Chancing upon the book of art

Somak Ghoshal is an editor and writer based in Bengaluru
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Dayanita Singh’s book-based installation weaves elegance and intelligence, concept and creativity, into a logic of unity
“Art is what you can get away with,” Andy Warhol, the King of Pop Art had famously said, perhaps anticipating the wave of ‘conceptual art’ that has all but drowned us in the last couple of decades. (The scare quotes are not meant in condescension to certain forms of expression but to take you back to the first principles of creativity, to inspire thought. Isn’t any work of art worth its salt—be it a painting, sculpture, photograph, video, or installation—based on a sound concept? So why this need for a separate category?) Judging from the spectacle of the seventh edition of the India Art Fair (IAF), held earlier this month in New Delhi, it may be time to ponder and perhaps set a limit to the elasticity of the definition of what goes by the name of ‘art’.

A woman in a white robe trying to eat miniature oranges growing on plants. A monster creature made of bling whose sole purpose seemed provoking gazers into a frenzy of taking selfies. A human torso standing upright with a sewing machine for its head. Much of what one saw was either too easy to get or impossible to get without reading the accompanying statement of purpose, or not worth getting at all. In only a handful of instances did a work give the viewer pause, by weaving elegance and intelligence, concept and creativity, into a logic of unity. Dayanita Singh’s book-based installation, Museum of Chance, was one such project, and worth dwelling on in detail.

One of India’s best-known photographers, Singh has established herself as a pioneering bookmaker, having worked with Walter Keller and Gerhard Steidl, who are considered among the greatest photo-book editors and publishers respectively, for many years. For her, photographs have become what words are to a writer: a set of signs that are meant to be put into the service of telling a story. “The moment of the single image has been long over,” Singh says, “If I am asked to teach a class on photography, I will emphasise not as much on the technique as on the art of editing, sequencing, building up, and reading a narrative.”

With the advent of smartphones, making a photograph of tolerably decent quality is now child’s play. Anyone who can click a shutter at the right exposure and light can claim to be a photographer, but does the outcome necessarily qualify as art? Many literate people can string together an elegant sentence with a set of words, but that does not surely make them ‘writers’. So what is it, other than pure aesthetic mastery and appeal, that can elevate photography into the realm of art? In Singh’s case, it is the ability to suggest connections among seemingly random images, usually taken over a longish axis of time, and tease the viewer into thought, which gives her work a novelistic aura. You are meant to look at Singh’s work, be it in one of her books or on the wall of a gallery or museum, as you would read a story or a poem.

Born in 1961, Singh grew up with a mother who was obsessed with photography, though the latter never took to it professionally. Her own serious encounter with the medium was less by design than by chance, when she went to photograph tabla maestro Zakir Hussain for a college project. In a scuffle with the male-dominated assembly of journalists, she took a fall and cried out, “One day I shall be an important photographer, Mr Hussain, and then we shall see!” Hussain took heed and she ended up touring with the musician. In 1986 she published, Zakir Hussain, based on her portraits of him.

In the next two decades Singh went on to make several books—Privacy (2004) and Go Away Closer (2007) being the most outstanding, to my mind, in this phase of her work. Her documentation of the life of a hijra became Myself Mona Ahmed (2001), combining photographs taken by Singh with emails written by Mona to the publisher of the book, Walter Keller. The book is not only a poignant account of the struggles and indignities faced by a person of the third gender in a society like India, but also speaks generally to the wretched of the earth, here or elsewhere, from the upper classes or the underbelly. All the abiding concerns of Singh’s work— the quest for love, finding and losing it in the oddest of people and places, the desire to be close and also to cherish a distance of one’s own, the aspiration for having ‘roots in the air’—are played out in Mona’s life story. These themes would recur in Blue Book (2009), Dream Villa (2010) and House of Love (2011), works in which Singh would move from black-and-white to colour film to come up with unforgettable hues and textures.

