Dayanita Singh, Museum Bhavan

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2017 by Steidl (here). Hardcover fabric-covered case/box holding 10 softcover booklets. Including a total of 298 pages, with 241 black and white photographs.

9 of the booklets have a common format: light blue folded paper cover (with printed title on front/back), with square format black and white photographs printed on accordion folded white paper

  • Museum of Vitrines: 26 images
  • Museum of Furniture: 27 images
  • Museum of Photography/Museum of the Departed: 27 images
  • Godrej Museum/File Museum: 27 images
  • Museum of Machines: 27 images
  • Ongoing Museum/Museum of Chance: 27 images
  • Museum of Men/Museum of Curiosities: 27 images
  • Printing Press Museum: 26 images
  • Little Ladies Museum/Museum of Time: 27 images

The 10th booklet contains only text. It is entitled Conversation Chambers has a yellow/orange cover bound with black string, 56 pages, with transcripts of conversations between the artist and Gerhard Steidl and between the artist and Aveek Sen.

Museum Bhavan won the 2017 Paris Photo–Aperture Foundation PhotoBook of the Year award.

(Cover, booklet, and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: If there is one single idea that lies at the heart of what we do at Collector Daily, it is the central belief that the point of view of a photography collector has validity. Art collectors of all kinds are routinely told that the well-informed perspectives of museum curators and gallery directors are to be uniformly respected, and tacit in that institutional mandate is the corollary conclusion that the vantage point of the amateur collector is somehow not as worthy as that of the professionals. It is generally assumed that regardless of the knowledge or context that any one collector may bring to the artistic encounter, his or her perspective isn’t worth understanding – we’re just buying stuff, after all.

But what gives art its enduring vibrancy is its ability to engage each of us on a personal level, so much so that we use the art as a jumping off point to draw insights, make connections, and see parallels both in the realm of art and in the world around us. Each and every collector, no matter how humble, does this, and this agency is what gives personal collections their lasting interest – in each acquisition decision, we see a collector making choices and prioritizations, reevaluating the whole of what they have assembled, and tying pieces together in ways that only they understand. The essential truth here is that there is no one “right way” to see a body of work, nor is there one prevailing mode for organizing, categorizing, discussing, or interpreting it. By definition, every collection is different, and that unruly heterogeneity can be the source of overlooked insights.

The control mechanisms that marginalize the ideas of collectors also have a way of putting artists on the outside looking in. When curators step in to edit, organize, and install a photographer’s work, in many cases, the artist loses his or her ability to drive or even influence the process, even if he or she is still alive. Suddenly someone else is determining how a body of work should be presented, what single images are “best”, and what themes and motifs are most worth highlighting. And if we look back at the career of Dayanita Singh, we can see a talented photographer consistently struggling with just this idea – how to circumvent the single omniscient external perspective as applied to her work and to take back the control that others have wanted to exert over the way her photographs are shared and interpreted.

To circumvent the standard principles of framed images on a gallery wall, and the inflexibility of selection, sequencing, and reordering that such installations inherently represent, Singh has had increasingly complex display systems for her photographs built out of luscious hardwoods, starting with boxes and frames where multiple images can be rotated via hidden slots, to more elaborate paneled screens, cabinets, and other furniture-style enclosures (some of which she calls “museums” in and of themselves) where the pictures can be moved in and out with even more ease and the tyranny of the walls is more resolutely (and elegantly) broken. The fact that she has consistently used the square format in her decades of picture making has made this ongoing reconfiguration simpler, as the squares tend to fit neatly into various larger boxes and containers.

Singh has been equally innovative in her approach to making photobooks, and her long-standing partnership with Gerhard Steidl has allowed her to experiment with both form and construction. Careful selection of inks and papers has been the foundation leading to different styles of presenting her tonally-rich black and white and saturated color photographs. From that beginning, Singh has then explored unusual book sizes, accordion folds, cloth covers, boxes, and postcards, and more recently turned her books into art objects themselves, by having them printed with different covers or enabling random pairings of images that can be disassembled and used for gallery shows.

Singh’s approach to her career-long archive of imagery is also unconventional. She has deliberately avoided the moving walkway of chronological progression, allowing her photographs from different periods to loosely mix together rather than be strictly ordered by time. Like Lee Friedlander and Martin Parr, she freely dives back into her archive, using thematic ideas, subject matter motifs, and less well articulated ideas to gather images into groups, books, and “museums”, the old and new interacting as equals, influencing each other and generating new tangents and vectors. In this way, she’s exactly like a collector, at least in the way she interacts with her own imagery.

In many ways, Museum Bhavan is both the culmination of all of these swirling ideas about photography, collecting, museums, and thematic ordering, and perhaps just another evolutionary step along Singh’s artistic road. To label it a photobook is a misnomer – it’s a boxed set, or a book of books, or a “portable museum” as Singh has called it. Using some of the construction innovations found in her 2008 photobook Sent A Letter as a starting point, Museum Bhavan refines and extends the idea of a collection of small accordion fold booklets into an integrated meditation on the shifting nature of categories and connections.

