Author: Dayanita Singh
POCKET MUSEUM; my book story
Museum Bhavan, my pocket museum, published by Steidl 2017.
With Sent a Letter (2007) the idea of the book as exhibition, in its own right, became clear to me.The Book object trajectory had started in my work. Until then when it came to Museums exhibitions and collections, it was impossible to have the book there as my work and not as an accompanying catalogue. They said “Dayanita a book is a book and an exhibition is an exhibition” but for me it was not so. I wanted to insert a Go Away Closer book inside each frame of the silver print that people collected. I felt in acquiring a single image they were plucking one note out of my symphony. I had to get the book on par with my prints.
It has been 10 years of following this obsession, against every advice, but I could not stop it. Invite me and you could be sure I would smuggle the book cart in ( as I did at the Venice Bienale 2013), if you said NO CARTS please, I would build a bookcase and carry it in myself, if you said no shipping, I built a Suitcase museum that I could check in on the flight, each problem presented an new solution, another Book object. I even have bookcarts in my house, for guests who may not have the chance to acquire my books.
I had explored the accordian fold format when I had made the CHAIRS book at the Gardner Museum, but there the focus had been more on the system of distribution that was the emphasis. 50 distributor friends were fedexed 10 copies of the CHAIRS accordian fold book. It was upto them how they chose to distribute the book. Someone handed it to the first ten people he saw on one particular day, another friend kept them locked till someone had sufficiently appreciated the display copy, and when I carried with me one of my 10 books for Sol Lewitt, he laughed and said keep it Dayanita, I have three already.
But with Sent a Letter, which had 7 letters I had made for friends that I travelled with, and it came housed in a special handmade box, Steidl published 2000 of these.A regular edition. So 2000 homes had 7 miniature exhibitions of my work. It is now out of print and I took the last copies and made a museum out of them. These vitrines of Sent a Letter have been displayed in many Museums and galleries as well as the buyers homes.
I installed Sent a Letter in the vitrines of Satram Das Jeweller in 2008, right on Park street, next to Flurys, they are still there, in Jan 2017. On the busiest street in Calcutta, a daily exhibition , running for almost a decade.
Then came the FILEROOM book. At the last moment I asked Steidl if we could make the inside images the same size as the cover images, as this would allow me to cut images from the book and paste them onto the cover image, there by having as many covers as there were images in the book. This then allowed me to have an exhibition set. I also built a mobile Museum for these 77 different covers FILEROOM book museum. This was shown at the National Museum in Delhi. Finally I started to work on a structure for an individual book to be displayed on the wall, alongside ones miniature paintings or water colors. This led to the FILEROOM book object and for me a dream come true. The idea that my book could hang alongside my silver prints. I loved both forms, silver and steidl offset.
For Museum of Chance book I actually asked Steidl if each of the inside images could also be cover images. He was very annoyed at my bizarre request, but then as always, thought about it overnight, and said ok, lets do it. Museum of Chance was an edit made from 30 years of my work, held together by the idea of Chance. So it seemed appropriate that the cover you bought was also by chance. Meaning you had no choice in which cover you got if you bought online and from the bookshop just the choice of the covers they had. No one except me and the MMK had the full sets as that was the tedious part.
This also allowed me to have exhibitions in unlikely places for eg the foyer of the Hawa Mahal in Jaipur. Something I could never do with ‘original’ prints or Mobile museums.
I then took the sets that I had, and made an edition of 352 Museum of Chance book object from them. Each set of 44 books had the 88 images inside it, on the front and back cover. I again built a wooden structure for the book, and at special secret events I would individualise each book that was bought from the set of 44. This was the only time you could select exactly the cover you wanted. I liked that people had to engage personally in buying the book, in deciding the cover and if they decided to buy two or three, then it took hours to make the right combination, as the back cover added another layer to the edit.
