Dayanita Singh: Dancing with my Camera at Serralves

From the Gropius Bau Museum (Berlin) to the Villa Stuck Museum (Munich) and MUDAM (Luxembourg), Dayanita Singh’s (b. 1961, New Delhi) first major retrospective entitled Dancing with my Camera, curated by Stephanie Rosenthal (Director, Gropius Bau), concludes its tour at the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art. Gathering works by the Indian artist that have been made over four decades, it tracks her artistic endeavours, from the early 1980s, when she made her first photography project on the percussionist Zakir Hussain (b. 1951, Bombay), to her most recent work Let’s See (2021). The latter, interestingly, is also her oldest, as she resorted to images from the years when she started working, a sort of dancing ouroboros, combining different times, geographies, people and themes, such as music, dance, architecture or gender. Singh’s artistic approach is notable for the way she tackles photography through an intuitive editing process – like an improvised performance, where she takes the many contact proofs from her archive, blends and reinterprets them – but also for the way her images are presented, forming different structures – such as her object-books, museum-books, book carts or book holders -, all of which subvert the boundaries between exhibition site and publisher, and challenge the concepts of museum, collection and archive.

 Dayanita Singh: Dancing with my Camera brings together all the ideas underlying Singh’s artistic practice as a kind of ‘dancing ouroboros’ that keeps expanding, in which we snake with our bodies through the images and exhibition devices built up by the artist over the years, using a narrative-filled image assemblage calling on a sense of rhythm, sound and percussion.

The idea behind her exhibition structures emerged from her work in documentary archives in India, where archivists create their own storage devices and cataloguing methods. Starting with File Museum (2012) and, a year later, Museum Bhavan (2013) – their joint museum title – these large handmade wooden structures can be laid out and opened in different ways, holding framed images on display and, further inside, in the reserve collection, resembling screens, or fans spread out in the exhibition space. The Serralves Museum’s first gallery displays File Museum (2012), where the artist brings together a series of photographs of different archives in India, Museum of Chance (2013) with images from films, the written word, or everyday scenes, and Little Ladies Museum 1961-present, compiling photographs taken by her mother of herself and her sisters, her own pictures of women close to her, and female portraits she took. Singh’s approach to exhibiting her photographs in these museums not only allows her to edit her work in different ways, promoting new narratives, sequences and image juxtapositions, but it also allows the viewer to explore her world, looking at it not only with their eyes but also with their bodies, scrutinising every detail of each photograph and performatively structuring it.

Singh’s way of editing her work through contact proofs also inspires her to create her museums, as they are modelled after the images laid out on photographic paper. Analysing these archives inspired her to create new series, conceptually and formally assembled in different directions, influenced by the literary works of Jorge Luís Borges (1899-1986), Italo Calvino (1923-1985) and Orhan Pamuk (b. 1952). Go Away Closer (2007) is where she first started her editing methodology of intuition, to the sound of Mahler’s First Symphony, making a work that can be read like a wordless novel. According to the artist: “The book format is highly intimate. To my mind, this is the best way to look at photography. I’d rather forgo the print quality, but I can’t bear the glass that stands between me and the photograph. That’s why I love the book, I love the fact that we can handle it and that I’ve figured out a solution so that it can also be on the wall. If I can have a book doing so many different things, I don’t need to print individual images[1].

Singh’s books form the centrepiece of her art practice, reinventing their shapes and expanding them into the exhibition venue in book-museum style. The object-books are wooden structures to be hung on the wall, into which the books can fit and be taken out, touched and read. The artist also developed the book holder, attaching hinges to the object-books and placing them in a leather case. At Serralves we can see Kochi Box (2016), Kishori Tai (2021), or Sent a Letter Museum (2008/2021). Suitcase Museum (2015) is particularly noteworthy for having forty-four different covers, put together in two leather suitcases, side by side with the books displayed on the gallery wall.

