprints upon the sky,” Bartholomew quotes Rabindranath Tagore in an article, finding in the words a way of understanding the photographer’s relationship with disappearance and with light. “It knows how to vanish and therefore remains forever.”
The best clue to understanding the play of departures and distances in Dayanita Singh’s art is provided by her intimate friend and subject, Mona Ahmed. Singh’s artist book Myself Mona Ahmed (2001) juxtaposes the emails written by Mona to the book’s publisher about her life in Delhi as a eunuch, or hijra, with Singh’s photographs of Mona taken over 13 years. The photographs begin when Mona is the battered diva of Turkman Gate and follow her until she becomes a solitary exile, bereft of all human possessions, endlessly building her house in a ruined graveyard. For Singh, “Mona is one of the precious gifts photography has given me,” bridging an impossible distance in a class- and paranoia-ridden society, and embodying the photographer’s own rootedness in India. Yet, one of Mona’s laments is that her friend does not return to Delhi often enough to see her, even though as a hijra, Mona knows that, “if you can leave your house and do not look back, then you are happy.” Her demands make Singh resentful at being made to feel the guilt of departure, which even her mother had never made her feel. Yet Mona, an “outcaste among outcastes,” gets to what is perhaps the most zealously guarded aspect of Singh’s art. “She always says, Now I will stay in Delhi,” Mona complains about Singh in an email, “but then she always goes away.”
Dayanita Singh – Untitled from the series “Go Away Closer” (2006), silver gelatin print. Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London.
The entire sequence of photographs in Singh’s book Go Away Closer (2007) emanates from the image of a girl that Singh once sent for a show of self-portraits. This playfully vulnerable girl, seen lying on a bed, is the regulator of her own distances. We never get to see her face, and can never be sure if she has just returned to her room or is about to leave. Viewing her fully shod feet sticking out of the bed, we do not know if she intends to submit to the bed’s comfort and protection, even though she turns away from the glare of the world outside. The photographer stops at the foot of the bed and does not move closer. This picture turns the book’s title, Go Away Closer, into an intriguingly contradictory command. It makes intimacy a regulation of distances, a mix of intrusion and scruple, though with the proviso that, within an intimate relation, one can be both the controller of one’s own distance and at the mercy of a distance imposed by the other person. The length of the girl’s bed makes up the depth of the photograph, a rectangle receding from the viewer into the room, and this path of withdrawal into the picture is echoed in image after image in the book. It creates a language of interior distances, of vistas opening up within the claustrophobia of enclosed spaces that remain closed, or closed off, in spite of these vistas. This becomes not only a spatial configuration but also a structure of feeling in our experience of Go Away Closer‘s vision of human relationships, its deliberate silence regarding place and time.
When the same images recur in the multi-volume artist’s book Sent a Letter (2007), with each volume bearing the name of an Indian city, our experience of Go Away Closer‘s nowhereness makes us wary of turning to these place-names as a key to the stories that unfold in the volumes. Even in the most lovingly located of Singh’s works, the portrait series “Ladies of Calcutta” (2008), because of the way the people are instantly recognizable yet remain unidentified, Calcutta becomes more an archive of fictions, haunted by the shades of literature, films and paintings, stories and histories spun out of emotions, props and settings, than a place to which the photographer or her subjects could be held.
Both: Dayanita Singh, courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London. Above: Sibyl and Sunanda, Calcutta (1997), silver gelatin print. Below: Dream Villa 5 (2008), C-type print.
To move from these works to the publications Blue Book (2009) and Dream Villa (2010) is to surrender to the delectation of place through a heightened apprehension of light as color. Yet, through a release, though not liberation, from the interiority of the earlier work, there is a feeling of profound disorientation too, a sense of losing one’s bearings, of letting go the daytime coordinates of culture and geography. The inwardness of these vast, unheimlich landscapes is on an altogether different scale. In Blue Book‘s unnamed expanses, nowhereness aspires to the condition of the sublime. Dream Villa draws us into the great, deep unlocatedness of night itself, of modern darkness riddled with the violence of artificial light. To enter it is to lose one’s way in the terra semi incognita of somebody else’s dream.
One of the “adventures” in Italo Calvino’s collection of short stories Difficult Loves is that of a photographer. This is a man who realizes that a kind of madness lurks in his “black instrument.” This madness is a forking path. One path beckons outwards, towards the doomed and impossible desire to document each object or event before it is lost forever. The camera must record all reality; only then would it start making some sort of crazy sense. The other path leads inexorably within, into the labyrinths out of which the eyes, windows of the soul, look at the world outside. Yet, in his studio, as he focuses the camera on his model, the inner and outer roads seem to cross “in the glass rectangle.” It is “like a dream, when a presence coming from the depth of memory advances, is recognized, and then suddenly is transformed into something unexpected, something that even before the transformation is already frightening, because there’s no telling what it might be transformed into.” Calvino’s half-mad photographer asks himself whether he wanted to photograph dreams. The suspicion strikes him dumb.
Calvino’s “Adventure of a Photographer” brings us back to where we had started from: the place of solitude between blue rocks. Somewhere between this unmappable subcontinent of dreams and that other subcontinent more amenable to history and its maps, stands the phantom ship of die fliegende Fotografin, the flying/fleeing photographer with her roots in air. Its shimmering stillness seems to have reconciled the opposites of arrival and departure. It holds the promise of stranger shores.
“Where Three Dreams Cross” continues at Fotomuseum Winterthur through August 22, 2010.
Aveek Sen is senior assistant editor (editorial pages) of The Telegraph, Calcutta. He studied English literature at Jadavpur University, Calcutta, and University College, Oxford, and taught English literature at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. He was awarded the 2009 Infinity Award for writing on photography by the International Center of Photography, New York.