This has been a banner year for Dayanita Singh. In June, she was one of four non-German artists, including Ai Weiwei, who comprised the Germany Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Dressed in a sari and rectangular spectacles, she attracted long lines while she signed and stamped copies of File Room, her new and typically beautiful Steidl-produced book, to be released in India at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January. Last month, a huge retrospective (though don’t call it that in Dayanita’s earshot) of her work opened at the Hayward Gallery in London. The centrepiece of that show is her inventive Museum Bhavan, currently eight seven-foot tall wooden structures that house collections and reserve collections of hundreds of her photographs. They are organised fetchingly — as in just the right side of whimsy — under such rubrics as ‘Chance’, ‘Machines’, ‘Embraces’ and ‘Furniture’. Her mini museums are a brainwave, an extension of a concept she had already experimented with in the book carts a couple of years ago for the launch of House of Love (2011) or, further back, the accordion-like diaries of Sent A Letter (2008). But her other experiments with form this year include her haunting ‘moving still’ of her longtime muse Mona Ahmed. It’s her picture-poem, a form this most literary of photographers has long craved. She speaks to Shougat Dasgupta about books, about photography and about the placement of sofas.
Edited Excerpts from a conversation
Dayanita Singh: Let’s start. Let’s straighten the chair. I think the furniture and the architecture of a room are crucial. Where you position your sofa, the table, and the chairs tells me a lot about you.
This seems slightly adversarial. Facing you across this table.
You’ve come to do an interview. For me, it’s quite serious. It must be for you too; you made the time for it. So we want to give it our full attention. I woke up with the idea of a Japanese tea ceremony. It’s quite formal. You have to think of the space, what is it like, what else are you seeing other than me? What if the table was smaller and I could have been closer? But then you wouldn’t have been able to lean over the table. The important thing is — because some of my ‘museums’ are going to become conversation chambers — what makes a space conducive for conversation, for conversation that is itself conducive?
Conversation is clearly important to you. The kind conducted between two people, face-to-face, as opposed to that other kind of conversation with books, for instance.
When I was at the Hayward dinner — a sit-down dinner, 70 people on a long table; again, that was very important to me, the width of the table and who was sitting where — the toast was, “Whatever I’ve been able to do, whatever I’ve done today, is entirely because of the conversations I’ve had with many of you sitting at this table.” Because it is all about the people you have the conversations with, at least for me. It’s not me who produces something, it’s a response to the conversation.
That’s quite collaborative. But isn’t photography, and writing, for that matter, unlike making films, intensely solitary?
What I do, finally, is completely solitary. That’s the rigorous part. I need to make the time to be as alone as possible. It takes about three or four days of being alone to get to that point of getting to zero. I did an interview with [the American artist] Roni Horn about that, about getting to zero. It’s why I included that comment [in her Hayward exhibition and on the wall in the room where we’re speaking], “Could you leave everything and start from zero again?”
Starting from zero is something an artist has to do every time, with each new work. It must be difficult to have achieved something monumental and then pretend it never happened and begin all over again, or is it more about accretion, about building on what you’ve done before?
I think it’s really important for every artist to go to Varanasi once a year. To be reminded of what a little speck of dust you are. Because you could say this has happened and that has happened, and the head could swell a bit. One afternoon on Assi Ghat brings you down to earth.
If there was ever a year for the head to swell, I suppose this is it…
And that’s why it’s the one to be careful about. But I’m 52, I’ve been at this now for almost 30 years. Years of obsessive, compulsive work and it’s not enough. It’s like, here’s this medium, I’ve done what I could with it and it’s not enough for me, not enough for what I think of the medium. So, the print on the wall, the matted photograph in a gallery space, I’m bored with that, don’t want to do that anymore. Can I aspire to make a poem? Can I aspire to make a short story? Can I do something with the form? I can do that with a book, but why is it that when it comes to the exhibition, everything becomes so stagnant? Now with these structures that take the images away from the wall, it becomes a performance. You have to bend to see the images, you have to work around them. I don’t like photos being behind glass, I want you to be able to hold them. That’s the greatest way to look at a photograph. The wall was always problematic, but I didn’t know that there could be other ways. Photography has become such a big part of the art world and we went straight into the forms of the art world.
When you say you don’t like photographs being behind glass, is it about distance? Keeping the viewer at arm’s length.
Yes, but it’s also about putting too much emphasis on a single image, making one image so precious. You put one image up and it says one thing; you put two images side by side and it says something else; you put three and it says something further. That conversation between images is very interesting. And in a normal white cube gallery hang, you kill that conversation because you have the image, you have a mat around it, you have a frame, you have glass in front. Then you have some space and then you have another image. Which is fine for some things, but surely that can’t be the form for everything, no?