Later this also became the Museum of Chance book case , that I could hand carry on flights and finally the SUITCASE MUSEUM which I could take as check in baggage.
Then Steidl and I,decided to publish a Pocket Museum. We took images from all the 9 Museums that make MUSEUM BHAVAN ( a travelling family of Museums) and made 9 accordian fold books. Since we had already published FILEROOM, we took images of the Godrej cupboards from the FILEMUSEUM and made a GODREJ MUSEUM. Similarly, having made Museum of Chance, we made a completely new edit and this became ONGOING MUSEUM. We also added a book of conversations. I still wanted to see if it was possible to make a mass produced book/museum and yet have each one be unique. We achieved this impossible task by making in India 3000 unique boxes for the MUSEUM BHAVAN book. So now the Museum Bhavan book that you will buy will be a totally unique box, that will house 9 of my Museums. You buy the book object as the Pocket Museum.
Coming soon……….to a bookshop near you, this one does not need any special editions or exhibitions. It is itself the Museum , and the unique/mass produced book. I had the oppurtunity to show it inside the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul.
Most of all it is an invitation to the ‘collector’ to become the curator of my work, in their home, office or hotel room. A friend even had an opening for it infront of the Taj Mahal.
Museum of Chance was a book that had 88 images (spanning 30 years of my work). Somehow I was able to convince Gerhard Steidl to make me 88 different covers. Meaning each image that was inside the book was also a cover image) and this allowed me to exhibit the book on the wall (this had been a long standing dream, to have my books on the walls of an art museum). Steidl agreed to this crazy idea because it seemed a democratic form of exhibition to him. Later the book was inserted into a wooden structure, and this became the Book-object that I then displayed on various walls. The image above is from the Sydney Bienale of 2016.
Occasionally I took a set of 44 and sold them at a venue, where I individualised each book for its recipient. Since I was the only one I had the sets, it meant if you wanted to choose your cover, you had to come to one of my events in Dhaka or Venice or Tokyo.As well as to have it as the Book object that you could then display on your wall.
But even this was not enough, I think I have found the perfect solution and soon after I make it a new thought arises. I wondered about travelling with the entire set of 44 book objects, to have exhibitions in likely and unlikely places. So the idea of a suitcase presented itself, with 4 wheels.They were beautifully made in leather. It take 2 suitcases to cart the 44 book objects. There is an A4 size catalogue inside.This then became the Suitcase Museum and is currently on display at Frith street gallery, Museum Moderne Kunst Frankfurt and the Bhau Daji Ladd Museum Bombay. Infact the exhibition at Bhau Daji Ladd museum is called SUITCASE MUSEUM
To me, the museum of the future is small and portable. It’s organic and allows for change and growth continuously. An Ongoing Museum. Perhaps, it is a Suitcase Museum, on wheels. It has ambassadors who transport it on flights and trains. The suitcases are the display as well as the storage units, and must include a reserve collection. They may be affiliated to larger institutions ,and take facsimiles from their collections, or they can be stand-alone. They could be like pop-up museums that may be on show for an evening or an entire year. They have a PDF as a catalogue which can be printed on demand. The ambassadors seek new venues for them in the places they travel to and patrons to make an event for their opening. This allows the suitcase museums to reach a wider cross section of people and not depend on those visiting them.
RILKE- Letter no 1 (with comments)
Dear Photographers, this is a letter that helped me ever since I started to engage with photography. I hope you will find something here too. I have made bold the parts that respond to your requests for my looking at your work.
February 17, 1903
Your letter arrived just a few days ago. I want to thank you for the great confidence you have placed in me. That is all I can do. I cannot discuss your verses; for any attempt at criticism would be foreign to me. Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism: they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings. Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsay able than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life. (CAN PHOTOGRAPHY EXIST IN THIS UNSAYABLE SPACE-DS)
With this note as a preface, may I just tell you that your verses have no style of their own, although they do have silent and hidden beginnings of something personal. I feel this most clearly in the last poem, “My Soul.” There, some thing of your own is trying to become word and melody. And in the lovely poem “To Leopardi” a kind of kinship with that great, solitary figure does perhaps appear. Nevertheless, the poems are not yet anything in themselves, not yet any thing independent, even the last one and the one to Leopardi. Your kind letter, which accompanied them managed to make clear to me various faults that I felt in reading your verses, though I am not able to name them specifically.
