Dayanita Singh at Frith Street
Dayanita Singh at Frith Street

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Dayanita Singh at Frith Street

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Museum of Shedding, 2016 (Installation view). 73 framed photographs, teak, museum acrylic. © Dayanita Singh. Courtesy of the artist and Frith Street Gallery.

The Aesthetic and the Ascetic

The tableau includes a stool – even artists hope to receive guests from time to time.

Dayanita Singh wants to show you what’s hidden, and hide what’s on show. In ‘Museum of Shedding’ at Frith Street Gallery’s Golden Square, Singh proposes two dichotomies – image and object, obscured and displayed. Rather than pushing to resolve the contradictions, there’s a sense that she’s enjoying the dualism, and I can’t help but go along with it. Separated into two main areas as well as two key concepts, the exhibition is put together with a lightness of touch and confidence which leaves plenty of room to absorb its quietude.

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Museum of Shedding, 2016 (detail). 73 framed photographs, teak, museum acrylic. © Dayanita Singh. Courtesy of the artist and Frith Street Gallery.

First is the title piece: ‘Museum of Shedding’. Emphatically architectural and domestic, a bed, desk and table push the viewer to imagine first themselves and then the artist inhabiting the work. The arrangement of furniture is the result of Singh’s paring down, to the utmost, the objects a human being needs to feel comfortable; touchingly, the tableau includes a stool – even artists hope to receive guests from time to time. Rather than feeling Spartan, the configuration of wooden surfaces succeeds in projecting ‘neat and complete’. As well as the nod to company, the set-up includes a wall covered in black and white images of spaces just as beautiful and ascetic as the one assembled in front of it.

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Museum of Shedding, 2016 (detail). 73 framed photographs, teak, museum acrylic. © Dayanita Singh. Courtesy of the artist and Frith Street Gallery.

When you’re decluttering, multi-functionality is key.

The ‘object-ness’ of these photographs – the space they occupy in hanging – is highlighted by units installed amongst them, both sculpture and backdrop, like frames drawn out from the wall and made from the same wood as the furniture. They serve to show one ‘front’ image and hold those behind it, variously storing, displaying and inviting the frames to be stored and displayed in endless sequence. When you’re decluttering, multi-functionality is key.

The subject matter of each image echoes the space it inhabits, calling the tangible into the flatness of photograph and pulling two dimensions into three. As well as the units amongst the images on the wall, there is a storage rack in the ‘room’ Singh has set up. This further aligns the world of the images with the one they depict, this time by pushing them into it. They are object and artwork both, as useful and beautiful as the bedframe beside them. ‘Form follows function’ for Singh. Once stored in the rack or in the wall units, we cannot see the works as we are used to seeing photographs in a gallery. Their function as soley decorative or artistic image is repudiated, and the means of display here is the display itself.

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Time Measures, 2016 (installation view). 34 framed photographs. © Dayanita Singh. Courtesy of the artist and Frith Street Gallery.

In the second half of the Golden Square space is ‘Time Measures’, a series of photographs which the artist has arranged like a piece of music: in movements. What is depicted? What is not depicted, if you see what I mean. The images show bundles (book-shaped, but perhaps my view is coloured by a curator using the word ‘archives’) wrapped in red cloth, and in varying degrees of repair. Singh found these objects as we see them photographed – she has not arranged them, only categorised them by imposing a scale. As we travel through the ‘movements’ of the series, walking a literal line through the gallery itself, the knots securing the bundles become more frantic, less precise; a crescendo builds in the visual symphony. Due to the ambiguity of the parcels’ contents, we are left to speculate as to what information we might learn if we were to open the cloth, or the book inside. Tax records, or the most intimate history of a life? Of course, the implicit invitation demands that we mentally pull the subject of the image from its world behind the glass and into our own; what is interesting is that this doesn’t feel much of a reach. Singh’s photography encourages us to rethink our most basic relationships to art and to the image, and interrogate how we understand them, next to and against objects in other contexts.

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Time Measures, 2016. Sequence VII - 5 framed photographs. Archival pigment prints. © Dayanita Singh. Courtesy of the artist and Frith Street Gallery.

What is an image of, anyway?

There’s a very neat conceit at the heart of Time Measures. In much the same way as I can see the frames in the storage unit but not see the image, I can both see and not see the archives beneath the cloth. The images are, after all, photographs of archives; what matter that there is a layer of cotton between them and the camera lens? What is an image of, anyway? The layers of mediation we accept without question in other types of visual art – canvas, glass, angle, image manipulation, artist’s agenda, let alone our own preconceptions, bias, the eye of the curator or our art history lecturer – are thrown into relief. Perhaps this is as clearly as we can ever see anything. Singh has made sense out of ostensibly random objects by placing them in a sequence, something like order to chaos. Otherwise, they are untouched; this is the world as it is.

Both Museum of Shedding and Time Measures quietly, unassumingly and yet with strident confidence consider the nature of the image, and stand as proposals for containing something sprawling – information, a life – into as compact a space as possible. One does not feel that Singh wants to resolve the questions she poses but to show us something we didn’t know we knew already; our capacity to revel in the liminal.

By Emily Watkins.

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