And when you put three images side by side on a wall, the order says something. When you switch them around, you change what is being said.
Exactly. A gallery space doesn’t allow you to do that. It’s why I’ve made a structure where you can change all the images around. The key to these structures is having a group of images that can work in any combination.
When did that idea come to you, that you could, and should, do this?
It happened with Go Away Closer [2007, as opposed to the current Hayward show which goes by the same name]. Up till then, I thought there had to be a theme. It has to be ‘Mona’, or it has to be ‘privacy’, or ‘chairs’. Anything you wanted to do, whether it was a book or an exhibition, there had to be a specific theme connected to place or subject. And then when I made the photo of the girl on the bed, I had this déjà vu. I recognised that feeling, and that’s when I thought, “Go away closer”. You know, the push and the pull, can’t live with you, can’t live without you. It’s what photography does, it gives you the illusion of having grasped something when actually you haven’t. It’s gone.
That feeling of déjà vu sent me back to my contact sheets and I found all these images, none of which had been published because they were made by the way. It’s as if Ishan [Tankha, the Tehelka photo editor] has come here to make a portrait of Dayanita, but, by the way, he photographed those trees over there. I call these photographs ‘sidies’, they’re not the main thing. So it was a book I made from all my ‘reject’ pictures.
What you’re talking about is the slipperiness of photographs, the ambiguity.
Absolutely. There’s no truth in photography. It’s what Ishan chooses to put in the frame that becomes the portrait of me. At best, my portrait will be an image of what Ishan sees, or how he would like to see me. It’s his reality, if any, not mine.
But on slipperiness and ambiguity, one of the things that occurred to me when I heard you talk about moving pictures around to make something new, or when I see on your bookshelf the way you’ve altered some of your favourite books by pasting a piece of text or a photograph somewhere, is William Burroughs and the cut-up technique. You have this thing about rearranging.
It’s something that grew out of rejecting, rejecting, rejecting. This feeling of being dissatisfied. When I made the House of Love book , I understood that in India I had to market my books myself. For the opening, I made this book cart. So it wasn’t something I had read or seen, but something I missed, something I thought should be there. I thought, “Why isn’t there something like this? Why isn’t there the possibility of moving your books around?”
I wanted to curate a small space of my own. I’ve done so many exhibitions and it’s not always easy working with curators, especially when you’re young. They want to use your work as illustrations. Magazines do this too. Curators have an idea, for instance, with ‘India’ shows of what India should be. If something doesn’t fit that idea, it gets rejected. Photography allows for this kind of ‘illustrativeness’. You can’t just blame the curators. You won’t tell a painter to put more people into a painting, or a sculptor to remove something because it’s too much. But a curator feels free to say to a photographer, “How can you tell me this is India?” And you’re thinking, “When did I say I was doing something about India?” So I felt the need to get away from that, to make my own structure.
The structures you’ve created, these portable museums, are remarkable objects. How do they work?
They’re large wooden structures that open out and can both display photographs and store them. The photographs are framed, there’s no glass. The frames are beautiful to hold, thick at the back, thin at the front. Each ‘museum’ can hold about a 100 or so images with 35 or 40 displayed at one time. You can keep changing the images and you can keep changing how the structure opens and closes. So you can go on and on, making a labyrinth, and that’s what we did at the Hayward.
The idea came when I had gone to meet a friend. I have some key friends who, even though I don’t see them a lot, can open these windows in my head. So I was going to meet one of these friends and I had a vintage champagne bottle for him, for New Year’s Day, and I had pasted these little prints — I travel with hundreds of boxes of little prints — all over the bottle. He said, “I wonder how this would look life-size.” You’ve been struggling, struggling, struggling and then you meet the right person and suddenly something opens up. As I said, it’s all about conversation.
So for the viewer at the Hayward, looking at the retrospective…
It’s not a retrospective. That’s what they call it, they think it’s a retrospective. But it’s actually a prospective. It’s my first show. Now it starts. I’m a late bloomer; at 52, I found my form.
So for the viewer at the Hayward, looking at the prospective, can he or she change the order of the pictures or is it up to a curator?
For now, a curator. But each museum will eventually have a ‘keeper’. And the Museum Bhavan has a board, Hans-Ulrich [Obrist, the curator and critic], Sunil Khilnani and Gautam Thapar. We had our first board meeting at the opening of the Hayward show, behind ‘Museum of Chance’ and in front of ‘Museum of Furniture’ at 7:45. So it’s a serious thing. We have a statement that we give out.
Are you going to be bringing Museum Bhavan to India?
