When we visit an artist’s studio, we do so with certain expectations. We don’t know how the place will be but we roughly imagine how it won’t be. We probably will not find rows of desks with computers aligned and swivel chairs; it is likely we won’t meet many employees wearing suits and ties. The space, we think, will somehow reflect the artist’s creative process, an extraordinary one by definition. So we expect the unexpected.
Dayanita Singh’s ‘Museum of Shedding’ is a surprising sight. The installation, exhibited in Frith Street Gallery, features a stool, table and a larger wooden structure in the centre of the room; photographs hang on the surrounding walls. The likeness of a working space are evoked, and yet the tidiness and simplicity make this space look ordinary– perhaps not artistic enough. The surface of the table is smooth and clean: I can’t tell what use it served, or whether it was used at all. The stool close by, almost tucked underneath the table, looks untouched. The empty shelves of the larger structure carve squares out of thin air, nothing more. Framed, grouped, and already fitted, the photographs are finished products. I cannot tell why they were shot, who took them, how they got up there. Ironically, I think, this could be my own study space ... but I am no artist.
To understand this contemporary installation, we may follow the hints in its very name. A museum, originally, was a place devoted to the Muses – in other words, their home. In ancient times, these goddesses were believed to be the source of inspiration for artists: they would hand down the material – be it song, poem, any artistry– to the humans who acted as their loyal agents. With time, the idea that artists were mere executors and that their talent depended on a higher external force was surpassed, to the benefit of the artists’ own personal skills. Resorting to the ancient notion of inspiration, however, is a key to read the anonymity of Singh’s ‘Museum of Shedding’. This does not mean to represent the artist’s working space; rather, the mental process, inner development, meditative procedure by which we might define an artist as such. Thinking of this in the silence and modesty of the ‘Museum’, it feels inhabited by spirits capable of animating what we see.
The term ‘shedding’, qualifying Singh’s museum, is the second hint that suggests we should indeed look to the past to interpret a contemporary piece. Shedding is the process by which animals change their skin. This can happen suddenly –snakes, for example, leave behind a cylindrical empty shell – or continuously, as in the case of human skin cells. Overall, the process of shedding reveals how old and new are complementary and easily blend into each other: new becomes old, to be replaced by the new, only to age again. The first batch of photographs, displayed on the left wall as we enter Frith Street Gallery, are black and white. They portray bare spaces and architecture. As I walk around the room, the photographs turn to colour: each work in this second batch represents a bundle of red cotton, sealed with a large knot. In the folds of the fabric, paper documents from an Indian archive are hidden. The exact age of the documents is unknown; the faded content is unreadable, compressed pages cast it back to antiquity. My journey through the exhibition, therefore, sheds the distinction between what is old and what is new. As I proceed clockwise through the gallery, the photography on display seems to mirror my progress, shifting to colour and higher definition from the more basic black and white. And yet, while I move forward, I also go back in time, as an unreachable past emerges from the layers of cloth.
Significantly, the colour photographs –possibly the last artworks to be seen – are entitled ‘Time Measures’. These words resonate, I think, with a broader message: an invitation, perhaps, to consider what we call contemporary in the light of what has already stood the test of time.