While Singh was making these gem-like books, she was also selling silver gelatin prints of her work through galleries, each of which could easily fetch several lakh. However, for those who could not afford to own one, there was always the consolation of the books: first, in more conventional formats and later, in ever proliferating experimental avatars. In Sent a Letter (2008), for instance, she collected seven small books into a box, each volume, except for one, named after a particular city. The seventh one, called Nony Singh, had photographs made by her mother, including those of Singh and her sisters as children.

These books were based on the ‘kitchen museum’ Singh had created over the years. A compulsive traveller, she would keep visual diaries during her peregrinations through the globe. On her return to her home in Delhi, she would develop the prints and paste a selection of them into moleskine diaries to describe the story of a particular journey. Some of these diaries would be posted to friends who had been with her on a certain trip as a visual memento of the time they spent together. Each book in Sent a Letter could be opened out like an accordion and displayed on any surface to create a private museum for the delight of their owner. If you could not buy an entire set of prints by Singh to put on the wall of your apartment, you could at least have the satisfaction of decorating your coffee table or mantelpiece with a beautiful book by her purchased for a few thousand rupees.

While the accordion format of Sent a Letter allowed certain liberties of presentation, it did not take away a fundamental problem with the structure: the images remained fixed in a set of arrangements, which could not be mixed and re-imagined into a new sequence. In her subsequent bodies of work, File Room and Museum of Chance (the most recent), Singh has tried to address this obstacle and introduced a rare fluidity into the ontology of her work. She has turned File Room and Museum of Chance into changeable, protean objects, having covers with different colours and images on them.

At the 55th Venice Biennale in 2012, Singh introduced File Room through an ingenious performance. Draped in a pink sari with the words ‘Go Away Closer’ printed along its border, she sat at the French pavilion and sold copies of the book, for €30 each, inscribing them with personalised messages. Whoever bought the book there got home with what was effectively an original piece of art. She had also tried a version of such an experiment at the IAF in 2012, where she had pushed around a wooden cart filled with copies of her book House of Love and sold it to visitors for a special price. “At the end of the fair, I had money pouring out of my pockets,” says Singh. This year at the IAF, she sold copies of Museum of Chance, though not simply as a book, but rather as a ‘book object’, framed in a wooden structure, covered in a scarf, and stamped with words that would have an intimate meaning for the buyer. Before purchasing the book-object, you would have to sit with the maker and have a brief chat so that she could inscribe on the work a phrase that would hold a personal significance for you.

Since the last couple of years Singh has been improvising on innovative ways of showing her ‘book works’ on specially designed wooden structures. These cabinets with square wooden slots or frames on the wall lend themselves to the term ‘book architecture’ and are perhaps the best means of conveying the multiplicity of the book form in Singh’s artistic vocabulary. For her, the work is the book and hence, quite organically, the object that should also go on the wall. The challenge, therefore, was to give the mass- produced object a unique stamp, one that would put it on the brink of two worlds: the wall and the shelf, the library and the gallery, between publishing and art.

At Max Mueller Bhavan in New Delhi, where Singh showed some of her Book Works earlier this month, the audacious playfulness of the idea became clear. With the same book, Museum of Chance, printed with covers of different colours, with a different image from inside it pasted on each of these covers, and framed by a wooden structure, she curated an entire show to simulate a polyphony of thoughts in the beholder’s eye. You could be looking at a linear sequence— a ‘sentence’ that makes one compelling point—or perhaps a square grid, much like a giant contact sheet, or even reading a ‘poem’, where the stress rises or ebbs away with the chiaroscuro of images, letting the drama unfold, reach a climax and die down. Once you open these books, you find in them the same set of images. Modestly priced as they are, you could even buy them from a shop or order them online without feeling much of a pinch. But in case you are in love with one of a particular colour and with a specific cover image, no retailer can guarantee delivery of that exact combination to you. That’s how, and why, the book is the art and the art is the book—because it is at once universal and unique, an object produced consciously as well as by chance.

In the age of Amazon and iPhone—when reading any book, even a photo-book, is only a touch away, and taking a photograph is a matter of a click—there could be few better reminders of the enduring and original potency of both these forms.