Go Away Closer by Dayanita Singh

Go Away Closer

an exhibition of photography by Dayanita Singh
at The Hayward Gallery, South Bank, London

During an interview about this exhibition, Dayanita Singh said “You should be interested in my exhibition because I’ve done something new, because I’ve pushed the boundaries of form. Don’t put me in a box.” I wonder how original she really is; most photographers who look through their archive and put photographs together see new implications in their work. It is good to hear a photographer saying these things though, it might even help photography to be more widely understood as a medium. She says in her Radio 3 interview, that photography has a straight jacket and needs to be liberated!

Although from India and a resident of Delhi, she takes a firm non-Indian stance; it is significant that she was not included in the 2008 Delhi exhibition of Indian photographers called “Click!” Singh says (Privacy p113)”For eight years I worked as a photographer in India catering to western perceptions of what India is.” Aveek Sen writing in the Go Away Closer section of her book called “Dayanita Singh” (Foundacioun Mapfre) says that ” … to work herself away from the deadening stereotype of the “Indian” photographer – and a woman, at that – churning out her repertory of “disasters or the exotic”. It is untrue to say that Indian photographers focus on “disasters or the exotic” though this choice of subject is quite common among foreign photographers in India. Singh says (in a Radio 3 interview) that photography was her ticket to freedom and still is; does not see herself as Indian but very informed by Indian culture particularly Indian classical music.

After a fleeting visit to this exhibition, I returned for a longer contemplation with students and tutors from the Open College of the Arts. Tutor Robert Enoch asks us to consider the collective nature of the work rather than just images while tutor Clive White asks if we can relate it to our own work (I feel I can in her approach to bookmaking and the necessary awareness that requires and of which she openly speaks). I had come across her work a few years before and attended a gallery talk by her in Delhi during 2010. She seemed like a promising artist then and now it appears she is an established one.

Parallels are drawn with other photographers work such as Nan Goldin’s diary-like style and Sophie Call’s social intervention into the worlds of her subjects. There are one or two student comments along the lines of “If I had done that I would have thrown it away!” Not exactly contemptuous rather surprise at seeing such work being worthy of an exhibition.

Not every photographer is an artist. In fact, most probably are not yet Dayanita has a certain approach to her work that is different from the average photographer. For her, photography is a language in which images become texts. Aveek Sen, a writer who has written extensively about Singh, says … “To want to create literature yet wish to be spared the use of words, to address someone yet keep that gesture silent, to crave the power of words yet want to elude them, to arouse the mind but feed the eye is to live out the paradox of a photographer who keeps moving beyond the making of pictures towards the making of books.”

My interest in the work of Dayanita is kindled partly by the fact she is from India, a country I visit often and have done so for over 30 years now. The fact that Dayanita Singh is a woman is interesting not from a sexist point of view but because in India women have a difficult time getting anywhere owing to traditional ideas of womanhood. A list of her favourite reads is available in the book shop and I note a few down such as Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea of India (one of those books one should read about the country if one wants to see it in a contemporary perspective although it by no means the only one), a book of poems by Vikram Seth, well known author of A Suitable Boy, as well as books by Geoff Dyer who has written extensively about her work and photography in general.

I am also intrigued by the fact that Dayanita Singh says she is a bookmaker; her book-making extends to exhibition making! The way she exhibits her photographs, particularly in the Museum exhibits, overturns conventions of displaying and looking at photographs. These exhibits which fill one of the 4 galleries this exhibition extends to, are at least six foot high wooden constructions consisting of frames in which Dayanita’s photographs are inserted. Dayanita’s images do not require captions, one is left to contemplate them at will, yet a few of the images do contain inserted text to herald a different series of images amidst the different bodies of Dayanita’s work.

Dayanita does not want to tell the whole story and likes to leave the meaning of her images as secrets; this requires an active kind of looking that engages the mind as much as the eye. As Dayanita says, “I do not want to tell the whole story because there is no complete story.” Aveek Sen also writes in a rather complex manner the following … “From it’s beginnings Dayanita’s art risks situating itself at the threshold of a universe whose pleasures and fulfilment (Sen uses this word in the plural sense as fufilments) always appear to lie beyond the limits of the photographic medium. The worlds of eye and ear and those of the mind and the imagination exist alongside, or intertwined with, one another. But gazing across and beyond their borders also makes one confront the gulfs between them, and this constitutes the exhilaration and the peril of letting one’s sensibility be irredeemably promiscuous. But that soon becomes the only way to be, making photography the vehicle as well as potentially the victim of such compulsions.” The key phrase in this exhortation of her work is ” … beyond the limits of the photographic medium”; her work seems to extend beyond the boundaries of the frame.

