The drama of Dayanita Singh’s art / The financial Times FT.
The drama of Dayanita Singh’s art
The photographer vividly documents the world of work
I was shooting from a tower at Tata Steel when I ran out of black and white film,” recalls Dayanita Singh of the day bad luck resulted in a coup. “The light was fading and there was no time to go down and get a new roll so I shot on colour,” continues the photographer, who prefers black and white film to escape clichéd representations of India, her home country, as a riot of chromatism.
Those images are the core of the “Blue Book” (2008), a sequence of photographs that presented India’s industrial underbelly in a new light. Filtered through the serendipitous pigment, landscapes previously considered solely utilitarian have graced galleries and museums worldwide.
Now, these pictures have found perhaps their most suitable home yet. Until January 8, they will form part of Museum of Machines, Singh’s exhibition devoted to work and industry at Fondazione MAST (Manufacture of Art, Experimentation and Technology), in the Italian city of Bologna.
Opened in 2013, MAST was founded by local businesswoman Isabella Seragnoli, who is also the proprietor of Coesia, which manufactures automated machinery and packaging materials. Started in 1923 by Seragnoli’s father, Enzo, Coesia’s expansion into a corporate group comprising 16 companies with 6,000 employees typifies the gift for technical innovation that has made northern Italy, and Bologna in particular, a modern industrial hub.
Yet on another level, Coesia is far from typical, especially in its determination to put the well-being of its people on an equal footing with its profit margins. “My father taught me that as a boss you have a responsibility to the welfare of the people around you,” explains Seragnoli, who turned 70 last year but appears far younger.
Evidence of her commitment to human values is all around us. Built by Labics, a young architectural practice in Rome, Mast’s glazed, cantilevered volumes make for an impressive silhouette in an otherwise unremarkable surburb. But they also house services for employees and local people, including a crêche, an auditorium where local high-school and college students are encouraged to practise their presentation skills, and a celebrated canteen.
But MAST’s imaginative wellspring is its gallery. Here, alongside interactive displays on the theme of industry, a programme of photography exhibitions is nourished by the Foundation’s collection of 2,000 prints by the likes of Berenice Abbot, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Thomas Struth. For Seragnoli, such images are a way to “recount the idea of industry and technology through a visual journey through its past”. Quietly passionate about photography’s expressive powers, she is also the patron of Fotoindustria, a biennale of industrial photography in Bologna whose next edition is in 2017.
Curated by Urs Stahel, who founded Zurich’s respected Fotomuseum Winterthur, the collection is shown in rotation with temporary shows such as Singh’s. The Indian photographer’s vision blossoms under the focused editing. Ever since she first took to the road with Zakir Hussein in the 1980s to document the tabla player’s experience of touring, Singh has been engaged with the way human beings earn their daily bread. Since then, she has documented factories, shops, kitchens, archives and offices. Yet she has also chronicled other territories, from family portraits (in her book Privacy, 2004) to explorations of personal loss and longing (Go Away Closer, 2007).
Previous exhibitions have mixed and matched these panoramas. As a result, Singh is usually regarded as a photographer-poet of the human condition, her elegaic gift for light and shade serving to capture spaces haunted by the lives that once played out in them.
Her photo-stories have the elusive mysticism of dreams, where meaning shifts and slips
The show at Mast gathers only those portfolios — which Singh refers to as “museums” — that concentrate on labour. As well as the “Blue Book” (2008), here is the “Museum of Machines” (2013), “Office Museum” (2016), “Museum of Men” (2013), “File Museum” (2012), “Museum of Industrial Kitchens” (2016) and “Museum of Printing Press” (2015), plus a new projection, “Factories” (2016), and several works of blown-up contact sheets titled “Storyboards” (2016).
Her poetry sings just as sweetly in the service of this more condensed epic. From the baker, impatience ticking in every rigid limb as he waits for Singh to finish so he can return to his rolling-pin, to the state archivist regarding the lens with the same resignation that he presumably experiences when considering the infinite paper folders behind him, Singh pictures her subjects at moments which feel less decisive than holy. A numinous interiority hums within her monochrome contrasts of shadow and shine, acting to remind us that work is as much a place of ritual and dedication as it is of production and creativity.
By displaying her work in the grid-like structures she terms “museums”, Singh adds further layers of interpretation, thanks to the ease with which images can be swapped. The sequence of oil-splashed, light-burnished pumps, pipes and tanks that is “Museum of Machines” today may well have reconfigured itself — especially if the artist is in the vicinity — by tomorrow. As a consequence, her photo-stories have the elusive mysticism of dreams: uncanny, Borgesian narratives where meaning shifts and slips without respect for linear time and space.
That seam of transgression is what makes Singh such a significant artist. Her museums, for example, could have been created in response to John Berger’s observation that the real institutions are designed to “exclude[s] the mass”. Moveable and flexible, Singh’s bespoke matrices regularly pop up unexpectedly in public spaces. (One of her sequences has graced the window of a jeweller’s shop in Calcutta since she begged the owner to let her put it there in 2010.) Meanwhile her fidelity to the book format makes her work more affordable than pricey individual prints.
In this sense, she is the child of a theoretics of photography as a revolutionary medium as started by Walter Benjamin with his legendary text “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” — where the German essayist also recognised it as a potential tool of indoctrination — and continued by Berger, who has a tendency to read photographs as if they were memorial stones to a lost, working-class Eden.
But Singh also tends towards a more contemporary conceptualism. Her “Storyboards”, for example, are essentially contact sheets, printed by inkjet in large format. One shows a worker in protective uniform, engaged in a perilous activity involving a tube and a metal tank. One might expect a diary-like effect but, perhaps because of the format’s glamorous, nostalgic associations, these images actually possess the theatrical quality of a performance, as if Singh is suggesting our working lives are as much prey to illusion and role-play as our private moments.
Ultimately Singh’s vision is as nuanced and ambiguous as Benjamin’s seminal essay. These glimmering, silver-bright factories and offices are no romantic, pre-digital Utopia. But nor is she delivering a manifesto of misery and exploitation. And what does it mean that her work has found such a welcoming home in MAST’S high-tech, worker-friendly haven? Perhaps the answer is that the system — capitalist, communist, digital, analogue — is only as good as the people who run it.
‘Dayanita Singh: Museum of Machines’, Fondazione MAST, Bologna, to January 8, mast.org
‘Dayanita Singh: Museum of Shedding’, Frith Street Gallery, London, November 18-January 17, frithstreetgallery.com
Photograph: Dayanita Singh
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