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Dayanita Singh: A pocketful of museums

Is it a book? Is it a museum? Here is the latest in Dayanita Singh's relentless pursuit of 'book objects'

Dayanita Singh in her Delhi studio. Photo: Ulrike Sommer.
Dayanita Singh in her Delhi studio. Photo: Ulrike Sommer.

Choosing from the array of handmade boxes that Dayanita Singh’s Pocket Museum comes encased in is not an easy task. Each box is dressed in a one-of-a-kind fabric weave and brings forth a particular memory and association: The one in pink, for instance, with its bootis, evokes images of my grandmother dressed in a starched Chikan sari. The navy-blue box brings to the surface those mixed feelings of loneliness and liberation that I felt in the ink-hued house which I stayed in when I first moved away from home for work.

Childhood wins in this battle of memories and I go home with the pink box. Created in an edition of 3,000 by the German publisher Steidl, and consisting of nine individual museums in book form, Pocket Museum is a miniature version of Singh’s travelling exhibition, Museum Bhavan, which she launched in 2015. Museum Bhavan was a collection of nine “museums", or photo-architecture, as Singh called it, which displayed images from the time she began photographing in 1981.

This is the 56-year-old artist’s attempt at creating a form that is both unique and mass-produced. Several artists in the past have experimented with the genre of “book objects". However, not many apart from Singh have relentlessly pursued the book as their primary form. As Jordan G. Teicher writes in The New York Times: “In the last decade, form has been at the centre of Ms Singh’s creative pursuits. Her most recent endeavors, which she calls ‘book objects,’ simultaneously comprise a book, an object for display, an exhibition and a catalog of that exhibition. Small, portable and endlessly customizable, they are, she proposes, the museums of the future." In an interview, Singh talks about the making of the Pocket Museum. Edited excerpts:

Singh’s ‘book objects’ and photo books—each edition of ‘Museum Bhavan’ comes wrapped in a one-of-a-kind cloth covering. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

The art writer Aveek Sen has described the endless proliferation of your museums as ‘fascinatingly Borgesian’. Could you describe the trajectory of this idea of book-as-exhibition, which started with ‘Sent A Letter’ (2007)?

With Sent A Letter, it became clear to me that a book could also be an exhibition. I wanted to get my books at par with the prints. So, for Sent A Letter, Steidl published 2,000 copies of the seven letters which I had made for friends whom I had travelled with. Then I made the File Room and Museum Of Chance book objects. For the Pocket Museum, the images from the Museum Bhavan acted as the raw material. For instance, I delved into the larger collection of the File Museum, not wanting to repeat what was in the File Room book, and made a fresh edit. That became the Godrej Museum, which has images just of the stainless steel Godrej cupboards. It was interesting , this exploration, of finding a museum within a museum.

Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

How different was the process of archiving, editing and sequencing ‘Pocket Museum’ compared to ‘Museum Bhavan’?

Completely different. One edits very differently for both, the sequencing is done in a linear way. The book is bound to its sequence, while the museums disrupt the sequence. I have also added a book of conversations. So, people who have Sent A Letter and now the Pocket Museum would have 16 exhibitions of my work.

Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

What was your idea of engagement when you set out to make the ‘Pocket Museum’?

Firstly, I find it deeply moving that this box will be in people’s homes. That is a privilege. You might show it to someone as a book, open just two pages from two museums together like a photo frame, or open all of them up, accordion-like, on nine shelves, have a Sunday exhibition at home for your friends and even make a Dayanita wall by showing both Sent A Letter and Pocket Museum. And then you tell me: Is it a book? Is it an exhibition, is it mass-produced or is it unique?

Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

The box itself is like a work of art. Could you tell us about its creation?

We were earlier going with plain fabric of different colours, but then I thought maybe one could try different kinds of Khadi. I told my friend Anuradha Patni of Xylem Papercraft, who had earlier made the box for Sent A Letter, that I wanted to do it differently this time around. She had shown me a fabric some time ago which was actually the under-cloth of block printing. It contained residue of all the colours that went into the fabric. I felt that it was a lot like my work, and hence a perfect fit. And most of all, each box would thus be unique. The box is not smooth; rather, it has a scaly feel to it. It has a life of its own. Some of the boxes even have bootis. Say, you put it on the wall in a way that you can’t see the name Museum Bhavan printed on it but just the plain surface of the box. Now imagine if you have 50 of these in a different palette. Because you choose this box from the hundreds available, based on your memories and associations, you engage with it differently. When I decided on the box, I informed Gerhard Steidl that I had found a way to make the Pocket Museum unique. Once he approved, a container the size of my room, containing 3,000 unique empty boxes, went to him, to be filled with books. When you look at the different layers of the journey that the Pocket Museum has undertaken, you will realize it’s a book, an exhibition and also a conceptual work. There is a sense of continuity from my past works as well—even technically. The inside cloth is the same as Sent A Letter. The size is the same as well.

In some ways the ‘Museum Bhavan’ stays on with the ‘Pocket Museum’. It lives on in your homes, it has a life outside the very institutions that acquired it. And now it is done and time to move on. -

What is the next step in the journey that ‘Pocket Museum’ has set out on?

Pocket Museum is a new concept, and therefore needs to be presented in new ways. I see that process of “placement" as part of “making of the work". So, I wrote to author Orhan Pamuk. His Museum Of Innocence has been a huge inspiration. I asked if the Pocket Museum could be presented within the Museum Of Innocence. So, on 7 September, Orhan Pamuk will present my Pocket Museum in his museum. And if that were not enough, I had the cheek to write to Tate Modern and ask if they would like to host my Pocket Museum in their museum. And now Tate Modern will be hosting a talk and signing in September. TateShots (a series of short videos focusing on modern and contemporary art) will be making a 5-minute film on the Pocket Museum. I like the idea of my Pocket Museum engaging with the big institutional museums. I see no reason why Tate shouldn’t create their own pocket museum with miniature exhibitions of (Jackson) Pollock, (Robert) Rauschenberg, (Wolfgang) Tillmans and more.

Your projects are like living things—pulsating, germinating, giving life to new ideas. Is it now the ‘Museum Bhavan’s turn to give rise to another book/museum?

I feel that the whole story, which started with Sent A Letter, has completed its cycle a decade later. When I made the Museum Bhavan, I thought that all the mobile museums would be living with me in my home. But almost all have been acquired by other museums. In some ways the Museum Bhavan stays on with the Pocket Museum. It lives on in your homes, it has a life outside the very institutions that acquired it. And now it is done and time to move on. I have not had time to look at all the images that I have made in the past three years. I think it is in the editing process that the works and their forms will reveal themselves. But since you ask, one of the strains is to revisit all the little ladies I photographed during the Privacy years—they are all young women now. It may take the form of a book or an ephemeral projection. I will make each of the girls a small archive of their own. They will be its custodians.

It has been a privilege to be allowed into their domestic space. These girls have a picture, which I took, hanging in their room. It’s an image of themselves through my eyes. I have been living inside their homes for many years. What book or museum could compare with that domestic archive that gets created?

The Pocket Museum, published by Steidl, is priced at Rs5,500 and is being distributed in India by Roli Books. It releases later this month.

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