Dayanita Singh: Part I

By Andrew Maerkle

Cover image: From “House of Love” (2010-11). All images: © and courtesy Dayanita Singh.

Describing herself as a bookmaker who works with photography, Dayanita Singh has a profound understanding of the pliability and reproducibility of images: how they are processed and can be printed or projected onto any surface, and how those surfaces themselves can be folded or unfolded, enlarged, expanded, compressed, carried, mailed or discarded. Constantly thinking about new ways to present her photographs, Singh continuously reinvents those photographs, in the way that language reinvents words. For her, then, all images are singular events that also intrinsically exist in relation to other images, or even in relation to past and future instances of their own apparition. For her, images have the same conditionality and abstraction as spoken words, always disappearing the instant they are materialized, formed and deformed by preceding and succeeding utterances or caesuras, yet, at times when decisively employed and at others simply as determined by chance and context, also capable of fastening in the mind’s eye an impression of the grave, exciting physicallity and consequentiality of the world around us.

Singh recently visited Tokyo for a solo exhibition at the Shiseido Gallery, “Adventures of a Photographer,” where she presented prints from her latest publication, House of Love (Radius Books & Peabody Museum Press, 2011), alongside a selection of past works arranged into a concise, fictionalized overview of her career, and a display of her photobooks to date. ART iT met with Singh to discuss her approach to photography and how she understands the lives of the images she makes.


I. As Real as Photography

II. Antonino’s Bundle

I. As Real as Photography
Dayanita Singh on how images live with each other.

From “House of Love” (2010-11).

ART iT: Much has been written about your work in terms of literature, but I thought we could begin today with an analogy about images. Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 film Trouble in Paradise opens with a sequence of short, interconnected scenes set in Venice: we see a dark alley from which a man emerges to throw trash onto a trash collecting boat; then women frantically knocking at a door; then behind the door a darkened room in disarray, with a man on the floor who tries to get up and collapses; then an amazing panning shot that goes from the exterior of the room around the building to a veranda on the far side, where we find a man in a tuxedo with a waiter planning a supper for a romantic rendezvous. The waiter asks, “How should we begin?” And the man in the tuxedo replies, “Suppose Casanova turned out to be Romeo having supper with Juliet, who was actually Cleopatra, how would you start?” Now, obviously there is sound and movement and other elements that go beyond photography, but the first time I saw this sequence I was completely disoriented. It felt that each subsequent image was pushing away both the one before and the one after, so that they all resisted cohering into a unified whole.
I experienced a similar effect when looking at both your photobooks and your individual photographs, and thinking further about this kind of dissociation effect, I felt that it is somehow unique to images – that images don’t hold together the same way words do. And in your case one could even provocatively describe this dissociation effect in terms of breakdown, of both the forms of the images as well as their identities. How do you understand the lives of the images that you create?

DS: What can I say? You’ve summed it up perfectly. There are always many conversations going on in my head at all times: right now one of the conversations is of course here with you, but at the same time I can’t get the images of Naoya Hatakeyama’s “Natural Stories” exhibition at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography out of my head, and I can’t get the Okura Hotel out of my head, and last night in my dreams I was in about four different countries. Because I woke up about two hours ago, everything is colliding. Were we to have met three hours later, I might have more clarity, but it’s exactly at this colliding stage that I want to photograph. This is where I want to locate photography: post-dream, post-last-night, today-not-clear. At least half my life is lived in my dream world, which is a very real dream world. These are very real situations, as real as they can be – as real as photography can be.
I guess there is a breakdown in feeling very limited by photography as I was trained to think of it, and in identity, because the last few years have seen such an explosion of national identity directed at the demands of the art market or the international art world. Now I’m in Tokyo, and maybe this afternoon I will decide I want to stay here for six months, or for six years. That’s how I made my life. I wanted to be free and open, and in that sense I think the breakdown already started when I was 18 and decided to go to Zakir Hussain’s hotel room to photograph him, without worrying about what other people might say and the social restrictions that it’s not ok for a young girl to go to a musician’s hotel room. Somehow you do what you have to do because you have to do it. You can’t stop it.
Photography the way I knew it is no longer enough for that breakdown. The breakdown requires literature, it requires cinema, it requires travel, it requires this time of chaos when things are colliding. With House of Love and “Adventures of a Photographer,” the fictional aspect has really freed me, and that fictionalizing is only possible because of that breakdown – although at the same time I’m obsessed with “File Room” (2011- ), the series that was on view in the latest Venice Biennale. There are other dimensions to photography that require the breakdown of photography for new forms – or at least different explorations – to start. And digital will help that a lot.

Spread from Zakir Hussain (Himalayan Books, 1986), hardcover, 80 pages, 21.5 x 24.5 cm.

