The modernist canon accords great value to the fleeting, the contingent and the incidental. Things that come to be or are brought into existence — like great classical works of art — are not as interesting to the modern sensibility as things that simply happen to be, created by sheer chance or accident. That’s why the moderns were so in love with “found objects” or “readymades”, like Marcel Duchamp’s famed urinal; or John Chamberlain’s metal sculptures that were installed in public spaces and were genuinely difficult to tell apart from roadside trash (one of Chamberlain’s pieces was actually towed by civic authorities from outside a Chicago gallery.)
What artists such as Duchamp and Chamberlain did, apart from greatly enriching the world of art, was to challenge our traditional notions of what art is and where it belongs. They were also challenging and complicating some our fundamental ideas about the role of an artist. It’s heartening to see that there still are some figures, in contemporary arts, who continue to subscribe to that quintessentially modern tradition of rebelling against traditional values. One such figure is Dayanita Singh.
“Dayanita Singh is an artist,” begins the short biography on her official website. And this isn’t so much a self-definition as a statement distancing her artistic identify from what it is commonly and crassly considered to be limited to: that of a photographer. “Photography is my medium, the book is my form,” she has said. Already, the artist is urging us, prodding us to open our minds, and pouring cold water on conventional wisdom.
Singh, we are told, is a “bookmaker working with photography”, and that she makes books that are at once art objects, catalogues and entire exhibitions unto themselves. One of her books of photographs, Museum of Chance — comprising 88 images and a brief note by the writer Aveek Sen — is being exhibited in Jaipur these days. At this point you’d get ready to jot down the address of the gallery hosting it. And some of you might still be confounded to find that there is no gallery to speak of; and that the exhibition is being hosted at one of Jaipur’s most-visited historical monuments: the Hawa Mahal.
“The artists should make themselves incidental,” I had heard Dayanita say at one of her sessions at the recent Jaipur Literature Festival. And the Hawa Mahal exhibition is putting that idea — of making art incidental to the setting — into practice. The very thought that a crowd of loiterers visiting the Hawa Mahal for purposes having nothing to do with the consumption of art, would chance upon a photo exhibition by Dayanita Singh — one of the finest photographers of our time — sounded fabulous to me, as it surely must have to Dayanita herself.
But setting out for Hawa Mahal one morning, expressly to attend this photo exhibition, I felt a tinge of disappointment. The problem was that I myself was not going to be an incidental presence at that exhibition. That my journey to Hawa Mahal — to the exhibition, rather — was already marred by a teleological resolve that this exhibition was meant to undermine. I wanted to be a tourist visiting the Hawa Mahal, I wanted to buy tickets to enter the monument (Indians at Rs 50, and foreigners, Rs 200), and I wanted to feel the unlikely delight, wholly unexpected, of entering this room full of photographs by Dayanita Singh. But more importantly, after having seen the exhibition here, I wanted to carry on touring the rest of the monument, which would have been the point of my being here in the first place.
Most of Dayanita Singh’s images pose a question, and like the best of art, leave it unanswered. The images pinned up on these walls, all black and white, present to the viewer curiously open-ended stories, and their meanings are open to interpretation.
But I could do none of that. The fact that I couldn’t, still makes me wonder whether I missed out on some essential part of witnessing such an exhibition. Still, I found myself at the ticket counter of the Hawa Mahal, and soon, entering through the main arches of the palace, I turned towards the first hall on my right. A banner outside said, “Book Object”, and the text below began by posing a question: “Can a book be both a book and an exhibition?”
Most of Singh’s images pose a question, and like the best of art, leave it unanswered. The images pinned up on these walls, all black and white, present to the viewer curiously open-ended stories. The meaning of these photographs is open to interpretation, unencumbered as they are by explanatory textual captions. We see a shot of a terrace: a woman sitting doubled-over on the floor, her forehead touching the ground; beside her there’s a man standing upside down, not on his hands, but on the crown of his head, with the rest of his body leaning against the boundary wall. Is this is the scene of mental asylum or a séance? And who’s is that old man in the frame staring at the camera? What of the two middle-age men, in this very image, conversing with utmost normalcy, and adding to the absurdity of the overall shot?
Since we take these unresolved questions home with us, we take this image home, too. Just as we do some other photographs exhibited here. Like the one that shows two bare-bodied men chained to different poles across a hallway (again, are they convicts, madmen?) with one of them reaching out his hand to the other: their fingers barely touching.
The French philosopher and critic Roland Barthes, in his great book Camera Lucida — which gives off the illusion of being only about photography — introduces the concept of a photograph’s “punctum”: some accidental detail in an image that makes the whole photo memorable. “That accident,” Barthes wrote, “which pricks, bruises me.” With her photography, Dayanita Singh has sought to revise this aesthetic somewhat. She once said, “For me, the punctum of a photograph lies outside its frame.” The questions these images evoke in the viewer, I believe, are part of their punctum. And these questions are of great import because, like these images and like this exhibition, they too are incidental: they just happen to occur to us.