You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you – no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must”, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. Then come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose. Don’t write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary: they are the hardest to work with, and it takes a great, fully ripened power to create something individual where good, even glorious, traditions exist in abundance. So rescue yourself from these general themes and write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty Describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sound – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attention to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. And if out of , this turning within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. Nor will you try to interest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it. So, dear Sir, I can’t give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to, the question of whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it. Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and must find everything in himself and in Nature, to whom his whole life is devoted.
But after this descent into yourself and into your solitude, perhaps you will have to renounce becoming a poet (if, as I have said, one feels one could live without writing, then one shouldn’t write at all). Nevertheless, even then, this self searching that I ask of you will not have been for nothing. Your life will still find its own paths from there, and that they may be good, rich, and wide is what I wish for you, more than I can say.
What else can I tell you? It seems to me that everything has its proper emphasis; and finally I want to add just one more bit of advice: to keep growing, silently and earnestly, through your whole development; you couldn’t disturb it any more violently than by looking outside and waiting for outside answers to questions that only your innermost feeling, in your quietest hour, can perhaps answer.
It was a pleasure for me to find in your letter the name of Professor Horacek; I have great reverence for that kind, learned man, and a gratitude that has lasted through the years. Will you please tell him how I feel; it is very good of him to still think of me, and I appreciate it.
The poem that you entrusted me with, I am sending back to you. And I thank you once more for your questions and sincere trust, of which, by answering as honestly as I can, I have tried to make myself a little worthier than I, as a stranger, really am.
Yours very truly,
Rainer Maria Rilke
You know, I really dont care how a photograph was made, whether by construction, or by suggestion or by intervention or even by photoshop. I am interested in what a photograph can do, can it transcend its inherent ‘factness’ , can it say the unsayable?
I don’t understand what the fuss is about Steve McCurry’s photos. By removing a lamp-post or adding one, the meaning of his images does not change. It’s not as though they somehow become more contemplative . They are magazine photos meant to grab your attention – and so they remain as they were- exotic India images. In fact, I doubt whether he would himself have wanted to make those changes, for they hardly alter his image anyway. Perhaps they were done by an eager lab assistant, or someone showing him what Photoshop could do and then just remained on the file. His gaze was the classic National Geographic gaze, the india of Taj Mahals and Steam trains, of women in dust storms all perfectly aligned, of young boys with painted faces, India reduced to blobs of highly saturated color. The viewer is the fool if they take this to be any kind of reality, other than the photographers. Which is really the point of photographing, you present your version of reality. Steve Mc Curry presented his vision, with the means he saw fit, from his point of view.
Photography is fiction in the guise of Non fiction and we all know the allure and dangers of that combination.
.At its very core Photography is a lie, you make an image to hold onto something, like a note to yourself, a memory of a place or an emotion etc etc but that thing you want to hold onto, has gone, is past. So deception is at the very heart of photography, and the first victim of that deception is the photographer herself, for presuming to have captured that which is gone……its a continuous Go Away Closer.
Now everyone with a mobile phone has access to this world of language and ofcourse it is wonderful that photography is now truly democratised. But, I also see great danger there. While we all celebrating that we have one common visual language in photography, beyond literacy and beyond geography, photography is also so open to miscommunication, as it relies not just on the photographer’s interpretation, but equally on the viewer’s.
I am truly sorry for Steve McCurry, but it could be his big gift to the photo world in forcing us to see how photography might tell lies. Photographers always knew this without saying so in so many words, just that now it’s in the mainstream.?
