Dayanita Singh, Pothi Box

JTF (just the facts): Self-published by Spontaneous Books in 2018 (here). 30 unbound black and white image cards (each offset printed, roughly 7×8 inches), with teak wood enclosure, held in a knotted embroidered napkin. There are no texts or essays. Design by the artist. In an edition of 360. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Dayanita Singh’s most recent publication Pothi Box comes gently tied up in a knotted piece of cloth. The simple title is sewn on the outside, and to get at the contents, the reader must flip it over and untie the two knots that keep the bundle together. The process is delicately physical, like the revealing of a secret or the digging up of a treasure.

What we find inside is a hand-sized version of the richly tactile teak wood boxes, folding screens, and slotted frames Singh uses to display her photographs in museums and galleries. A stack of 30 black and white photographs is housed in the small wooden enclosure, each one printed on a separate card, the unbound cards inserted into a slot at the top. While the cards come in an initial numbered sequence, it is easy to rearrange them in any order we might want, putting our favorite image on top or rotating the cards from time to time. So Pothi Box isn’t exactly a typical photobook – it’s our own personal display system, designed to house our own self-curated exhibits of her work. She has, in essence, miniaturized her whole process, giving us the equivalent of an intimately simplified gallery.

Pothi Box comes a logical extension and follow up to Singh’s Museum Bhavan (here) and File Room (here) projects, where she incrementally experimented with and deconstructed the photobook form, breaking it down into its component parts and creating innovative new systems that encouraged viewers to reassemble the pieces in different ways. This time, she has made an even more obvious and intentional bridge to the environment of the gallery, rethinking the structure of a photobook to make it comfortably live inside a wooden box.

Photographically, Singh has once again dropped into the stacks of various Indian archives, where massive piles of paper, bundled files, and metal film canisters fill sagging shelves to the breaking point. Her square format images highlight the horizontal and vertical geometries found in these overstuffed rooms, the order of the shelves and the repeated patterns of the contents leading to pictures that feel precise and attentive.

With that structure as an aesthetic guide, Singh allows herself to revel in rich textural details, the kind that shine when executed in nuanced black and white. A thick stack of rotting paper is a study in flaky brittle whiteness, with a dark trail eaten away by insects meandering across the edge. Another is bent back on itself like the letter U, its dense layers stacked like the striations of sedimentary rock. And bunches of papers are tied with string, divided by wooden slats, and decorated on the edges, the decaying sheets simmering with wavy undulations.

Wrapped cloth bundles offer different formal opportunities, many becoming studies in drapery, where ends are tied tightly and folds and twists wander, each one a rounded sculptural form placed on a shelf. Indecipherable reference symbols and numbers on the outside provide a modicum of order to the mysterious bundles, the cloth packages shelved to the roofline. Several of Singh’s views telescope through shelves of these anonymous cloth lumps, one finding a solitary desk standing guard deep in the recesses of the towering piles.

Other photographs extend the archival story further, documenting film archives and other facilities, where round metal movie canisters are stacked on edge, shiny metal boxes are stored in clumps, and tiny nooks are used to organize small items. In these pictures, a cane chair, a spiral staircase, or a metal locker provides a visual contrast to the ordered shelving.

Singh’s photographs have a slow, meditative quality that is well matched by the immediacy of the wooden box experience she has chosen. The deliberate closeness allows us to retreat into her images, examining them individually and then reshuffling them, finding new formal relationships and echoes. In this way, Pothi Box is a sleeker and more rigorous version of a shoebox of photographs, where memories can intermingle and be reordered easily. Holding it in your hands is quietly satisfying, its object quality making it both worthy of display and richly interactive.

Collector’s POV: This book was available in conjunction with an exhibit at Callicoon Fine Arts in New York (October 18-December 16, 2018 here), where 30 of the books were hung on the gallery wall (extras were held on a nearby table). Each was available for $300. Singh is also 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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