The Offset Artist
From Dayanita Singh, a portable museum in book form.
By Lesley A. Martin
In July of last year, before the Museum Bhavan had been shortlisted for the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Awards, and well in advance of the book having been selected as the winning PhotoBook of the Year, I was delighted to catch Dayanita Singh in Tokyo on the occasion of her exhibition Museum Bhavan, curated by Michiko Kasahara, on view at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum (May 20 through July 17, 2017). In the weeks and months since, Singh has taken to the road with two bespoke suitcases full of multipatterned Museum Bhavan book sets, the evolution of her earlier Suitcase Museum—a luggage set designed to function as both delivery system and display case, an enactment of her idea that the museums of the future should be “small and portable.” In fact, the museum of the future might just be a set of books, open and installed for all who visit your dining room table. Like an itinerant salesperson, she has had a jacket specially tailored and outﬁtted with nine pockets, one for every leporello volume enclosed within each set. Singh is quite serious about getting her work—which she deﬁnes, in large part, as her offset-printed images—into the world and into your hands, not just onto the traditional white-box space of the gallery wall.
Lesley A. Martin: In terms of artists who embrace the book as an essential part of their practice, you have really taken this to heart as central to your work. I love the “snout-to-tail” approach that you bring—you find a use for everything, every part of the book: the pages, the outside and cover of the book, the architecture of the book. You really engage with it as a form.
Dayanita Singh: I can no longer separate the images from the paper, the structure, the exhibition that it will become, and then the book becomes the exhibition, and the catalogue of that exhibition. I want the book to be an object, and a very desirable object. When you buy a book, I want it to be the same as if you acquire a sculpture. Of course, it’s a book, and I would never want to dislodge the bookness of it. But I want it to be more. I think I managed to do that with Museum Bhavan (Steidl, 2017). Inside they are all the same book(s), but each of the three thousand copies is enclosed in a box bound with a different type of cloth. The cloth used is called achaada, the under-cloth used in block printing. The residue of the ink collects in different places in different ways, and they usually throw that away once it becomes all coated with ink. Some of the boxes still have drops of paint, which you can peel off. So, I made this very desirable object, it’s mass-produced, and yet it’s unique. Now my question to you: What do you call it? Is it a book? Is it a museum? Is it an exhibition? A multiple, or a unique object?
LAM: I like your use of the term “book object” as a description for what you produce.
DS: Yes, I always wanted the mass-produced book to be unique. People like to make a distinction between artists’ books and mass-produced books. I say I make mass-produced artist books. Wealthier collectors will come and say, “Well, Dayanita, I’m not going to buy your little offset book object. I’m going to buy a print.” And I say, “I’m really sorry, but there are no prints. This is it.”
LAM: Ed Ruscha always said that he wanted to make mass-produced books for mass distribution. He wasn’t interested in the handmade, one-of-a-kind book. You’ve found a way to do both. Each of the individual seven offset-printed volumes within your previous book, Sent a Letter (Steidl, 2007), and the nine in Museum Bhavan are packaged together inside a box. Each volume can be viewed by turning the pages in the traditional manner, or displayed individually as a mini-exhibition, either in a gallery or in one’s own home, as you discuss with Aveek Sen in “Conversation Chambers.” You also call the Museum Bhavan a “pocket museum.”
DS: Yes. I even have a jacket that holds nine museums in its pockets, to wear at my openings. But it is such a privilege to be in people’s homes. It falls in line with other traditional forms of disseminating the photograph—like giving people family portraits that still hang in their homes. First Sent a Letter, and now Museum Bhavan will exist in personal archives of their homes. And it is an invitation to you, the reader, to become the curator of my work if you like. Whenever I attended an exhibition of my work, I always felt bad that the book wasn’t there, you know? I want the viewer to know that there’s a sequence to this work. I’m not making single images. The organizers always said, “Dayanita, a book is a book, and an exhibition is an exhibition.” That stayed in my head. I asked myself, “So, what is it going to take for my book to be in the exhibition?” The answer is that it has to be in a format in which it can be exhibited. Hence the idea of the Museum Bhavan and the book objects, the suitcase museum, and the book cases.