For me, photography is most magical when it says the unsayable, when it goes where there is no vocabulary.
The portrait I made of you, or more likely of your mother, is not really a portrait of her. It’s a portrait of how she responded to me. So, in a sense, it is as much my portrait. But because you recognise her features, you believe it’s entirely her photo.
Photography uses the real information to build its constructed narrative. You trust it because you recognise the specific elements, but that is where the “truth” of the image ends. If there is any truth, it’s in the fact that that it was the photographer’s truth, at that particular time, in those particular inner and outer circumstances. And we think that is “evidence” enough.
The lie starts with where you place the frame, what you include and what you leave out. Some would say this is the skill of photographers, to edit out from the world what they do not want to show to the viewer. I call this making ‘one’s own voice’ – precisely with what one chooses to leave out of the frame. I would even push further what Roland Barthes says about the punctum, and say that the punctum is not in the frame but outside it. When so much depends on where you place the frame, what truth can the photograph offer?
Then there is the next level of ‘deception’, if you like, where you can turn day into night and add clouds to a clear sky, all in the darkroom of the past. You decide what you darken, and where you highlight. And what you crop. As photographers have always known, photographs were “made” in the darkroom. Now Photoshop has replaced the darkroom.
The third level of deception is just by virtue of your presence as the photographer. That changes the situation because somehow people behave differently when there is a camera around. We see this again and again in conflict situations like wars, riots and even natural disasters.
I wonder which photojournalist will tell us about how their arriving on the scene of violence actually created more violence, the strikers need their images to go out. The photojournalist is complicit in this aspect. So whose truth are we talking about?
Once we accept that photography’s truth is just the photographer’s truth, and accept that the photographer is a storyteller, then why would we object to how best he can tell his story? There is the manipulation of the image, and there is also the constructed image, where you have missed the scene of crime and “recreated” it. Photographic history has many examples of this, including Felice Beato possibly digging out people’s bones to scatter them for a a photo he made six months after a massacre, to give us the image we all know so well of the mutiny in Lucknow.?
At the very beginning of photography, there is a photograph, by Hippolyte Bayard of his own fake suicide in response to Louis Daguerre getting all the glory and wealth for the invention of the photographic process.
Robert Doisneau confessed in 1993 that he used paid models to make the 1950 photograph of the kissing couple, one of the world’s most famous images.
So, if the photographer is a storyteller, he must use whatever means he finds suitable to best tell the story he wants you to hear. What is the problem there? As long as you understand that the only “reality” is the photographer’s. It is in this “fiction’ of photography that its magical power lies, otherwise one may as well be a photocopy machine. When photography says the unsayable, goes where there are no words.
PS- Time flies, Photography lies and there in lies the magic.
Museum of Chance @Hawamahal, closing 20th March
How the Book Has Become a Museum Piece—for Its Own Good
I am in Dayanita Singh’s Museum of Chance. And what I chance upon first, before I see the walls and read them, is a book. Or, is it one? It has the appearance of a usual coffee table. On the cover is the mournful ‘faces’ of a calf, a frozen sculpture, a suspended animation. What you miss—sorry, what you do not miss—is a name. No title, no author name, to prepare you for the journey, and sometimes, it is pure bliss not to be hooked. Turn the pages and you are inside Dayanita Singh’s Museum of Chance, published by Steidl, and there are no words to distract you in the rustle of pages, only the randomness of black and white, held together by the viewer/ reader’s sensory powers.
There is every chance that you may linger here, an afternoon lost in the pure austerity of images, in the measured slowness of storytelling. The freedom is immense. The harmony between a sari blown in the wind and the last pause of the wave leads you, at first sight quite incongruously, to the arrested curiosity of a woman faced with a perceiving finger. An umbrella hanging on the wall accentuates the absence in a room, and you move from this confined bareness of memory to an open space where everything reminds you of time stagnant.
