Go Away Closer
Dayanita Singh at the MMK in Frankfurt

She is one of the most important photographers worldwide. Again and again, Dayanita Singh calls the conventions of her medium into question. Now, the MMK in Frankfurt presents a major show of the Indian artist’s work, which an entire floor in the Deutsche Bank Towers is dedicated to. Singh’s work is also included in the exhibition “Time Present” currently touring through Asia, which brings together international photo works from the Deutsche Bank Collection.
The concept of presenting photography as single images on white walls, like paintings, has never particularly interested Dayanita Singh. In a conversation she had with her publisher Gerhard Steidl for ArtMag, she explained: “I no longer want to present my photographs in passe-partouts and frames.” Instead, she dreamed of a photo book in which each motif could also be its cover. In this way, the book would be the image support and could be presented in exhibitions—in India’s remote villages and museums alike. Now, Singh has implemented this plan: her Museum of Chance, the artist’s book accompanying the major retrospective currently showing at the MMK, contains 88 images, in other words 88 different covers, and is a part of the exhibition.

“The work is not about making photographs, it’s about editing and sequencing.” This is how Singh, who identifies as a “book artist,” sums up her way of working. She has been presenting her photographs primarily in book form since the mid-eighties. She dedicated her first to the famous Indian musician Zakir Hussain, whom she accompanied on his journeys around the world. For Privacy (2003), she has been taking portraits of people from the Indian upper class since the 1990s, posed in precisely composed tableaus. In the more recent series, however, her oeuvre has undergone a radical change. She has literally stepped away from people to photograph urban architecture and hermetic interiors: in File Room (2013), for instance, an archive filled to the brim with papers and files, she presents Kafkaesque scenes that evoke the transience of memory.

In her books, Singh has always experimented with the medium’s possibilities: Sent a Letter (2008) is a set of seven small fanfolds, while The Blue Book (2009) consists of postcards that can be sent in the mail. Proceeding from here, Singh finally developed her Museum Structures, of which eight are on view at the MMK. 70 and 140 black and white photographs respectively, organized into rows, can be seen on these flexible wooden constructions. Singh composes her images to form sequences that can be combined in various different ways. Her displays have the simple elegance of minimalistic sculptures.

The “Museums” also show that it’s not the individual image that occupies the center of Singh’s interest, but rather the constantly shifting relationships between the photographs. “I don't want to tell you the whole story,” Singh explains, “because there is no complete story; the story keeps changing, so the same photograph here means something, but in another context means something else.”

Each “Museum” speaks about a specific theme: the Museum of Little Ladies is dedicated to young girls, while the Museum of Furniture consists of still lifes of empty rooms. The photographs oscillate between documentary photograph and subjective fiction. Singh deliberately refrains from adding text or dates to the individual photographs. Instead, she invites viewers to define the images themselves and to use them to narrate their own stories.

Singh’s photographic works also stand alone as individual images, of course. Her shots of nighttime streets, rooms, and machines have an almost magical presence. Go away closer: the exhibition title fits the work perfectly, especially when it comes to her portraits, which are characterized by a finely calibrated balance between empathy and distance—regardless of whether the photographs show people from India’s upper middle class, which she herself comes from, or social pariahs like Mona Ahmed, whom Singh has had a close friendship with since 1989. Mona belongs to the “Hijras”—eunuchs who live together in communes and earn their living dancing and bestowing blessings at weddings. Mona, however, was banned—not only by her family and by society, but also the community of eunuchs, and lives alone in a cemetery in Old Delhi. In 2001, Singh dedicated the book Myself, Mona Ahmed to her friend. The continuation of this project can be seen at the MMK—the video work Mona and Myself, which Singh created in 2013 for the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. “Mona wanted to tell the story of being neither here nor there, neither male nor female, and finally, neither an eunuch nor someone like me.”

Many of Singh’s recent photographs convey a feeling of uncertainty. In Dream Villa (2010), for instance—one of her most beautiful books—she shows how places and things that appear entirely profane during daylight can become something mysterious and unsettling at night. These are images that operate like poems. Nothing here is as it seems. “This is what my work really is; it’s the dream, it’s that time between waking and sleeping, when things collide.”

Dayanita Singh. Go Away Closer
9/27/2014 – 1/4/2015
MMK 3 (formerly MMK Zollamt), Frankfurt