There are nine individual booklets of imagery inside the cloth covered box of Museum Bhavan (each cover fabric is different, thereby reinforcing the idea of uniqueness), and each small book is intimately sized to easily fit in your hands. Most of the books have a subject matter theme (furniture, machines, printing presses etc.), with roughly 25 black and white photographs printed on the accordion fold paper that spills out once you start to flip the pages. The important effect of this design is that while there is a front to back progression of imagery sequenced by the artist, the accordion folds encourage that step-wise progression to break down – the folds billow, putting pictures next to each other in different ways, thereby smashing the idea that we must see things in a certain order and encouraging us to make our own connections between the images in the book. Once the book is entirely unfolded, it can be arranged in all kinds of ways – circles, zig zags – each mini-museum becoming in essence almost entirely reconfigurable.

The best way to think about the various mini-books in this brick-sized box (its unconventional size is not going to fit comfortably on your bookshelf by the way) is that each one is a core sample drilled and excavated from Singh’s larger photographic archive. Many of the books are filled with gatherings of closely observed portraits of like things. The “Museum of Furniture” centers on chairs, canopy beds, and a few more modern benches and chaises, each one in the context of a silent room, with Singh’s talent for subtle tonal sensitivity and formal clarity on display. The “Printing Press Museum” is just what its title implies – a taxonomy of antique printing presses, each variously decorated by large iron wheels, flat plates, and lettersets, with a few in-use models mixed in to bring us closer to the presnt day. The “Museum of Machines” revels in shiny industrial surfaces, from metal drums and cooking vats to other processing machinery and engines of less obvious use, some abandoned on dusty factory floors and others seemingly more active, Singh always on the lookout for tactile machined textures and tonal gradations.

The “Museum of Vitrines” operates on two levels. On one hand, it documents the eclectic contents of various museum vitrines and display cases: natural history taxidermy (lions, tigers, leopards, and the like), butterflies, geological specimens, silverwork, chemical bottles, and even an ironically instructive display (at least in the context of Singh’s book) entitled “some leading curators of the past”. On the other hand, it is also a taxonomy of the cases and vitrines themselves, their construction ranging from simple glass boxes and circular or geometric forms, to ornate pedestals, tables, and larger structures with multiple windows like bookshelves. This duality brings us back to thinking about how the architecture and organization of museums influences how we see the content. The “Godrej Museum” offers a similar line of double thinking, showing us a largely different set of images of filing cabinets and filled shelves than was included in Singh’s 2013 book File Room (reviewed here), while also introducing a parade of enclosed metal shelving found in back storage rooms and basements, the themes of organization and order never far from view.

Portraits of people dominate another three of the small books. The “Museum of Men” is just that – photographs of men at work, often displaying the tools of their trade or products for sale while standing behind counters, with a handful of images of men in dioramas and painted portraits mixed in. In the “Museum of Photography”, Singh brings together portraits of famous Indian photographers, images used in shrines and funerals (usually wreathed in flowers), images of framed photographs (relatives or political figures) hung on walls, and the double whammy of images of people holding images of people. And the “Little Ladies Museum” gathers together carefully posed pictures of young girls in party dresses, often holding an important object (violin, stuffed animal, book), in various outfits from elaborate saris to white dresses and shiny Mary Janes.

The last book in the series is the “Ongoing Museum” and it is here that Singh reminds us that the world doesn’t always arrange itself into neat categories. In many ways, it’s a grab bag – movie stills and medical utensils, musical instruments and machetes, nurse uniforms and other random museum exhibits – but I think Singh’s point is that the connections aren’t always obvious to every viewer. She continues to make new photographs, adding to the burgeoning archive, and with each image, she is opening the door to new sets of connections, relationships, and most importantly re-evaluations. This keeps the museum (or the photographs themselves) from becoming stale (or dead), the infusion of lively fresh blood creating new chance pairings. Any one single viewer might not see all the multivalent richness that Singh sees, but they might also see things in these pictures that she doesn’t, which is where this book exercise becomes so three-dimensional.

A few of the small books have second titles printed on their back covers, which makes for some mind-bending reversals of perspective. The “Museum of Men” is also the “Museum of Curiosities”, the frame of reference moved from the people holding the objects to the oddball objects themselves. The “Museum of Photography” takes on a more poignant tone when it is titled the “Museum of the Departed”, where we are now focused on those that have passed on rather than on the ideas of images and image making. The same kind of thing happens when the “Little Ladies Museum” becomes the “Museum of Time” – suddenly the little girls are all grown up, and we’re looking back at times gone by. What Singh seems to be implying here is that all of these categories are effortlessly reconfigurable, and that depending on which feature we decide to look for or which name we apply to the category, we activate the pictures in alternate ways. What I like about this concept is that something directed (the selection of images) quickly becomes open-ended, a collection and its component images constantly morphing and being re-read based on different parameters. In 21st century computer speak, perhaps we’d say it’s all about how we apply the metadata.

In important ways, Museum Bhavan is a risky endeavor; many will misunderstand Singh’s category-defying object, or will simply pass it by because it seems too complicated. But by pushing herself outside the normal bounds and conventions of photobookmaking, she’s made the book she needed to make to communicate the subtly layered things she wanted to say about photographs, categories, collections, and “museums”. By reclaiming the role of curator/collector while still holding her position as artist, she’s asked us to rethink how we interact with her images and to become more aware of the structure of the decisions and models that often govern the artist/viewer exchange. Using her own photographs as raw material, she’s made a book about the abstraction of organizing, and for those of us that are collectors, that mindset feels altogether familiar.

Collector’s POV: Dayanita Singh is represented by Frith Street Gallery in London (here). Her works have little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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