Museum Bhavan: Dayanita Singh’s photobooks and their ever-evolving narratives

Is it a book? Is it a museum? Indian photographer plays with changing structures of exhibition-making.

Dayanita Singh exhibits “Book Object” and “Museum Bhavan” simultaneously in Jaipur and New Delhi, continuing to explore innovative ways of disseminating the photobook as a repository of her work.

Dayanita Singh, "Book Object" installed in Hawa Mahal, Jaipur, 2016. Photo by Kriti Bajaj for Art Radar.

Dayanita Singh, “Book Object” installed in Hawa Mahal, Jaipur, 2016. Photo: Kriti Bajaj for Art Radar.

Dayanita Singh (b. 1961, New Delhi) is an Indian image-based artist who uses photography as her primary medium. She received her training at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad and the International Center of Photography in New York. Her fascination with the photobook has resulted in 12 books of her work so far, and in her ongoing project “Museum Bhavan” and its various incarnations, she pushes the boundaries of the form to challenge the notion that “a book is a book and an exhibition is an exhibition”.

Curator and writer Aveek Sen says that “Museum Bhavan” is

is a travelling family of museums. […] Each museum holds old and new images in movable wooden structures, from the time Singh began photography in 1981 until the present.

Dayanita Singh, "Book Object" installed in Hawa Mahal, Jaipur, 2016. Photo by Kriti Bajaj for Art Radar.

Dayanita Singh, “Book Object” installed in Hawa Mahal, Jaipur, 2016. Photo: Kriti Bajaj for Art Radar.

Book on the wall

From 20 January to 20 March 2016, the palace Hawa Mahal in Jaipur, with Siyahi and the Department of Archaeology and Museums, hosted “Book Object”, an exercise in exhibiting Dayanita Singh’s latest book Museum of Chance (Steidl, 2014) on a wall. Comprising 88 images, the book is, according to Teju Cole, “impossible to reduce to its synopsis”. The same images adorn the walls of the palace’s annexe in specially created equal-sized frames.

The artist asks whether a book can indeed be an exhibition, and whether it can simultaneously be the catalogue of its exhibition, thus inhabiting several roles and becoming an object that escapes definition. The creation of a book is often associated with recording, documentation and editing until it arrives at a satisfactory form; Singh approaches these in an unconventional manner:

The key to this work was the editing, to make a set of images that, even if they spanned thirty years and came from very different contexts, was held together by their tonal quality. I have finally learned to listen to the tone of images, rather than edit by content.

“Book Object” has previously been exhibited at Giorgio Mastinu Fine Art, Venice (2015), Arts & Sciences, Tokyo (2015) and Dhaka Art Summit (2016).

Dayanita Singh, "The Sibling Museums: Museum of Little Ladies and File Museum, with Museum of Photography and Kochi Pillar in the background, 1961-2013, large and small wooden structures, framed photographs, framed text piece. Image courtesy the artist and KNMA.

Dayanita Singh, ‘The Sibling Museums: Museum of Little Ladies and File Museum, with Museum of Photography and Kochi Pillar in the background’, 1961-2013, large and small wooden structures, framed photographs, framed text piece. Image courtesy the artist and KNMA. © Dayanita Singh / MUSEUM BHAVAN.

Museums within a museum

In “Conversation Chambers: Museum Bhavan”, curated by Roobina Karode at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) in New Delhi until 30 April 2016, Singh displays the photobook on a larger, more flexible scale. Referred to as “a living exhibition that will wax and wane with the lunar cycle” in the press release, it is a unique exercise in curation that has previously been shown at the Museum fur Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt (2014), as well as in London and Chicago. Photographs spanning the entirety of Singh’s career are grouped and displayed in custom-made wooden structures – which she calls museums – that are moveable, restructurable, and also contain storage space for extra framed images.

Consistent with her editorial vision of grouping images by tonal quality, each of these structures holds images similar in theme and aesthetic, christened accordingly. For instance, File Museum (sometimes referred to as File Room) is a tribute to paperwork and the physicality of archives in an age of digitisation. The Museum of Little Ladies comprises images of Singh and her siblings made by her mother as well as Singh’s portraits of other young girls and women.

Dayanita Singh, Museum of Furniture, Museum of Photography, Little Ladies Museum, File Museum, Museum of Men, 1961-2013. Image courtesy the artist and KNMA.

Dayanita Singh, ‘Museum of Furniture, Museum of Photography, Little Ladies Museum, File Museum, Museum of Men’, 1961-2013. Image courtesy the artist and KNMA. © Dayanita Singh / MUSEUM BHAVAN.

The wooden installations are created so that they can be reshaped according to the space they occupy, and one of the trademarks of the exhibition is that Singh alters them periodically to create new connections and conversations between the museums. The viewers experience Singh’s photography by navigating the architecture of these frameworks in their own individual ways. Recently, an online version of the exhibition was launched on Google Cultural Institute, which raises interesting questions about negotiating with the site-specific and spatial aspects of the project and how these might be compromised in a virtual context.

Dayanita Singh, Photobooth inside the Museum of Furniture and Museum of Photography, now renamed Museum of Conversations and Museum of the Departed. Image courtesy the artist and KNMA.

Dayanita Singh, Photobooth inside the Museum of Furniture and Museum of Photography, now renamed Museum of Conversations and Museum of the Departed. Image courtesy the artist and KNMA. © Dayanita Singh / MUSEUM BHAVAN.

Overwriting the oeuvre

According to Aveek Sen, “book-making and museum-making are inseparable in Singh’s work.” Intrinsically woven with her practice of image-making as a way to catalogue, preserve and share moments and memories, she is in search of a form that is in “structural flux”, and therefore, ever incomplete. With each book and each exhibition, new ones arise; “museums give birth to other museums”; and some step back into rest or redundancy.

We are all biographers, and Singh’s work is a testament to the imperfections of memory: the altering of narratives as new events – and time – accumulate on our lived experience. She explores these ideas by turning them on themselves, challenging the linearity of the book as a medium, as well as the linearity of memory and narrative:

The book is bound to its sequence, its order, but with the ‘book object’ I have a book that can be endlessly rewritten as I move the book objects in and out of their narratives, sometimes just by turning the cover around to reveal the back story. An endless book.

Kriti Bajaj

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Related topics: Indian artists, photography, books, memory, museum shows, events in India

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