Do not ask me how many of them; I have closed the book. That is not true. The book is around me, each page mounted on the wall. That is not true either. The frames are teasing deceptions, and their attempt to individualise the pages cannot hide the beauty of this enterprise, or what Dayanita calls the ‘Museum of Chance’. Every page has become a book, and every book has become a piece of art. The limits genres impose on forms are undone by a visual narrator’s audacity—or freedom— to make the story as elastic as the style of its telling, and without words. Dayanita empties a few frames and, to twist the plot a little, asks me, where shall we put these books, how shall we make some new pairings? When she does, it is as if sentences are breaking out of printed pages and rearranging themselves. The story is a puzzle. The book is a permanent work in progress. You never finish reading; you take only a pause.
What else can you do in a museum of chance, which itself is a layered experience in a larger museum Dayanita has built. What makes this afternoon in Hawa Mahal special is the manner in which she has made the book an object of art—and vice versa. Some time ago, the author died when the post-structuralist anatomised the text. For Roland Barthes, the text is not the deliverance of the Author-God, but the experience of the reader. ‘The unity of a text is not in its origin,’ he writes, ‘it is in its destination.’ The death of the author, in post-structuralist text, empowers the reader, to put it in simplest terms. In Dayanita’s hall of framed book(s), the author-visualiser does not offer you the luxury of a finished text. She keeps herself alive by constantly subverting her own narrative, by rewriting, by making the reader-spectator a partner in a rare project in the art of storytelling: A moveable museum where you are not worried about the book being an object—not to be preserved but to be reread.
BOOK OBJECT @HAWAMAHAL JAIPUR
On 20th January 2016 I will open the exhibition BOOK OBJECT Museum of Chance at Hawa Mahal Jaipur. The exhibition will be open daily from 9 am until 5 pm. It will stay on until 20th March.
I am very happy to present this at a time when the book world congregates at the Jaipur Literary festival . I am curious to see what the response of Book people will be to the Book on the wall, while my prints are now in mobile museums, away from the wall. If in Delhi do see MUSEUM BHAVAN at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art
I think I have finally succeeded in finding the form that is both book and exhibition at the same time. This was something I first explored with Sent a Letter, continued with FILEROOM where I cut up the book of 77 images and made 77 different covers, to finally convincing Steidl to make me a book for each image inside was also a cover. Then the challenge was to literally Frame the Book, to build a structure where the book was a book but also an exhibition. Where the book became a catalogue of its own exhibition. we achieved this with MUSEUM OF CHANCE
MOVE OVER PHOTOGRAPHERS / THE MAYA FACTOR
The real heroine of Angry Indian goddeses is Maya , the 6 year old photographer with her iphone. Pan Nalin points to the future of Photography in his film, a child can record the world as she witnesses it, and they can be THE photographs that make the story. She presents all the clues in the film.
And to Nargis, (who talks of a time when all women can tell their stories) I would say, when all women have their own mobile phones, they will all be telling their stories, as they see them! We are almost there as everyone with a mobile phone has access to the camera. Move over ‘photographers’. The women have their own stories to tell, as they see them.
This is what is the great thing about Nalin Pandyas ANGRY INDIAN GODDESSES, the women tell their stories as they experience them. No ‘writer’ ‘reporter’ ‘journalist’ telling their version of it.
I realised the power of this kind of ‘telling’ with Myself Mona Ahmed, when Mona told her story as she wanted to, with lies and contradictions as ones memories often are, and the publisher, the great Walter Keller, left them intact, he ran them unedited. Mona explained her becoming a eunuch, her castration even, her loneliness, her losses, with her own words, her own humour, in the form of letters to Walter. Mona,being Mona,even dicatated the size of the book “small enough to read on a plane or a train”. People still ask for that book, now almost 15 years later. The story lingers because its not my version of her life.
