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THE STILLNESS OF DAYANITA SINGH: A REVOLUTIONARY PAUSE OR DATED REVERIE? 

Singh is intentional in her craft. Each frame she captures is a deliberate act of meditation, grounded in the art of noticing. It all seems a bit too luxurious, prompting me to wonder: has the act of noticing become an anachronism in today’s world? writes Riddhi Dasgupta.

Dayanita Singh, Jumping girl, 1999


Entering Frith Street Gallery for Dayanita Singh’s latest solo exhibit, described as an exploration of “the intersection of photography and architecture,” I found myself in a unique position—a blank canvas, armed only with a superficial knowledge of her garnered from a cursory Google search. I was aware of her status as a Hasselblad Awardee in 2022, but otherwise sheltered from the nuanced intricacies of her acclaim. Living under a rock would afford me a rare opportunity: to engage with Singh's work unintimidated by the weight of her celebrity and any interference of preconceived notions or reverential bias. This was going to be an experiment in pure perception. 


Of course, in the days that followed, I was consumed by an almost obsessive fervour, seeking out every morsel of information about Singh. From profile articles and interviews by acclaimed publications like The New York Times and the British Journal of Photography to YouTube videos and her own Instagram and blog, I was enchanted by the cerebral musings of an artist deeply entrenched in her craft. Each article and interview revealed new layers to Singh's practice, shedding light on her obsession with the archive and her view of the photographer-as-archivist— a gatherer of time.



From left to right: Dayanita Singh, Pothi Khana, 2018, Mona and Myself, 2013

Instlaation photography courtesy of Frith Street/Gwangju Biennale Foundation/glimworkers


Her reverence for slowness in the photographic process presents each photograph as a measure of life intricately connected with the act of breathing. Her interdisciplinary mindset, directly questioning why writers didn't explore forms that integrated words and images more seamlessly, challenged conventional boundaries. I chuckled as I realised I had created my own little digital archive of her work, meticulously compiling her thoughts, interviews, videos, and articles into a structured repository stored in a Google Drive folder. It was my own homage to Singh's creative process, a way to unravel the intricacies of her craft. 


Singh is an artist dedicated to exploring optimal methods of disseminating images, continually challenging traditional approaches to producing and viewing photographs. Countless interviews (and her current exhibition) emphasise her belief in the importance of letting photographs stand alone, believing in their ability to speak independently without explanatory text. This approach echoes John Berger's seminal ideas in Ways of Seeing (1972), highlighting how every viewer brings their own set of experiences and beliefs to the act of seeing. Berger’s notion of art’s meaning evolving with each viewer’s engagement is profoundly present in Singh’s practice of allowing her photographs to stand alone. One might also wonder if Singh’s preference for black and white photography is influenced by the historic narrative associating it with seriousness and contemplation: John Szarkowski, in The Photographer's Eye (1964), argues that eliminating colour help champion fundamental rules of photography become more pronounced. Singh’s decision to choose black and white is cultural, as she began photographing amidst the vibrant colours of India which she found overpowering, prompting her to make her images "more elusive." This introduces a dimension of mystery and subtlety to her work beyond mere technical considerations. 


Installation photography courtesy of Frith Street Gallery


Upon stepping into the gallery, you're hit by an overwhelming sense of emptiness—an emptiness that feels deliberate. On the floor is this large, wooden fold-out structure, starkly bare. Next to it, a large framed image of a flower—one of two monochrome poppy images. As you move further into the main gallery space, rows of framed photographs line both sides. The design of these displays resembles 'contact sheets', constructed to allow endless rearrangements. This intentional approach to presentation echoes Singh’s previous exhibitions, a sentiment she shared in an interview with the Tate, where she expressed dissatisfaction with the fossilisation of artworks in museums. Singh cares about the fluidity of presentation and insists on her right, as a living artist, to continually tweak and modify her displays.


To facilitate this, she constructs spaces where images can be added or removed at will, reshaping the gallery's architecture. This isn't just change for the sake of change; it's a way to keep the art alive, to make it breathe and morph. It’s about creating a dynamic relationship between the work and the viewer. The images within this exhibition span a wide spectrum from “the ancient rock-cut caves of 7th century Ellora in Maharashtra State or Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp Chapel to the contemporary Indian architecture of Rahul Mehrotra and the artist’s own architectural structures installed in museum spaces” remain their coherent in any sequence.