LAM: At the Venice Biennale in 2013, your part of the installation at the German Pavillion consisted entirely of a line of framed books; then you launched the book in a little pop-up shop along some side alley, like a Venetian book vendor. In the exhibited set of framed books, are they oﬀset images or did you tip gelatin-silver prints onto the book case?
DS: They’re all oﬀset. I love oﬀset. I prefer to call myself an oﬀset artist because “book artist” and “artist book” is getting confused within the photobook world.
LAM: Tell me a little bit about Spontaneous Books and the Kochi Box (2017).
DS: I am Spontaneous Books. I made the Kochi Box on my own. Inside the wooden frame are thirty image cards, printed offset in India. It was only available at the Malabar House Hotel during the Kochi Biennale. There was no publicity. It was about finding it by chance, and realizing then that you could acquire it. Once you acquire it, you can become the curator of my works, deciding willy-nilly which image you wanted to display. The viewer becomes part of my process. Depending on what order you place them in, it’s a different book.
LAM: This is another way to combine or confuse—very productively—the idea of exhibition and book. One thing that has struck me is the incredibly coherent and consistent approach to all of the sculptural objects you make—frames, box structures, desks, installation pieces—they all feel of a piece. Your ability to do so is integral, ensuring that these efforts never feel random or chaotic. All of your objects feel quite modular, as though they will and can ﬁt together in the end.
DS: I would love it to be a little chaotic, but I’m just incapable of it.
LAM: There’s a little chaos in the Kochi Box, don’t you think?
DS: Absolutely. But it’s controlled disorder.
LAM: Isn’t that what bookmaking is to some degree?
DS: I think it’s trying to make order, but not too much order. Leave it to the reader to work out the relationships, and leave room to bring their conversations into the work.
LAM: On the other hand, the idea of the book object as the combination of the book space and the exhibition space, as you describe it, also seems a way to preserve your directed view through the work—a way to ensure that the edit and the sequence remain intact. Tell me about how you approach the editing process. Do you think it can be learned, to know how to edit properly?
DS: I wish I could teach that, because that is what I find is missing from a lot of the photobooks that I see. Photographs are just the raw material. The key is editing. And with the editing, a sequence builds up. That’s the stage at which the material starts to demand how it wants to be gathered. What form will it take? You have to be prepared for it, because it could be, and I suspect this is going to happen with the next book I want to make, that it demands to be a projection and not a book at all. That it demands to be a box of cards, for example. For me, editing has just as much to do with other questions: What’s the smell of this book going to be? What will the sound of the paper be? The feel of the cloth on the cover? What’s going to stay with you?
LAM: So it’s the edit and sequence working in combination with the physical experience?
DS: Yes, the tactile, sensual experience of the book. When I start, I don’t know how that book will be, what size, shape, or feel it’ll have, but I trust the editing process. All I need is about three weeks of being able to shut everything out to get to zero, where I can start the process. A piece of music helps me a lot. Depending on the music, or whom I’ve been in conversation with, or not, or what book I’m reading—all of this sets up a tune in my head for the editing.
LAM: In your writing, you’ve used music as a metaphor for editing.
DS: Yes. I’ve traveled so much with classical musicians that for me the idea of a raag is very present. In a raag you have an alap, or an introductory section, an inventory of the notes you have to work with. Following that, you’re elaborating on those notes and setting up the larger raag from them. Then there’s what is called the silent note, the khaali, which in photobook language we would call the empty page, which is crucial. I edit with my ears and not strictly with my eyes. I’m looking at the image, but I also want to be able to hear it, and to understand the resonance that the image leaves with me.
LAM: You mean where is the crescendo to a sequence and where does one need to pause? I find that people tend to clump things together in their editing instead of weaving them through—the arc of a narrative needs to be complicated and textured.