Together with these notions in Singh’s artistic practice, the exhibition is intensified in the second gallery, bringing out the artist’s thinking and production on architectural issues, particularly how her museums make space and open dialogues with places, in this case Álvaro Siza Vieira’s building. Painted Photos (2021-22) is a series of photo prints, with white painted surfaces, where contrasting details of architecture, objects or body parts are developed over the thin paint layer. Architectural Montages (2019-21) gathers together a set of black and white photographs in which two images of different architectures are overlaid on each other, promoting dialogue between them. But Museum of Shedding (2016) is one of Singh’s most captivating museums, as it contains a few furniture items – such as a bed, a table or a bench – and reveals the words Director, Registrar and Curator on a paperweight on the desk, stressing and questioning the presence of these three key characters in a museum.

Singh’s artistic work is bound together by the people whom she photographs and who gradually resurface in her works. Mona Ahmed (b.1935 – d. 2017, Delhi) is one of the most important and recurrent, featuring heavily in this exhibition, as in the video Mona and Myself (2013), the series Mona Montages (2021), and in photos of other sequences on display. Singh met her in 1989 as part of a feature on eunuchs in India and became one of her closest friends and an influence on her artistic output.

In Singh’s work, dance, the body and movement are equally important, both in the way she portrays her characters hugging, caressing or dancing, as well as how they are positioned in space, and how the viewer perceives her narratives. The artist generally refrains from using a tripod, placing her Hasselblad camera close to her stomach, allowing for a different sort of visual intimacy with the subject. In Let’s See (2021), found in the final gallery, we see a display structure resembling a large contact proof, made of wood and hung on the wall, featuring images of her friends chatting, women having their hair done, or portraits looking directly at us, emphasising touch, the body and intimacy as her work’s leitmotif. In Museum of Tanpura (2021), yet another of her large structures, she focuses on the tanpura, a stringed instrument, along with photos of musicians. Next to it, the Museum of Dance (Mother Loves to Dance) (2021) pays tribute to Mona and dance, with photos of her friend dancing alone, or with other dancers, or with Singh’s mother and friends, or even with a famous Bollywood choreographer. All this while we are dancing along in the artist’s museum, experiencing performatively her artistic work, abundant in pluralities and pathways, at once intimate and genuine, especially mindful of the role memory plays in our lives. To conclude, I would like to echo the words of the exhibition curator: “The way our bodies like to engage with each other; the way we caress and are caressed; the way we touch and are touched; the way we love and are loved”.

Dayanita Singh: Dancing with my Camera is on show at the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art until March 3, 2024[2].


[1] Rosenthal, S. (2023). Dançando com a minha câmara. In D. Singh, I. Grosso, & J. Bravo (con.), Dayanita Singh: A aventura de uma fotógrafa (pp. 47-84). Porto: Fundação de Serralves. p. 61.
[2] Id. Ibid, p. 62.

Ana Martins (Porto, 1990) currently working as a researcher at i2ADS – Instituto de Investigação em Arte, Design e Sociedade, with a fellowship granted by Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (2022.12105.BD) to atende the PhD in Fine Arts at Faculdade de Belas Artes da Universidade do Porto. Already holding a MA in Art Studies – Museological and Curatorial Studies from the same institution. With a BA in Cinema from ESTC-IPL and in Heritage Management by ESE-IPP. Also collaborated as a researcher at CHIC Project – Cooperative Holistic view on Internet Content, supporting the incorporation of artist films into the portuguese National Cinema Plan and the creation of content for the Online Catalog of Films and Videos by Portuguese Artists from FBAUP. Currently developing her research project: Cinematic Art: Installation and Moving Images in Portugal (1990-2010), following the work she started with Exhibiting Cinema – Between the Gallery and the Museum: Exhibitions by Portuguese Filmmakers (2001-2020), with the aim to contribute to the study of installations with moving images in Portugal, envisioning the transfer and specific incorporation of structural elements of cinema in the visual arts.

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