Varanasi is a city where the penitent and the dying come to find salvation. Pilgrims redeem themselves in the waters of the Ganges whilst the old and the sick wait for death, believing that once cremated in this holiest of Hindu sites they will escape samsara, the otherwise eternal cycle of rebirth and suffering. A mile or two back from the river the Kriti Gallery is an unlikely white cube in the middle of this relentlessly hectic town. Earlier this year it hosted Go Away Closer, an exhibition of new work by the Indian photographer Dayanita Singh.
Although not a retrospective in the strict sense of the term, the 30 odd black and white pictures on view were distinctly backward looking. Small-scale and unaccompanied by any text, they seemed like moments drawn from a story in which loss and longing are the dominant themes. In one picture a girl sprawls face down on a bed, her head buried in a pillow. In another a death mask in silhouette lies under a glass dome. In a third the rusty skeleton of a four-poster bed stands forlorn and alone in a dilapidated room.
As the first part of the show’s oxymoronic title suggests the pictures are suffused with a valedictory air. Singh has always focused on her India, an India of favourite old chairs, of extended Brahmin families, of places and people that have, for the artist, a personal resonance. It is an India which her monochrome aesthetic renders antique and fragile, as though the inexorable, burgeoning present were constantly threatening to sweep it away.
Yet while such moments must inevitably recede into the past, Singh – as the Closer of the exhibition’s title implies – frames them with palpable affection, endowing her work with those formal qualities that end up eliciting our attention too. Presented both here and in the accompanying publication with almost no textual anchor, the pictures float freely, and it is left to us the viewers to try and make sense of these markers of loss that by turns seem nostalgic, serene, blank, even Gothic.
As you look at the photographs it is tempting to conjecture a narrative. Many of them, such as those of various empty cinemas or the one depicting a room stacked to the ceiling with papers, seem overdetermined, almost to bursting with possible stories. But untitled and unexplained, they above all remain a visual document, a mood piece which prioritises sense impressions that are the residue of another narrative we will never really know.
Hung a few inches lower than is customary at Singh’s own eye level, this is a deeply subjective show. Yet if the work is a window onto an inner melancholy it also functions as a type of defence. For as the title of the exhibition intuits, photographs possess an operational duality at once rending consciousness open and patching it back up again. Each time we look at a picture, especially one that has personal significance for us, the substance and affective power of any associated memory is somehow altered, shifted along, however imperceptibly.
In Go Away Closer Singh also makes use of another fundamental fact about her chosen medium, namely that it, more than any other art form, requires the assent of the phenomenal world. Here she not only exploits such contingency to aesthetic advantage but also succeeds in turning these sometimes direct, sometimes oblique documents of the vicissitudes of existence into spaces of contemplation. In Singh’s hands the photograph becomes a redemptive artefact. Varanasi is the natural venue for this show.
Dayanita Singh’s series ‘Go Away Closer’ is also published as a book by Steidl.