The OCA study tour on December 7th to the Hayward Gallery was interesting and enjoyable. I had not been aware of Dayanita Singh’s work up until now but I found her images to be very appealing and quite inspiring.
Singh, who was born in New Delhi in 1961, describes herself as a bookmaker who just uses photography as her medium but she is clearly an accomplished conceptual artist. The show is technically a retrospective but it seems to be a result of Singh’s habit of constantly sorting through her contact sheets; filtering, juxtaposing, re-grouping her captures. This repurposing creates new narratives and she seems to take delight in the unexpected relationships that the images form with each other.
Although very time-consuming, it strikes me that doing this very consciously would be an excellent way to help a student find their “voice” as a photographer.
Before we went into the gallery, tutor Robert Enoch suggested that we think very much about the way the images are grouped and displayed as well as the images themselves. The words ‘elliptical’ and ‘whimsical’ were used a lot throughout the day and it was clear that some students found the work to be frustratingly difficult to categorise (or “pointless” in one person’s view).
The first room is set up as a traditional gallery with framed pictures on the walls and sample photo books over by the large window. The second room features the three dimensional ‘museum’ pieces, large wooden structures with many dozens of prints framed in panels, which are interchangeable.
There was some interesting discussion about labelling and captions. Singh has said she is reluctant to do this for fear of being patronising and would rather work with what is happening outside the frame: “If I were to put any kind of date or place or caption it reduces the image from what I wanted it to be,” she said. “The where and when is a burden on photography. If people know why and where it was taken, they think they understand the image and they can move on.” [Source: http://india.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/29/the-worlds-of-dayanita-singh/?_r=2&]
With this in mind I tried to read the Myself Mona Ahmed images without thinking about what I had already learned about the subject (ie that Mona is a Hijra (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hijra_(South_Asia)) eunuch and had had an an adopted child taken away from her. The photographs have really captured the sadness and the loneliness as well as a mixture of Mona’s feminine and masculine gestures. Some of the compositions reflect the subject’s status as an outcast (emphasised by the gravestones) but we also see her place within a community and the happy moments with family.
The next set of photos appeared to have been grouped by colour (reds in this case) but we could also see some links in texture, strong verticals, a face on TV in the first image matching with a painting of a woman and a camera on the third. The images were well composed and quite appealing me but may well have been throw-aways if that had not sat well as a group. This led to an (inevitably) inconclusive discussion about what is a valid photograph.
Many of the pictures we saw explore spaces without people. Singh admits being attracted to rooms and corners and doors, which she thinks have secrets and surprises. We can feel the lingering sense of human presence and traces of existence in the shadows but we get some sense of alienation and voyeurism.
Robert observed that many of the images look as if they could be movie stills, particularly from the French/Italian new wave (eg Antonioni’s ‘Blow Up’, which I have yet to see). They also have a very timeless quality and evoke a nostalgic sense of a country I have never visited. We see a very different, darker side to India compared with the usual colourful busy street scenes that are so familiar. It seems that this is more authentic and reminds me a little of Tokyo through Moriyama’s eyes.
Comparisons were made with Nan Goldin [http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/nan-goldin-2649] and Larry Clark [http://larryclark.com/] and Robert also told us about the rather fascinating Sophie Calle, with particular reference to creating elliptical portraits of a person [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophie_Calle]. Really interesting ideas in there.
Some of the photographs we looked at were very ordinary and quite boring but as a collection they achieved a new resonance and it was quite an adventure to contemplate the various ‘museums’ she has created. The display looks like huge contact sheets and it is fascinating to try to second-guess why certain images have been juxtaposed or included at all. Her work slows the viewer down. It demands a reading.
We almost all agreed that the Sent a Letter accordion-fold booklets were gorgeous and that this is a wonderful way to present images.
The ‘moving still’ video of Mona was rather mesmerising but I felt as if we were intruding on a very personal, intimate moment between Singh and her friend. The photographer said she felt this was the fist capture that did justice to Mona’s uniqueness and, of course, we can learn more about a person even in a short video portrait than with a single frame. I liked this device and may have to try some moving stills of my own. Robert mentioned that Thomas Struth has also experimented with this.
I like Singh’s relationship with the world. I like her playfulness and the way she approaches ideas and her use of language. I like how she leaves stuff out – the ellipsis – and how there is always another path to go down. She is interested in stories and secrets and chance and indications of the human. “It’s the dream, it’s that time between waking and sleeping when things collide.” Dark but never depressing and it has given me lots of food for thought.