When my ex Konstantinos asked me to join him to see Ana Mendieta’s and Dayanita Singh’s shows at the Hayward Gallery, I did not hesitated. The main reason, which will be a whole different article is that he is a therapist and one of the reasons we split up is that by chance I happened to, how to put it, ‘unearth’ certain necrophiliac phantasies in him that turned our whole project ticket into a one way ticket to nowhere, if you know what I mean. Therefore when he suggested me to see the Cuban who loves to hurt and, eventually, kill herself, I did not hesitated. I knew it would be fun. Besides, he is cute, intelligent and adorable.
However, the second floor is taken by what it seems to be a retrospective of Dayanita Singh’s works. The first thing I want to say is that the Hayward seemed too big for both shows. Dayanita introduces herself as a photographer but immediately other series of considerations come to the fore and function as obstacles between the photographs and the viewer. The first one is that obsession with ‘filing’ and editing her photos as books. The former occupy one room with huge screens where the pics are placed and to be honest get lost and the latter is composed by a series of books placed in front of one of the side windows which we completely ignored, to be honest.
Allegedly, Dayanita Singh is obsessed with paper. Her most recent book, File Room, comprises sumptuous black-and-white photographs of paper: in boxes, in sacks, in massive ledgers, but mostly in loosely tied bundles, crammed into creaking shelves in dusty government archives in India. We see the earnest-looking guardians of these places, but it’s the paper that takes centre stage. “I have a visceral response to places like that,” says Singh. “To paper factories, old bookshops, people’s private libraries. I find the thought of the secrets and knowledge contained in all that paper deeply moving. I have long conversations with my publisher that are about nothing but paper. I carry the stuff around with me all the time, because I never know when I’ll have an idea for a book.”
Known variously as a photographer, a maker of books and an “artist who works with photography”, Singh’s studies of everything from upper-class sitting rooms to the life and loves of a cemetery-dwelling eunuch are far too varied and when placed as ‘an image library’ or a ‘screen’ the object takes over and one loses the point of the images. That is why I would think of her as a ‘photographic installation’ artist than as a photographer.
So not much to say about the books or the screens, however there was a room where the pictures could be better appreciated as they appear ‘curated’ through topics. On the top end of that room we have a ‘cloud-shaped; group of colour pictures of different sizes which contain very rhetorical and opportunistic images of hospitals, sick people, etc. In other words, there were the image of a sick man on a bed, an empty bed, a (Dan Flavin-ish) fluorescent tube, a (Damien Hirst-ish) vitrine with medication, and the list goes on and on. On the right wall there were three images of ‘people moving’ so there is a group of people photographed from the back as they walk, a bus and a train.
To be honest, I think Singh’s career got to that point where there is not much more to say and at this point there is a coincidence between the first floor with Ana Mendieta where her suicide constitutes a performance that stages the end of the allegory of a career that cannot go anywhere else. Far from that level of commitment, Singh has convinced gallerists and, obviously collectors, that the ‘new way’ of displaying photographs was through disclosing her family obsessions (her mother loved to archive photographs) as file cabinets and screens. Once she exhausted that option, she turned into thematic cataloguing (and grouping) of photos which quality is truly average.
This is photographic art for the lazy collector. One can imagine a young collector entering the art gallery and wanting to buy an image only to learn that they belong to an ‘installation’, that they are ‘about the family of the artist and her obsessions’ and they represent ‘ideas of movement and transportation in underdeveloped India’. In other words, the viewer is trapped between the artist traits (which function as sales pitch and are apparently not under discussion) and the ‘ethically charged’ images of India. I think the problem with Danyta Singh must be traced to the Simon Barker’s of the world and that need to justify the departure of photography in the direction of either collage or installation. Her whole career seems to me utterly pointless and I truly don’t understand why she was even invited to do that show at the Hayward. Just a thought.