Art Institute of Chicago; Dayanita Singh
Dayanita Singh is a photographer from India whose photographs permeate various layers of interpretation. Currently on display at the Art Institute is one of her eight famous “Museum” pieces. Here, sculpture, photography, and performance intersect to create a rich, multi-layered narrative. We got the chance to speak with Art Institute photography curator Michal Raz-Russo about Dayanita Singh, and all the details behind her “Museum”.
Singh’s career begins with her friendship with a woman named Mona Ahmed. Mona is a eunuch that she met in 1989 while on assignment for the London Times. Singhs job was to document the life of a eunuch, a stigmatized social class within Indian society. After spending a significant time with Mona photographing and interviewing, Mona began to express hesitance in the showcase of her photographs, fearing that her family would shun her for appearing in them. She would initially ask Singh to destroy the negatives and prevent her from completing the story.
However, Mona would eventually reconsider and allow Singh to complete the piece about her. Following their reunion, they would rephotograph the work, establishing a deeper trust and friendship in the process.
Singh’s “Museums” are a sculptural marvel. Within each one lies a different body of work, and a different narrative as a result. The one at the Art Institute is meant to be a thorough retrospective of Singhs works. Within these 118 photographs lies the projects she has so tediously completed throughout her career as an artist. Each Museum contains anywhere between forty to one hundred twenty photographs each. These sculptures were originally intended as a way of bypassing the curatorial politics that govern galleries and their exhibitions.
The “Museums” are made of wood, and consist of a series of large panels folded up like an accordion. They are supported by a central column which houses various compartments which are meant to house the photographs which comprise each “Museum”. The photographs are all bound by wooden frames which fit each face of the structure perfectly. This allows for them to be interchangeable depending on how Singh feels they should be displayed. The use of wood gives a feeling of folk art to Singhs work. The naturally occurring textures in the wood panels conveys a sense of time. This in combination with the content of her work creates the impression of Singhs cultural heritage. Her black and white photographs in borders of wood convey an appreciation of an antique aesthetic, something synonymous with the passing of time. The subject matter in this context shows the artists need to connect with her own culture.
The central placement of the “Museum” finds it neighbored on two sides by two of Singh’s other bodies of work. One is a small selection of other photographs from the Museum, and another is one comprised entirely of her work with Mona. The “Museum” almost functions as a wall, splitting the room up in half, loosely shadowing the other photographs on the wall. Singhs aesthetic considerations are meticulous and well-planned, all decisions which enhance the display and function of her work.
Dayanita Singh's “Museum” is on display at the Art Institute of Chicago until June 1, 2014
written by Christopher Pham Wong