Ways of showing

Dayanita Singh, File Museum, Hayward Gallery, 2013

Dayanita Singh, Museum Bhavan installed in Go Away Closer

As well as Sarah Lucas at the Whitechapel Gallery, my December exhibition catch-up included a visit to the Hayward Gallery* to see exhibitions by Ana Mendieta (of which more in a later post, I think) and Dayanita Singh. Clearly December was women’s art month in my schedule. As with Lucas at the Whitechapel, there was an overlap with things I’d seen in Venice in the Biennale.**

Dayanita Singh is best known for making books and the books are much in evidence in Go Away Closer, the Hayward Gallery show. As a way of getting art photography to a wide audience this is a strategy with much to recommend it – and it’s certainly one a lot of people are working with right now – but for me it’s no substitute for seeing a great print. And, in the case of Singh’s work, it’s another display strategy that interests me more: her portable museums, displayed here as a group as Museum Bhavan.

Dayanita Singh Hayward Gallery 2013 2

A series of complex wooden structures, each housing photographs relating to a particular topic, the museums are ways to house and display the pictures, to make connections between works and, in places, to tantalise an audience able to see some but not all of the pictures. The museums can be reconfigured according to the space and what Singh chooses to put on display in any particular location; indeed the display can be changed from day to day if Singh so chooses. The panels that make up each museum are hinged so that they can be opened out and closed, kind of like the books Singh more often works with.

Dayanita Singh - File Museum

File Museum, 2013

The Hayward Gallery installation includes elements such as the Museum of Chance, the Museum of Little Ladies and the File Museum. Containing pictures from three decades of Singh’s work, the museums offer a fascinating picture of the world, and especially Singh’s native New Delhi. I think it’s the File Museum which I find particularly intriguing, possibly because  of my own messiness and tendency to pile up things I know I need to file at some point. Ah well. Maybe one day that day will come.

The question of how to present work is an interesting one though in my view there’s a lot to be said for sticking with convention and keeping the means of presentation as unobtrusive as possible. In the case of Singh’s museums, it’s the means of display that dominates but the nature of the structures and the flexibility they offer means that they somehow become more than the sum of their parts. The idea of varnished wooden cases housing black and white photographs sounds dusty and rather dated; the reality is very different. Though visually they reference the past – as seems appropriate for museums – in fact the museums feel fresh and innovative.

* Actually two visits, I really should allow enough time to see everything when going to galleries.

** I’m pretty sure there are more than two dozen artists out there, it just doesn’t always seem like it.

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