‘Museum Bhavan’ by the internationally acclaimed Indian photography artist Dayanita Singh, currently on at the Kiran Nadar Museum in Delhi is a quirky but serious exhibition and both the quirkiness and seriousness of this is all depended on the whimsical logic of the artist herself who will be there present in person throughout the duration of the show as a part of the ‘artist-in-residence program’ and will keep changing the display as per the logic of ‘being’ for these works/images that are exhibited in portable/foldable cabinets, which the artist calls ‘museums’ have been with her for a long time, perhaps growing with Dayanita’s life and career as a human being as well as an artist. Dayanita has twelve books to her credit and here we have twelve museums to browse through. What makes the show very appealing is its design element and the alternative display strategy both the artist has employed in developing and presenting these ‘museums’ which have been ‘travelling’ in different parts of the world till recently.
(The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein)
In this article, my aim is not to ‘review’ the show in a conventional format of art criticism, instead I would like to deal with the ideas that the exhibition as a whole and the artistic strategy in particular evoke in an informed viewer like me. The word museum is a very loaded term as it has considerable ramifications within the notion of colonialism. Recent studies have made it categorically clear that colonialism is not a western import rather it has been there ever since the human dispersal from the centers of their origin. Initially it was for survival, then for trade and finally for power through subordination of the landmasses, resources and the natives. Along the way, the colonial expansionism also triggered the fundamental nature of the human beings to look at the strange, exotic and wonderful, and at times possess them for keepsake or as souvenirs if possible. Hans Holbein’s work titled ‘The Ambassadors’ tell us clearly that the modern idea of colonialism also gives birth to a series of symbolic representations of power, pride and possession. Curiously, the distorted skull right in front of the Ambassadors underlines the ‘death’ element involved or the eventuality and certainty of death by the end of all conquests.
(Museum Bhavan by Dayanita Singh)
Such symbolisms had replaced hitherto religious symbolism with those of material possessions and power. Etymologically the word museum comes from the word ‘mausoleum’ where the mortal remnants of the royal and the spiritual are kept. This somehow justifies the death symbol though inadvertent in nature, seen in Holbein’s painting. Pablo Helguera, in his book, Manuel for Surviving in Contemporary Art, says that museums are the places where a work of art loses its monetary value and assumes the value of zero. This could also be seen as a place where the work of art faces its physical death and becomes a mental object. Afterwards its journey is, despite all monetary dealings and insurances etc, it is a zero value dead object with all positive connotations. Perhaps, this is what exactly Carol Duncan speaks about museums as places of ritual including the death ritual. Douglas Crimp calls museums as ‘ruins’ which also has a connotation of death. Interestingly, the very idea of photography in its early days evoked death fear amongst the subjects of photography and even Roland Barthes had acknowledged this fear of the subjects in his ‘Camera Lucida’.
(from Museum of Chance)
So it makes me rather curious about Dayanita’s very selection of the word ‘museum’ for her show or works in that case for she has been putting her works in accordion folders and keeping it in vitrines of the shop windows etc as sort of ‘dead’ objects which are left out there for scientific as well as aesthetical scrutiny. The intense awareness of museum practice as a ‘dead’ practice (here the word ‘dead’ does carry any negative connotations rather as in the Indian philosophical way, I would argue that ‘death’ becomes a threshold so that the soul/photographs could make a move over to the other world –of interpretations and critical negotiations- and be happily there allowing whatever kind of readings as souls generally do not bother much about the living and their thoughts about them). It is quite normal for a curator to say that Dayanita creates a museum within a museum. But for me, it sounds very generic and commonplace because that is the first layer that anybody could see. The fundamental mood that Dayanita creates with her cabinets is that of ‘death’ (again with no negative connotations but so powerful a way to evoke all kinds of holocausts and genocides happened in the word though that may not be the primary intention of the artist) and one cannot just forget the kind of mood created by the works of Christian Boltansky and Anselm Keifer.
(from File Museum)
I am particular about using the word ‘cabinet’ vis-à-vis the works of Dayanita displayed in KNMA, Delhi because more than a display strategy it is critical approach to the very idea of developing museums as a part of the colonial socio-cultural discourse, which is spiced up with power and pomp. The history of ‘cabinet of curios’ tells us that these cabinets that contained both the live and dead, organic and inorganic curios, thrown open to the guests once in a while in fact underlined the power and aesthetical prowess of the one how possessed/made it. When the cabinets of curios become state owned museums, as we know we today, they cover up massive destructions and plundering with information, documentation and sophistication in presentation. Dayanita reverses this process by creating a series of museums that remain in her personal realm at the same time display the capacity to be part of the history of the country or countries. For example, if we take the ‘File Museum’, the primary interest could be looking at the vast numbers of photographs that Dayanita has captured over period time in the public offices. Just behind this layer of primary curiosity, we should be able to see the kind of human history (that too of the most neglected lot that demands land, pensions, loans, loan waiving and so on) of the neglected. Each file, now in use or disuse, carefully kept or discarded in heaps, carries the history of people, invisible and devoid of voices. The subtext of the ‘File Museum’ is as intense and poignant as the files/documents of those genocide victims. It does not take a war, or fascism or genocide for human decimation; a file could do, so says this museum of/by Dayanita.
