My own accommodations in Kochi in December were a short walk from Malabar House, a boutique hotel where a white wall by the reception displayed thirty photographs, each housed in a wooden structure.
Over the next three months, they slowly disappeared, one by one into homes all over the country and overseas. There were 360 in total, replenished until they ran out and the wall was bare. Each one, a conceptual work by Dayanita Singh, at once a book and an exhibition.
For this self-proclaimed offset artist, photography and bookmaking are deeply intertwined. With her newest release Kochi Box, she is the exhibitor but the recipient is ultimately the curator able ‘to change the image as and when they feel like.’ I spoke to her about Kochi, her explorations with the book object and finding the intersection between the two.
What inspired you to make photographs in Kochi? What kinds of places did you make these images?
I was invited to be part of the 2014 Kochi Biennale, so spent that year photographing in archives in Kerala. I always stay with my current obsession regardless of whether I am in Kochi or Kyoto, or even Venice. But as always, the exhibition was not enough for me, I wanted to make a book object to show at the next biennale. Like the residue of the previous biennale. Meanwhile my ideas of the book object had been developing, shall we say, and Kochi Box presented the best form so far. The book, that is exhibited, and sold from the wall, until it disappears into people’s homes.
I saw Sent a Letter at Chatterjee and Lal last year which you have described as being the first time you realised the book could also be the exhibition. How would you best describe a book object and how does it differ from a book?
You could say each paper book is an object but I sort of made up that word to present the idea of the book being the book, as well as exhibition, as well as architecture, sculpture even. A physical, tactile experience. But I wanted to find a word that did not take from other existing forms, so i started calling them book objects. Dissemination is an integral part of photography, and one i miss in my gallery life. Yes I want the individual experience it offers in its viewing and acquiring, versus a large scale publication which you can acquire on amazon even. Having to chose the cover as well as the image on view. The conceptual part of the work is in the forms of its dissemination and the experiences it offers. So you as the buyer actually turn into a curator of my work, when you decide which image you will have in front of the box, or even more so when you have 3 boxes. I make you part of the process of my work, in a way that you never are with a print.
You’ve said that from the very beginning, you began making photographs to make books. Your instagram bio says offset artist. What does that mean?
Books being mass produced, are printed in offset. Since I speak of mass produced artists books (versus unique ones that artists have always made) I occasionally call myself an offset artist. While I made silver gelatin prints that were scanned for offset printing, it was a different equation, but now with scanning the negatives, the same scan is used for digital prints and for offset. I actually prefer the quality of offset, it is more analogue, has more variation, closer to the silver prints I used to make. Certainly with Steidl this is the case.
In terms of storytelling, Kochi Box is unique in that the buyer gets to decide the order of imagery (when looking at the works) as well as the cover so to speak. What did you look for when editing a collection to make it cohesive enough for the order not to matter?
That is the key, to make an edit where the sequence does not matter, this is what has taken all these years to learn to do. Again there were no rules, so I had to make my own. I needed to do this when I made the museums, so that I might give you a 100 prints in a museum, but you could display only 40, so the edit had to work blindly within that 100. This is what takes time and dare I say, experience. This is the thing that cannot be taught.
When you explore the book object format, what generally comes first? The edited collection of works or the presentation itself.
It’s very important that the edited works dictate the form. Otherwise it becomes too self conscious. So first there is the long process of editing, reediting, throwing it in the air, and editing again. Then a tentative sequence, and if you have spent enough time in the editing process, the form starts emerging. Then it’s just a question of having the courage to follow that. Maybe the work demands to be a projection, and not a book even, or as is happening with my current work, it demands to be a conventional photo book and not an sculptural book object
I call it listening to the edit.
With your previous book object, you customised it for the buyer. How did that work?
With File Room I made different versions of the cover, by using images inside the book on the cover. With Museum of Chance book object I got the indulgent publisher Steidl to make me 88 different covers, with different coloured cover cloths. But that was not enough, so I made an archive of about 40 stamps of words, and made individual stampings for each person. So even though they were offered in an edition of 362, each person got a unique object.
I like playing with the idea of unique and mass produced. By placing the books in their wooden frames, I was able to give you the opportunity to display the book on your wall, as you would a print of mine or a painting of another artist. I wanted the book to have the same value.
What is a museum? How does Kochi Box fit into your museums?
A museum is a collection of objects that you consider valuable, a collection, it usually has a physical house, a reserve as well as display collection, a catalogue. Kochi box to me is also a mini museum, it has all of the above!
You’ve spoken about looking for the place between an art gallery and a publishing house. Tell us about Spontaneous Books.
Spontaneous Books was made to be able to make book objects entirely on my own, meaning not having to wait for publisher/distributor, gallery, museum. Also I wanted to present the book object only in its exhibition format. I also wanted smaller editions that I could manage on my own. So kochi box was printed in an edition of 360 and sold only from the Malabar House hotel during Kochi Biennale. One set of 30 was shown at the India Art Fair and the last set will be sold in Venice at a friends gallery. You have to buy it physically, no online orders. Since I had so many conditions, it was easier just to do it myself.
A year and a half ago, you announced the Anna Atkins Award for Best Male Photographer. I got a chuckle out of the stipulations for entry [which included a statement on how masculinity has informed the photographer's work and a revealing selfie. See more here.]. Did you get any entries? How do you feel about representation within the photography community?
I understand we live in a patriarchal society, but somewhere I dreamed that at least in photography, we did not have to have gender, we did not have to speak of 'women photographers'. No one had a show of male photographers (it’s another matter that the exhibitions usually were all male) but I often wonder how different this field would have been if we considered Anna Atkins the mother of creative photography. She did make the very first book of photograms, she decided each page herself and even sewed it herself. She made 13 of these editions, in 1853 I think.
The award was to make men think a little bit, and I was open to someone explaining to me what gender has to do with the photographs I make, personality yes, but gender? Sadly no one convinced me the other way. The few that applied spoke of being able to go to unsafe areas, like war and the night. I will announce it again. Meanwhile it could be time to organise the women photographers. While there are several more these days doing amazing work, I still don’t see them heading the photo festivals and biennales for example.
Thank you Dayanita for your time. Take a short tour of Kochi Box with Dayanita here.