LONDON — At a press view on the Southbank, Dayanita Singh warned the assembled crowd that she gets a twinge whenever referred to as a photographer. And yet her photographs proliferate throughout the Hayward Gallery, where her exhibition Go Away Closer is installed, with many more on display than a conventional show of the form. The images cram their way into more than half a dozen artist books and an equal number of bespoke cabinets presented here as a series of artist ‘museums.’
This first UK retrospective is merely the tip of the iceberg. “Her Museum of Chance,” for example, contains 70 photos selected from a pool of 700 candidates. The result is a teak display stand, in which Singh can control the edit of her many black and white scenes. They are laid out as patchwork, not always narrative, and circulate in a rhythmic way. Indeed, this reluctant photographer has compared herself to musicians and writers rather than colleagues with cameras.
If she gets away with this, it is because editing and sequencing are the mainstays of her creative process. This is a good way to set herself apart from the several billion other photo-takers on our planet. Her beautiful books foster intellectual engagement, and her kooky museums encourage physical exploration — Hayward curator Stephanie Rosenthal must have found half her work already done.
And it could have been so much more difficult. One of the most powerful ‘museums’ here is the “Museum of Files,” where we see the bound and dusty evidence of administrative chaos. Perhaps emblematic of modern India, only a full-time keeper could ever find anything. This may be designed in solidarity from a photographer whose own archive must also be pretty forbidding.
Singh’s first serious theme was the life of tabla musician Zakir Hussain, who gave the spirited fan her first break. Now her shots, in stark black and white, provide an Indian riposte to the mythmaking photography which has fueled so much Western rock. A handsome subject, Hussain has a sophisticated grasp of rhythm.
For a lover of books, it is no great surprise that the other great source for her work is literary. “Literature informs my work in the way life informs one’s work,” she tells me, “and I see literature as becoming a version of life.”
Singh goes even further in a statement which won’t please many photography lecturers: “What I say to young people, when they want to study photography, I say, ‘Don’t bother with photography, Go study literature and then come to photography.’”
“It’s about gathering life experience,” she continues, “and when you’re 22 how much life experience can you gather except through literature?” It’s a compelling argument, but it remains to be seen just how much worldliness one might expect to find among a representative sample of fresh English majors.
But Singh’s enthusiasm for the written word is infectious, informed, and sincere. “Within literature I find there are these greats, like [Italo] Calvino,” she says, “Calvino makes a form for each book, or how Michael Ondaatje edits where he stops just short of telling you the full story, so you’re always wondering, Did that happen? Or didn’t it happen? Or the way Vikram Seth will make a poem with just a few words and it’s something that gets embedded in you.”
And indeed the life of her other great subject, Mona Ahmed, bears the hallmarks of a literary saga or classical tragedy. Ahmed is a hapless eunuch, whose adopted child is taken away, whose pet animals are stolen or killed, whose attempts to gather for herself a family of any kind are foiled at every turn. It is the stuff of a screenplay at the very least.
So could it be that tabla-player Hussain and Ahmed have become characters in a literary sense. Are they fictional? Singh rejects this out of hand: “My relationships were exactly like relationships with anybody else, anyone that’s close to you like family. Both Mona and Zakir are very much family. I’ve known Zakir over 30 years and Mona close to 25, so like any long relationship: ups and downs and lots of conversation.”
Dayanita Singh: Go Away Closer is on view at Hayward Gallery (Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London) through December 15.