Calling Dayanita, the (Orhan) Pamuk of Indian photography would not be an ambitious claim by me. Pamuk’s work, Istanbul was a photo essay elaborated to the level of a travelling museum. And it is not surprising when we see Pamuk’s recent issue was ‘Museum of Innocence’ (the latest being ‘A Strangeness in My Mind’). One with the depth of experience like Pamuk in the case of Istanbul cannot escape the responsibility of making a museum either by words or by visuals. Dayanita does that to India. Pamuk prefers to live in Istanbul but Dayanita would like to travel. Pamuk could see both East and West meeting in his city but Dayanita has to travel to see it and she is not shy of travelling. While the differences end there, they have a lot in common in my view. Pamuk, in most of his novels does not hide the autobiographical content and Dayanita too has no problem in externalizing her autobiographical details. We have a standing example in ‘Museum of Little Ladies’ where we see Dayanita growing up with her sibling, through the lens of her mother and amateur photographer, Noni Singh. Pamuk has, in his characters (I feel they are made up of porcelain with blue prints like the Chinese ones or the minarets in Istanbul), a range of men and women and Dayanita too have them. They come, make their impression and go; both Pamuk and Dayanita do not hold on to them beyond the documentations. Pamuk’s novels are the mantle pieces of vitrines and souvenirs; Dayanita has ‘Museum of Vitrines’. Pamuk’s novels are full of ancient furniture filled with memories of those people who had used them. Dayanita has a beautiful museum of furniture. Pamuk speaks of old machines and presses in his noted work, ‘Black Book’ and here we have in Dayanita, a Museum of Printing Press and a Museum of Machines. I am not forcing similarities between these cultural icons of our times but what I suggest is that it would be interesting to see these two personalities in the museum context.
(from Museum of Little Ladies)
‘Museum of Chance’ is the one solid museum that Dayanita has created over a period of time, which like the title suggests is the result of many chance encounters with people, both known and unknown. Considering the three and half decades of active photographing by Dayanita, this museum could evolve and change the appearance at any time as there are a number of chances that the artist has come across so far. Each encounter results into a series of photographs and selections from which is beyond the logic of a curator or a viewer. One can make it interactive if need be, but as protective about her works as Dayanita is, she uses her on logic (which perhaps I would not like to know and not even want to question her on that) of changing. She applies the same logic with each museum and one of them which she calls the ‘Kochi Pillar’ is still seen within a shroud and she says that perhaps she would like to see the works through a veil also; why not?
(Mona Ahmed-Dayanita Singh's work)
The very display of these museums is interesting because if these photographs were shown as single frames on walls (more or less in the salon fashion) the effect would have been much different; perhaps then Dayanita would not have felt the need to call them museums. Here, what gives these photographs a special identity is the cabinets in which they are located and find their resting place within the cabinet itself during the display depending on the whimsical logic of the artist. They can be present on the display panel of the cabinet on a day and on the next day they could be resting inside the cabinets. This is an interesting ploy as far as my reading of the works is concerned. We all have small little museums at home. We call it showcases. And it becomes almost a taboo over period of time as the objects displayed in them get some sort of mysterious identity and even touching them or moving the place would look a bit blasphemous. Hence, our little museums are permanent display cases achieving some sort of godhead. Here in her museums Dayanita becomes an iconoclast constantly changing the display and destabilizing the narratives that if anyone tries to develop while looking at them. A kaleidoscope of concrete images contained in these cabinets are played upon by Dayanita like a child who changes the mantle display at her will devoid of any fear of getting caught or scolded.
(Dayanita and Mona Ahmed)
A graduate from the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad and an avid book maker, Dayanita Singh has used all her experiences in designing these portable museums. A museum without a curator is a dead museum as only the curator could activate the dead objects there into meaning. Curator is the one who, traditionally, keeps the remnants from decay. In her museums, Dayanita herself is the curator; I do not think any other curator has any role to play in her works or their display. Playing the role of a museum maker and a museum curator, Dayanita almost becomes the mother of these curators. For her, each frame changing the position at a given time has something to do with her own way of defining not only her life but life in general. There is a performance, auto-erotic, involved in this. Dayanita Singh is like a fictional character living inside the museum and changing it constantly in its ultimate effort to be embodied. Dayanita is an embodied being but seen here operating within her museum prompts you to think of her as a fictional character. May be that is the beauty of seeing a show while the artist scramble around her works, answering inane questions by friends and critics alike.