As a true milestone for the self-titled “bookmaker working with photography,” Dayanita Singh stood before the German Pavilion (this year, housed in the French Pavilion) at the Venice Biennale while stamping and signing copies of File Room—the elegy to paper which she’d displayed inside the pavilion as art. Filled with photographs of crammed and crumbling archives, the book is not far from Singh’s File Museum installation at this year’s Art Basel in Basel (also with archives as its subject), or Sea of Files, the projection shown inside the pavilion alongside Mona and Myself. In the latter, Singh presents a moving image portrait of a subject she has captured for 25 years, the dear friend and eunuch she met on a routine assignment in India in 1989, Mona Ahmed. In a brief chat with Artsy, Singh reflects on her contribution to the German Pavilion, shared among four non-German artists, her breakthrough into moving-yet-still images, and, despite her sadness for the lack of Indian presence among Biennale pavilions, her genuine honor to be included.
Artsy: At the Venice Biennale, you were part of the German Pavilion, which was housed at the French Pavilion, and only a few weeks later, you were featured in the Unlimited section of Art Basel and represented by one of the four Indian galleries at the fair. How do you relate these experiences?
Dayanita Singh: It was a great honour to be invited to be part of the German Pavillion. It was very sad at the opening to find no Indian presence, not a pavilion, not even a delegation; I wish I had asked more friends to come. Equally I was very honoured to be in [Art Basel’s] Unlimited but even more so because I was showing File Museum. So between the book and moving still image at Venice and the Museum at Art Basel, I presented all the three forms that I am presently working with, all three very new for me, and all three making major shifts in my work. I just wished I could have shared them with more people from home!
Artsy: Can you tell us about the performance you gave in front of the French (acting as German) Pavilion as you signed and stamped copies of your book, File Room?
DS: I was very pleased to have finally found a way to present the book as my ‘work’ within the art space. File Room is a book that was made to be able to cross these boundaries and it did! The cover had no text on it, just a tipped in image. The image was the size of the images inside the book. So I could cut up my own books and make 70 different covers. To add to this the covers come in 10 different colors. Any number of combinations were possible. I displayed 15 of these books in specially made structures in the pavillion as my work ... For the performance I had made a cart in India, as well as rubber stamps of my various book titles, and special bags with Go Away Closer written on [them]. With the use of the stamps, which I used arbitrarily, I was able to transform each book into a unique object.
Artsy: We would love to hear more about Mona and Myself and Sea of Files. How did Mona become the focus of the film you created for the German contribution?
DS: For some time now, I had been playing with the Mona work, trying to find another form for the work, something that could be a true portrait of Mona. I always felt that in almost 25 years of photographing her, I had never been able to do her justice, [to] her uniqueness. Finally I found the form with the moving still image, which is a still [black-and-white] portrait of Mona, listening to her favorite song. At first she appears like someone who has just [woken up], then she gets the song and finally she becomes the song. This was another breakthrough for me, the idea of the moving still image, not video, not still photography, but something else. Alongside I made a projection, Sea of Files, in response to the mood of Mona and myself, where I sifted through my entire archive and found these images connected to white unbleached cotton and made a piece of them.
DS: [In] wanting to get away from the idea of nationality, the curator wanted to choose four artists who were somehow connected with Germany. However, we all worked separately.
Images courtesy Gallery Nature Morte, the artist, and the German Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale.
May 4–8, 2018, Park Avenue Armory