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Book Review: File Room


Book Review File Room By Dayanita Singh Reviewed by Nicholas Chiarella Dayanita Singh's File Room is a collection of images documenting record and file rooms in India. Gathered for over a decade, the photographs capture the paper records of factories, government offices, and personal archives. The papers in these archives trace multi-generational court trials, lineages of possession and exchange. Some make recurring journeys to courtrooms, others wait on shelves for decades to prove themselves useful, and all, most likely, will disintegrate entirely.
File Room. Photographs by Dayanita Singh.
Steidl, 2013.
 
File Room
Reviewed by Nicholas Chiarella

File Room
Photographs by Dayanita Singh.
Steidl, 2013. Hardbound. 88 pp., 70 illustrations, 9-1/2x12-1/2".


Dayanita Singh's File Room is a collection of images documenting record and file rooms in India. Gathered for over a decade, the photographs capture the paper records of factories, government offices, and personal archives. The papers in these archives trace multi-generational court trials, lineages of possession and exchange. Some make recurring journeys to courtrooms, others wait on shelves for decades to prove themselves useful, and all, most likely, will disintegrate entirely.

Life is filled with objects destined for loss or decay. Our abilities to replicate and reflect develop in response to the fragility of these objects. In File Room, archives are revealed as information liminal zones, blurring the edges between storage and hospice care. In these rooms, papers may sit unused for decades until they finally crumble under their own weight, or that of circulating air. A typewriter looks like a death machine, its bearer a dutiful executioner.

File Room, by Dayanita Singh. Published by Steidl, 2013.

While the stacks wait for use, boxes crumbling into one another, they also assert a critical independence from their potentially-functional existence. Singh's compositions lend a sense of intention to even the most precarious stacks, encapsulating them within strict, even framing. Where aisles end in head-high stacks of paper or against the wall, empty chairs become the sentinels of a labyrinth. In one such intersection, a gathering of small signs chants, "Judicial Department, the Governor General of Bengal in Council, Criminal Branch." A single stack of papers left on the floor attempts the climb back to order. In the opposite image of the spread, the highly-ordered patterns of a tiled floor become a shocking disruption to the otherwise polite decomposition. A bicycle leaning against a row of lockers suggests an outside world that cannot possibly matter anymore, no less novel than the typewriter.

File Room, by Dayanita Singh. Published by Steidl, 2013.

The people in these photographs play ambiguous roles: researchers, tour guides, ghosts of children obsessed with sifting. Their stewards are depicted unsurprisingly, with expressions happy or askance or neutral. The images are accompanied by texts from Aveek Sen that provide some narrative direction; veils that feel enmeshed in fact and fiction. Sen's texts personify individuals and interactions suggested by the photographs, moving in tandem with the sequence of images. From Sen's writing, as well as Singh's interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist (which concludes the book), we come to see these archives as improvisations in care and organization. Frequently, only one individual really comprehends the contents and arrangement of a given collection. The boxes, bundles, and exposed stacks demonstrate a mix of reverent placement and quiet mayhem, more than the sentimentality or nostalgia associated with aging collections.

File Room, by Dayanita Singh. Published by Steidl, 2013.

The absence of color in the images is made more noticeable with Sen's description of decomposing paper: "As you leaf through the papers in a file, old paper and new paper, white paper and green paper, brittle paper and rough paper, hand-written paper and type-written paper, normal writing and bureaucratic writing, come together to create a mish-mash of colours and textures." The black and white images instill a sense of decay more akin to breathing forest floors. Here, the endless shelves and stacks of aging paper let go of memory in gentle collapse. In one image, sagging bundles wrapped in thin cord fall into one another, small signs noting with unintentional irony, "personal files."

File Room, by Dayanita Singh. Published by Steidl, 2013.

Other elements of File Room tension against its living, immediate aspects. Highlights fill with the warm glow of the paper, neutralized daylight and fluorescence obfuscating time; rich shadows anchor to the page. These images are saturated in urgency, not of their own accord, but of human brevity. While we access the file rooms through the page, the image is in the midst of an inevitable waltz of self-recognition. The cloth, paper and the ink of the book will eventually achieve the status of their subject matter, crumbling into nothing. In Paper Dust, Sen writes, "So, a living archive continually pushes the mind, and its arts of memory, to the limits of what it could rescue from disorder and oblivion. Everywhere, paper stacked perilously high, or turning into powder the moment it was handled, confronted the mind with its own precariousness."—NICHOLAS CHIARELLA

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NICHOLAS CHIARELLA is presently an administrative assistant and contributing faculty member at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design. He has previously coordinated education programs for 516 ARTS (ISEA2012) and for Meow Wolf and the Center for Contemporary Arts (CHIMERA). His poems and photographs have appeared in Santa Fe Trend, Slideluck Potshow, BathHouse Hypermedia Journal, the Mayo Review, and others. He drums for Santa Fe-based duo Alamo Sun, most recently collaborated on an installation with artist Martha Tuttle at Dwight Hackett Projects, and has contributed work to installations and group shows with Meow Wolf, Caldera, and The Tan.

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