So where does that leave THE PHOTOGRAPHER ? what does it mean now to be a photographer, when even a 6 year old can take the images that make the story. Perhaps the best one can do is to facilitate people in the telling of their own stories, themselves. To be no more than a ‘midwife’ in their delivery, if that.
And as for the Maya Factor I have in my own experience a Maya, a young 9 year old girl whose family I went to photograph, we spent hours and tried various situations as the light fell.Towards the end of the shoot and just a few tips later, she made the best portrait of her parents and their dog on her iphone. (In the exact same setting that I had prepared for my portrait with her in it.) Better than any image I made even in subsequent shoots. So what does that say about photography? more importantly what does it say to Photographers?
Wendy Ewald has spent a lifetime teaching children how to photograph their own lives, tshe started this in the early 90s, in a pre digital era. Empowering people to tell their own stories, in their own ways. Maybe she was pointing us to another role for photographers, maybe she was telling us something about storytelling. can we think of Photographers as facilitators? Photographers as archivists for Iphone parents? I am not sure what it means to call oneself a photographer in this time. Yes we work with photography as tool/as language , but in itself it is just not enough.In my not so humble opinion.
The Mother of all languages
Dancing with the Hasselblad
My course in Photography, would be called Dancing with the Hasselblad. I would choreograph it with Mark Morris. If photography is about your point of view, literally, then how can everyone photograph from within a space of 30cm ( Camera in front of eyes or there about) .Why is it so difficult to move with the camera, a deep breath and your vantage point already shifts, imagine if you could learn to dance around your subject, the range of images that would emerge, many that would completely surprise you and me. Each shift changes the balance between background and foreground. Each movement affects the aesthetic of your frame.
Photographers please learn to get down on your knees and you will see, its a different world from there.I was always envious of my colleagues who were close to 6 feet, I could never see as they did, let alone navigate the crowds, until I started to realise that my 5 feet vantage point was my stength and then when the Hasselblad entered my life, the vantage point became even lower.
I like using my Hasselblad because I can use it at waist level/navel level, so already I have a different vantage point than what I am used to seeing, it allows the place to surprise me and then I literally do a dance with it. Moving up and down and to the side, walking into and walking away, before I decide on the frame.
It was Naoya Hatakeyama who taught me the significance of walking backwards, of walking into a situation and then walking away from it. It completely alters your experience of the space.
No conversation on Photography can continue for too long without a mention of Michael Ondaatje, the master of editing. In his poem ” What we lost” he writes among all that we lost-“how to enter a temple or a forest”. I try very hard to time my visit to a place I maybe wanting to photograph, with the light, the time of day. How I first see a room is very important, how I enter the museum determines my relation to it. I prefer the back door, that allows the building to reveal itself to me that is not the prescribed route. My chief patron here is light, how it falls and how it shifts the reflections. What is reveals, what it withholds, at different times of day and night.
I am glad I was gifted In Praise of shadows at just the right time, when I started to photograph without people.The same friend gifted me Mahlers 1st symphony that I often play on repeat, while I am editing and sequencing. He also brought Austerlitz to me. Perhaps this friend came to deliver these tools to me, the gifts that would help me fly, possibly away from photography even.
I wonder why people are happy just to photocopy what the eye sees anyway? perhaps the answer is in learning to dance, to be comfortable moving ones body. Perhaps you need to bend, to make yourself a little vulnerable, a little flexible, take the risk of ridicule or whatever it is you fear,and then see how a place or person reveals itself. That to me is the magic of photography, not just replicating what comes infront of the camera. That any machine can do.
PS- This ofcourse is advice at a seemingly practical level, the most important shifts happen with whats in your head, the books you read, the music you listen to, the places you travel to, whom you travel with, your conversations, your silences. The people you befriend, the people you unfriend.
Its really what you bring to the image, that gives it that ‘something else’. As Anish Kapoor said ” If an artist does not have an inner life, what comes out is bubbles”