ART iT: Is digital photography something you are actively exploring?

DS: No, I’m not interested in it myself. But now photography is finally accessible to everyone, or at least anyone with a mobile phone. There’s no longer the idea that you could only take a photo of some event because you happened to have a camera with you, or because someone with a camera happened to be there: everyone has a camera, and you don’t know who will be where with a camera when things happen. That puts a lot of pressure on photography because now making images is like making words: big deal. And even if you can write a sentence, what’s the big deal? And even if you can write a short story, is there any new thought in that story, or are you telling me the same story that I’ve heard for 100 years?

ART iT: Perhaps we could say photography is going through the same process that writing underwent some 200 or 300 years ago in most industrialized nations with the advance toward universal literacy. Once everyone can write, it’s no longer about creating a classic. Now more so even than in antiquity, the classic comes to us, in the way that, for example, Muhammad was chosen to be God’s interlocutor: you could never set out to become a prophet.

DS: Exactly. There are no formulas, although there are certain exercises you can follow. The first exercise in writing I imagine would be something along the lines of Rilke’s admonition not to write love poems. At least if you know what not to do, then other possibilities will present themselves. But you have no say in how it will be seen or whether it becomes a classic.
For me, House of Love is totally experimental, but I just had to do it. The “File Room” series is the same. The photos have been shown in Venice, it’s a complete show, I don’t need to do more, but I can’t stop it, I have to do it. That’s one thing I’ve learned, to trust that compulsion.

Both: From “File Room” (2011- ).

ART iT: As a series, “File Room” (2011- ) seems quite distinct in subject matter and focus compared to your other projects. Where does it come from?

DS: I’d been making “File Room” for a period of over 10 years without realizing it. Then in January 2011 the scholar Sunil Khilnani came to look at my work. I wanted to make something special to show him, so I went through my archive and found that there was a lot of work that had something to do with things like paper, paper factories, offices, libraries, bookshops and printers, and I made 200 little prints for him.
He pulled out 24 of those images and said, “‘File Room,’ this is what it’s called.”
I said, “What’s a ‘File Room’?”
He said, “Never mind, we just made it up.”
Then I looked at those images, and it dawned on me that for 10 years I’d been taking almost the same identical photo without paying any attention to it. Since then I’ve been working like a dog writing everyone I know to request access to places that I want to shoot, and I carry everywhere a big box of about 300 new “File Room” prints, because I can’t stop it and I can’t travel without it.
That’s one part of it. Another part of it is that in the summer after Venice I was in Delhi for two days before rushing to Calcutta, because I had got this amazing permission to go into the Writer’s Building. I told my mother, “I’m really sorry I haven’t been able to see you, but I’m obsessed with the ‘File Room’ series and I can’t stop it. There’s nothing I can do about it, so I’ll see you when I come back.”
She laughed and said, “You’ve forgotten, it seems. You’ve forgotten many things.”
Then she reminded me of when my father died and we came back from the cremation. In our home there is a large drawing room, completely covered in mattresses and beautiful textiles, where I would have friends come to stay, eight of us sleeping together there on the floor. After my father’s death we had taken out all his files – thousands of them – and stacked them all over this room, where my mother would sleep, and I would bring her breakfast. My mother lived in that room for the first 10 days or two weeks, and she remembers very well waking up among the files and my standing there with the breakfast, looking completely overwhelmed by the loss of the father replaced by these thousands of files.
I don’t like the idea of reading my own story into everything, and yet at the same time my obsession with these files is irrational. Somewhere that impression must have stayed with me. It’s not a comfortable memory, so it was not obvious, but I guess that’s what I was doing. Now when I go into a file room I know whether it’s for me or not. Again and again, it’s that room filled with so many files that it looks absolutely impenetrable, and yet if you observe, some order emerges and there is someone around who can help you through it.

From “Interior Landscapes” (undated).

ART iT: So in a way even though you are driven by a kind of compulsion, you are also able to keep a distance from your own photos, or at least see them through others’ eyes?

DS: Yes. One thing that emerged from this experience is that it became clear to me once again that these two or three outside voices that we have are so valuable. I would be nothing without them. It’s not always the same people, but these voices are incredible mirrors. I look to Sunil and the “File Room” comes back, or I look to the writer Aveek Sen and the madness of House of Love comes back.
The work is really a collaboration with these voices in my head, which is why I have this archive of 30 years, and depending on who comes and who I share what with, a different kind of image emerges. It’s like my album called “Interior Landscapes,” for which Aveek and I put together photographs of the Sundarbans and of this place where crazy people come to be cured. Maybe that was the first realization of how one can make fiction out of documentation, combining two very serious bodies of work into a third thing.

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Dayanita Singh: The Always Exceptional Condition of Images

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