One gallery is devoted to her various books and shows a selection of enlarged prints from them. Her first was about the classical musician Zakir Hussain published in 1986. This body of work had started while she was still a student at The School of Design in Ahmdebad with one of her photographs appearing in The Times of London. It seems she had some idea then that she would be a famous photographer since she told Zakir Hussain that she would be. The images from this series show private moments between musicians and hence indicate the heart felt nature of the music they play. Like many other kind of artists that Dayanita comes into contact with, they teach her and make her own art possible.

An important part of Dayanita’s life has been her friendship with a eunuch called Mona Ahmed which resulted in another body of work. This started as a photojournalistic assignment which has continued and more recently resulted in a “moving still image – not video, not still photography, but something else” called Mona and Myself (2013). Three images from this series appear in colour, a triptych that suggests femininity; the overall tone is a burnished red and in the central image, one sees a narrow lane leading off into the distance. There is also a group of other images, large black and white prints with white wooden frames.

Most of Dayanita’s work is made in the black and white medium.

Other bodies of work include “Privacy” (2003) an examination of the private lives of the wealthier people of India; there is in fact no word for privacy in Hindi and this work covers a section of society that has not really been seen publicly before. This work it seems came about partly as a reaction to her being labelled a photojournalist. I find it a fascinating documentary on contemporary Indian life that seems to have caught the past before the present time of great change. She is photographing friends and friends of friends and the informality of all this makes this more intimate even more real and certainly convincing. OCA tutor Clive White discusses this work with me. He wonders whether it is not rather nostalgic since so many of the interiors look as though they might be from the early twentieth century; it may be that time has tended to stand still in some respects since the British left India in the mid-twentieth century. A number of these interiors appear to hark back to that time. Yet there is something ancient about India even in modern cities like the capital Delhi where British buildings are still used and Mughal remains are prominent.

“Go Away Closer” the ambiguous title of the exhibition contains 4 books of which Dream Villas is another work. Dayanita uses colour for Dream Villas as she does for a few other images but her use of colour is rather limiting and for effect; her black and white work is a more sensitive rendering, more intimate, in which finer details can be contemplated. “Go Away Closer” contains some subtle images, elusive pictures in which meaning is not clear but suggested.

It seems Dayanita is something of a photographer’s photographer. She champions the medium not by trumpeting it but by examining it, believing that “photography is not about what one sees but how one sees.” I get the impression she sees the photograph as a means to an end, a piece in a larger patchwork, rather than, as would appear to be the case in much painting, an end in itself.

There is another room set aside for Dayanita’s works and this starts with Sent a Letter to a friend, which is a succession of images stretched concertina-like along one side of the gallery space. One needs time to absorb the meaning inherent in all these images and yet one can delight in their miniature size which adds a certain poignancy to their individual stories.

In another series, “I am as I am” there are larger framed photographs of girls from the Varanasi asram of the twentieth century saint Ma Anandamayee Maa where Dayanita was nearly sent to grow up. There are individual portraits yet give a sense of atmosphere that might exist at this segregated place; other images contain groups of figures or figures making some kind of gesture as in a striking image of a girl looking as if she is hopping. The flat expanse of the Ganges river can be seen in the background. Might these images have been made in colour? The resulting work would have been very different and lacked the effect of black and white and it’s concern with light as well as form.

Three photographs at the end of this room are devoid of people yet their presence is implied. The centre photograph contains a bed and a table while on the wall is what appears to be a photograph of Gandhi, the Mahatma, with one of the nieces with whom he slept towards the end of his life.

The last wall of this gallery shows photographs from Dayanita’s body of work called “Industrial Landscapes” (2005) revealing close ups of industrial life and it’s consequences – one sees detailed views of machines, people and watery spaces.

Outside, in the foyer, is a video playing in which Dayanita talks; one phrase of hers I catch is ” what lies between two photographs?” Elsewhere she is recorded as saying “the play between the real and the fictional is what I am interested in!”

I shall leave the final words of this blog to Aveek Sen and his comment on photography as a whole … “”Now, more than ever when it is possible for everyone to master the craft of photography with little effort and time, photography needs the slow shaping power of thought.”


“Now we can see” by Geoff Dyer from the book “Go Away Closer” (Hayward Publishing) and BJP October 2013

“Dayanita Singh” published by Foundacioun Mapfre

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