The Heritance Kandalama Hotel, designed by Geoffrey Bawa, kindled her fascination with architecture, not for its architectural prowess but for its nuanced interplay with light; a theme that pervades her work. This fascination deepened in 2018 when she met architect BV Doshi. Doshi’s question, “Dayanita, how are you going to make a still photograph speak?” had ignited a lightbulb moment for her, to which she replied, “With light, what else?”. This exchange inspired the photo book Portrait of a House (2021) exploring the relationship between photography, architecture, and light, which this exhibition seems to be a continuation of. 


Dayanita Singh, Portrait of a House: Conversations with BV Doshi, 2021, photography courtesy of Spontaneous Books.


So, there I was, a twenty-something (alright, pushing thirty), chronically online, TikTok-loving (especially Duolingo’s unhinged marketing) stereotype, and Singh's work hit me like a ton of bricks. My existence is defined by an era where trends shift faster than I can type. I did not know how to comprehend this unexpected confrontation with stillness—the simple act of pausing to notice how light falls and how shadows look softer on older architecture for the first time. It's a jolt to my system, accustomed as it is to the constant barrage of stimuli. Singh’s work felt like an act of defiance against the relentless pace of contemporary life. It demanded a pause. I found myself letting go of my initial quest to dissect Singh's artistic psyche, instead embracing what the work could mean to me.



As Susan Sontag says: "The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people's reality, and eventually in one's own." Indeed, the possibilities for interpretation here were boundless, just like the blocks and combinations of how her art can be arranged. When I mentioned to Singh that her work exuded a meditative quality, she confirmed its genesis, the hushed ambience of "packing up in museums." A validation swept over me —my instincts had found their rightful place within her creative process and ethos. Perhaps now I could free myself from the impostor syndrome that haunts me at art exhibitions surrounded by old-guard enthusiasts. Or maybe, just maybe, and most probably, it’s just Singh's exceptional ability to articulate herself through her art. Knowing the tranquillity wasn’t accidental; it was intentional. 


Singh is intentional in her craft. Each frame she captures is a deliberate act of meditation grounded in the art of noticing. It all seems a bit too luxurious, prompting me to wonder: has the act of noticing become an anachronism in today’s world? This inquiry is not to devalue her work’s importance but rather to examine its relevance in our current cultural landscape.


This idea stems from architect Paul Virilio’s concept of dromology in Speed & Politics (1986), arguing that our society’s obsession with speed has led to a culture where slowness is undervalued. While her images exude serenity, they also evoke a sense of disconnection. It's as though Singh's work belongs to a bygone era—a time less chaotic, less clamorous. Her critique of platforms like Instagram, with their emphasis on immediacy, hints at a longing for the slower, more contemplative pace of analogue days. Similarly, Zygmunt Bauman's theory of liquid modernity can offer a compelling lens through which to examine the scarcity of stillness in contemporary society. Singh's deliberate, slow approach to photography is a stark contrast to the frenetic pace of digital culture and the chaotic nature of modern life, in which there is little space for sustained reflection: Singh ultimately reignites the art of noticing.


However, the ability to appreciate and engage with stillness is not evenly distributed. This prompts us to question who has the privilege of indulging in this rare commodity: is tranquility accessible? If not, is the gap between those who can afford the luxury of stillness—often possessing the time, resources, and cultural capital, frequently from privileged backgrounds—and those who cannot—widening? So then, does advocating for slow photography become an undemocratic outlook, where art is confined to the upper echelons of society? Then again, must art always come from a place of stillness? Stillness is important, but can we assume it is a universal necessity?


From left to right: Dayanita Singh, Edward Circle, Bombay 2000, 2005, Ladies Dance Room, 2002


After all, many artists create their best works during tumultuous periods. Take Daido Moriyama, Singh’s fellow Hasselblad awardee: his gritty black-and-white photos capture post-war Japan’s frenetic energy and chaos. Shot spontaneously and frenetically, they embrace blur, grain, and unconventional compositions to convey urban life's pace. As Stephen Sondheim said, “Art, in itself, is an attempt to bring order out of chaos.” Newer generations have learned to find beauty and inspiration in chaos, adapting to the fast pace and normalising it. So does it matter if it is born from stillness or tumult, as long as it reflects our enduring quest for meaning and expression?


In grappling with these questions, Singh's work forces us to confront our own biases and assumptions about the very nature of art and creativity. It challenges us to reevaluate our relationship with stillness, chaos, and the passage of time in an increasingly fragmented world. Ultimately, it is not the stillness of her photographs that matters but the questions they provoke.


 

Riddhi Dasgupta is a London-based writer & third culture kid who loves exploring the intersection of market, creatvitiy, and society. She has a background as a marketer and fashion creative, plus an MA from King's College London in Cultural & Creative Industries.

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