DS: Exactly. I don’t expect anyone to immediately say, “Ah, got it.” That would be a tremendous failure on my part. I feel like many mistakes made in editing books are often a holdover from photojournalism, from thinking about pictures in magazines. Magazine sequencing is one thing, and you can’t apply that to a book, or God forbid, to an exhibition. Of course, it’s the same boys who did the big magazine photo-essays who shaped the photo discourse. And I think unfortunately the photobook, too, has become somewhat of a boys’ club. When you talk to artists who work with photography, it’s such a relief, because they don’t have any of that baggage.
LAM: Perhaps they feel less of a feeling of obligation to who, what, where, when, why. You’ve said that “we need to get past the established forms of analogue photography as our language.” Is that what you’re talking about here? That the modes of storytelling or the established forms of editing and assembling images have become overly structured and didactic?
DS: Yes. It has to be more organic. The form has to be much more organic, fluid, and allow for waxing and waning. And it has to have a resonance. It doesn’t matter how beautiful your image is if there’s no resonance.
LAM: Resonance implies that something is bouncing oﬀ another object, another person, another ear, another set of eyes. There is an implied reader or recipient.
DS: If you’re putting work out into the world, then have some respect for the person who is going to see it, and their intelligence.
LAM: Do you think about the audience when you are making your books and your edit?
DS: I never have an audience in mind, but there’s always an addressee. Naoya Hatakeyama wrote a great piece about my work called, “Who is that Someone, the addressee?” that you can find on my blog. He asks a crucial question: who are we photographing for, and who is the addressee of the work? Often, my writer friends have been the addressees, because I’ve gone with them to all these incredible places. They’ve opened all these doors (in my mind), and then I want to respond to them, so I’ll make a book for them by cutting up my medium-format contact sheets and pasting them into accordion-fold Moleskines. That was the start of Sent a Letter, actually. For all my work, there is one or maybe two addressees, never more.
LAM: You seem to use written language frequently in your installations, but you generally don’t rely heavily on texts or language in your books.
DS: I have that very romantic idea that a photograph can really go where there are no words. If you could explain an image to yourself in words, you wouldn’t need the image. But if it leaves you with something, whether it’s annoying or pleasant or whatever, that cannot be put into words, it has resonance with you. And that’s the magic of photography.
LAM: One of the metaphors that people use with your work is literature, as if it were something along the lines of a photo novel or visual literature.
DS: House of Love (Radius, 2011) is a book that I called photo fiction, in which I tried to create a set of short stories. (I think all bookstores should have a section called photo fiction.) It’s slightly tongue-in-cheek when I say, I’ll make a photo novel, or, Can a photograph be poetry. But it’s intended to tease people a bit, to get them to understand that a photograph or photobook can actually do something quite distinct from other forms.
LAM: The idea of a distinct visual literacy of the photograph is so important.
DS: And so much of that visual literacy has to do with the sequence, no? What happens when you break up the sequence? Museum of Chance, as a book, has eighty-eight covers. It’s a book and it’s bound to a sequence. But when I frame the covers and reinstall it, I break the sequence. There are endless possibilities. I wrote about this recently in my short story on an Instagram post of a photographer who becomes a photograph. I’ll probably disappear into one of those little—
LAM: [laughs] Into the folds.
DS: Yes! I’m going to become that little creature who gets lost in her own book.
LAM: The idea that you are consciously creating this new space, I hope, will provide a way for other artists to think a little more about how to engage with these ideas.
DS: Absolutely, because we can’t rely on galleries and museums. You can’t say that I can only be an artist if I’m shown in a gallery. We need to think about dissemination. This is the one thing that I really imbibed from photojournalism: the importance of the dissemination of the image. And if I can’t do anything else, if no one wanted to show or publish my work, I could project my images from this hotel room onto those clouds and put my work out there. There is always a way, once you step out of the box that photography often can be.
Dayanita Singh’s work and writings can be found at dayanitasingh.net.
The PhotoBook Review is a publication dedicated to the consideration of the photobook—focusing on the best photography books being published, from the coffee-table book to the handmade artist’s edition, and on creating a better understanding of the ecosystem of the photobook as a whole.