It’ll be on display downstairs. People can come on two full moons, not every full moon. That might be too much. So January and February full moons, maybe, and at other times by appointment. And I might have an archivist-in-residence programme.
With your books, with Museum Bhavan, there is an emphasis on selection, on arrangement, on editing. Is editing the most important aspect of your work?
Making the picture is about 10 percent of your work, editing is 70 percent and the rest is sequencing. Making pictures is nothing. So to all my friends who make hard drives full of beautiful pictures, it’s fine but it’s not enough. It’s what you do after. Editing is about the music in your head. But it’s also about withholding, about not telling the whole story. I have to allow you to build your own story, use your imagination. People are not stupid. They don’t need spoon-feeding.
So what is your editing process?
In the next room, I have an archive of 30 years of negatives, so even if I stop photographing tomorrow I have enough material to pull out and do things with. I have this idea right now, as we’re speaking, about doing a neon museum. I have an obsession with neon that began when Vikram Seth pointed out to me the neon in Goa. I remarked how ugly it was and he said, “No, look, it’s like musical notes”. I had been photographing neon like ‘what an intrusion’ or ‘how bizarre, this Bengali habit of putting green tube lights on a green tree during the Puja’. He opened up a new way for me to see neon. Now I want to get into my contact sheet and look at all my neons. I have 500 pictures of tubelights even from before I became conscious of them. How can you photograph in India without tubelights? They’re always around you.
I travel with boxes of images or smaller bundles. [She goes to her archives and returns with a shoebox full of 4x4 prints, as many as 500 in one box.] I’m always over the weight limit on flights, always on the verge of a slipped disc. So I look through my images of neon, play with dozens of images in different combinations until maybe I decide it’s just two of these images that I want or maybe none at all. You have to be willing to trash at every stage.
You build, build, build and you throw it all out and start again. And I think that’s the difference between someone who’s beginning and me, that I’m not scared to do that, to say “this is not working”.
Why do you prefer your bundles and boxes and small prints to a laptop?
That’s the big mistake designers and photographers make. If you’re making an e-book, by all means design it on the computer. If you want your photos only on the Internet, no problem. A book is tactile. I am working with a physical form so I must have prints. At Steidl, we still work with scotch tape and scissors, and the labels are pasted in. On a computer it’s too casual, for me the physicality is really important. The work has to grow organically, as archaic as that sounds.
What also may appear archaic to young photographers is your insistence on reading. You advise photographers to take a course in literature rather than photography…
I don’t think there’s anything to go to photo school for. I could teach you how to make a photograph in two days. Where does that leave photography? So I say to young people, what you need to become is the author of your work. How do you find your voice? Literature shows you something about life. The family portraits I could have taken had I known William Shakespeare when I took them. Who understands jealousy, betrayal, treachery, all these human emotions that are so much part of family life, better than Shakespeare?
A comparative literature course is a great one for anyone interested in photography. You can study how Italo Calvino finds a new form for every work; how Geoff Dyer completely takes the idea of the novel apart and stitches it back together, how he has the courage to write a book [Out of Sheer Rage] about a book that never gets written; how Michael Ondaatje knows just when to stop, to keep you guessing. When I read [Dyer’s] Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, I was on a grant from Harvard to photograph ‘social issues’. It was a lot of money and very prestigious and it was a trap. I took the photographs I thought Harvard wanted during the day, and photos for myself at night. I was obsessed with this hallucinogenic colour of Calcutta at night. I learned from Dyer how you can weave together two different books and complicate both.
It’s destabilising, so you don’t go away thinking ‘I understand’.
For any strong work, it needs to have many layers built into it. With neon, for instance, of course I can seduce you with the colours and you can leave it at that level. Then if you ask, “Well, why did she photograph these trees that have been lit up. What’s going on with the trees?” Or you say, “This sickly green reminds me of something, possibly surveillance photography. But isn’t this supposed to be a sweet story?” People will see different things if a work is strong, even different things at different points in their lives. Not just because they are changing, but because the work has that built into it.
So reading is a lesson in complexity?
It gives the photographer something more to bring to the work. The interior is built up and that goes towards making your voice. But there is the technical aspect too. How is this book put together? What is Geoff Dyer up to in Zona, where half the narrative is in the footnotes? Why does Calvino sequence in this way?
I notice WG Sebald among your books too…
Austerlitz is my favourite photo book. If he were alive, I would gift my archive to him. I would send him my shoeboxes and say, “Do what you like.” He would find something in them that I didn’t know consciously. I hope my photographs have that; I hope it can reward different layers of reading. Because if photographs don’t, then they might as well go out with the trash.
Go Away Closer is on at the Hayward Gallery, London, until 15 December