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Conversation  |  Artist, India

Dayanita Singh on The Suitcase Museum

In Conversation with
Tess Maunder
Sydney, 9 March 2016

Dayanita Singh, The Museum of Chance at the Dhaka Art Summit 2016. Courtesy Jenni Carter & the Samdani Art Foundation.

Dayanita Singh on The Suitcase Museum

Dayanita Singh, The Museum of Chance at the Dhaka Art Summit 2016. Courtesy Jenni Carter & the Samdani Art Foundation.

Dayanita Singh uses photography as a means to reflect on how we relate to images. Working primarily with black-and-white photographs, Singh's depiction of everyday subjects exists somewhere between documentary capture and personal invention.

Drawn from the vast photographic oeuvre she has developed over a career now spanning more than 30 years, Singh describes her most recent works at 'mobile museums'. Each work contains up to 140 images, catalogued as an interconnected body of work, and arranged according to themes such as chance, embraces, and furniture.

Through these processes of translation and retranslation, Singh's works can be endlessly edited, rearranged and displayed, casting new light on narrative and poetic and possibilites in the process. Audiences will be able to see Singh's work as part of the 20th Biennale of Sydney (18 March–5 June 2016). 'The Suitcase Museum' will be presented at one of the biennale's seven 'embassies of thought, the 'Embassay of Translation' at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia.

Dayanita Singh, The Museum of Chance, at the Dhaka Art Summit 2016.

Dayanita Singh, The Museum of Chance, at the Dhaka Art Summit 2016. Courtesy Jenni Carter and the Samdani Art Foundation.

TMCould you tell us more about the work you will show for the 20th Biennale of Sydney: The Future Is Already Here - It's Just Not Evenly Distributed?

DSI am different to many artists, in that I do not produce new work upon invitation to an exhibition. Instead, I keep working on something, often for many years and then at a certain time I feel as though it is ready to show. Then I look for the appropriate place, which often comes from a conversation. On this occasion, the artistic director of the Biennale of Sydney, Stephanie Rosenthal and myself felt my work: The Suitcase Museum would be a good fit within the Embassy of Translation.

The Suitcase Museum is a travelling body of work: two suitcases and you have the full edition on a flight to Sydney! It contains a large number of images, catalogued as an interconnected body of work, and arranged according to themes such as chance, embraces and furniture. Through these processes of translation and retranslation, my works can be endlessly edited, rearranged and displayed, casting new light on narrative and poetic possibilities in the process.

TMI understand The Suitcase Museum will change over time, can you explain the significance of this transition?

DSFor this iteration, The Suitcase Museum is informed by the images from the Museum of Chance. The Museum is translated into a book, the book is then taken away from its sequence and the mass-produced object here becomes a conceptual work. As you can see, the work is thus translated at every level. In addition to this, this translation will be experienced by viewers to the biennale; every other day one of the assistant curators will turn one book around and thus change the narrative you may have built around it, and so each time you visit, it will have changed.

In my own way I think this points to a possible direction for the concept of museums of the future, where ambassadors might travel with suitcase museums of their larger collection. I could imagine a museum, like The Met having a fleet of ambassadors going out on flight with these suitcases to be shown and brought back. They could carry facsimiles and the display structures built into the suitcases... One cannot always wait for the public to come to the museum, and while I love the virtual spaces I also like the physical experience of an exhibition, and the associated conversation that happens within this context.

Dayanita Singh, The Museum of Chance, at the Dhaka Art Summit 2016.

Dayanita Singh, The Museum of Chance, at the Dhaka Art Summit 2016. Courtesy Jenni Carter and the Samdani Art Foundation.

TMIn the last decade, we have seen a rise in popularity to the idea of the archive, both in popular culture and also in contemporary art discourse. What do you make of this interest in archival tendencies?

DSIn terms of my own practice, it is very much a personal story for me, I was born to a mother who was an obsessive photographer and album maker and a father who was involved in various legalities, so that was my earliest experience. Files and more files, albums of photographs and photographs on every surface available. As for other artists, I think we all see we are witness to a time of change, when we are seeing the last of the paper archives, the last of the libraries and while we record them, we also are aware of the stories they contain, and I suppose artists then start working with them.

TMYou began your career as a photojournalist, and now describe yourself as a 'bookmaker working in photography', could you speak more about your beginnings in this field and how it has shaped your practice?

DSFrom the very beginning, I have been making photographs to make books, for example, I photographed Zakir Hussain in 1986. I now make books that are the exhibition as well, such as The Museum of Chance in 2014. During the decades in-between, I made exhibitions of framed prints on the wall that seemed to me like catalogues of my books. It was like composing music where each note was separated by the display, and ended up in different symphonies or collections. The exhibition did not satisfy me in the way that the book did. Yet, everyone said that a book is a book and an exhibition is an exhibition.

In 2007, I made Sent a Letter, a box with seven accordion-fold books that became my first book and exhibition. I realised that it was possible to have a book that was also an exhibition, but I wanted to find a form that could be on par with my exhibitions of prints.

Dayanita Singh, The Museum of Chance, at the Dhaka Art Summit 2016.

Dayanita Singh, The Museum of Chance, at the Dhaka Art Summit 2016. Courtesy Jenni Carter and the Samdani Art Foundation.

With Museum of Chance (Steidl, 2014), I finally found the way to make a work that is a book as well as the exhibition of the book. The single image or note would never be divorced now from the full symphony or sequence. Each book-cover led to the full symphony that was inside. Even if you can only see the front image, I know that the full symphony is waiting inside.

The book is bound to its sequence, its order, but with the book object I have a book that can be endlessly rewritten as I move the book objects in and out of their narratives, sometimes just by turning the cover around to reveal the back story, an endless book.

The key to this work was the editing, to make a set of images that, even if they spanned 30 years and came from very different contexts, was held together by their tonal quality. I have finally learned to listen to the tone of the images, rather than edit by content.

I am particularly happy that I have beaten Amazon. You can order this mass-produced book on Amazon or elsewhere online, but if you want the whole concept—the idea, structure and individualising of the book—then you have to come to one of the events where I am offering the special editions (I am the only one who has the full sets) I will individualise it for you, turning a mass-produced artist's book into a unique conceptual work. —[O]

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