Museums of Memories

When she started photography in 1986 with a project on tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, Dayanita Singh — seeking an alternative to the traditional format of exhibiting with a series of single images on the wall, matted and framed — produced a book, titled after the musician. The form, she said, made her the curator of the project that put her in control of every aspect, from the font to the accompanying text.

Ever since known as a "bookmaker", Singh has, however, continued to experiment with form. Her latest creations are portable "museums", where the images move away from the wall and into "houses" of their own. Each "museum", made using wood, is six- to eight-feet tall, has 70 to 140 images of which 30-40 can be displayed at any time, while the remaining are in the structure as the "reserve" collection.

Singh explains that the "museums" go beyond the idea of display to create a complete set of spaces that can be used not only for the storage of photographs, but also as rooms for looking, thinking, moving and connecting the visual material. "For instance, 'Museum of Chance' comes with its own tables and stools. 'Museum of Photography' has its own benches. There is a 'Museum of Machines', 'Museum of Men', 'Museum of Embraces' and so on," she says.

Now, eight of Singh's museums will be part of an exhibition at London's Hayward Gallery next month. Titled "Go Away Closer", the artist says this showing is part-retrospective and part-prospective. The solo exhibition will open on October 8 and the works will be on view till December 15.

"The book is my form but it took all these years to find my own way to exhibit works on a larger scale, and, frankly, the confidence to go against what is expected of someone who works with photography," says the 51-year-old artist. The shift away from the print on the wall, Singh adds, started with the collection "Sent a Letter" in 2008. Essentially comprising a small box of seven accordion fold books — photojournals of her travels in India, each dedicated to a specific person — that open into seven exhibitions.

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