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Book of the Week: Selected by Brian Arnold

Book Review Book Building Photographs by Dayanita Singh Reviewed by Brian Arnold "Singh has developed a life’s work based on a deep reverence for books and has pioneered new understandings of what they can be by exploring all their layers — as objects and artifacts, as metaphysical entities, as narrative vessels and as performance pieces..."

Book Building By Dayanita Singh.
Book Building
Photographs by Dayanita Singh

Steidl, Gottingen, Germany, 2021. 160 pp., 90 illustrations, 5½x8¼".

In an essay called “Is Nothing Sacred?,” author Salman Rushdie writes about a reverence for books instilled early in his life. “In our house,” he writes, “whenever anyone dropped a book…the fallen object was required not only to be picked up but also kissed, by way of apology for the act of clumsy disrespect.” He goes on to say that the kissing of holy books is a common thing in India, but in his household all books were given the same respect, and that he kissed dictionaries, atlases, novels and comics. Rushdie offers this with a certain level of comedy, but given the title of the essay clearly there is something much deeper happening; he is really defining a relationship he has to ideas and words and the books that hold them. I think his idea is that, if investigated with an open mind and a true spirit, all books are sacred. Rushdie is really emphasizing the power of the written wordd, and given the decades of turmoil his writing created, he can share this with a more profound insight than most of us.

Rushdie’s relationship with books also provides the perfect entry point for understanding the newest publication by Hasselblad Award recipient Dayanita Singh. Singh has developed a life’s work based on a deep reverence for books and has pioneered new understandings of what they can be by exploring all their layers — as objects and artifacts, as metaphysical entities, as narrative vessels and as performance pieces. She pays the closest attention to all their details by probing the implications of book construction, the social implications they embody and facilitate, and the myriad of possibilities available when combining images and words. In doing so, she has created a remarkably unique practice as an artist and photographer — indeed, has created a remarkably unique approach to life — that is solely devoted to books.

Book Building
is part manifesto and part retrospective. Within it, Singh spells out her approach to each of her different books and the ideas, exhibitions and performances they all facilitated and inspired, and in doing so, offers a deep personal philosophy about books. Divided into 7 chapters — Photo-Architecture, Book-Object, Living with Books, Photo-Fiction, Photo-Letters, Gifting the Exhibition, Photo-Biography — a curiously curated glossary and an appendix of testimonials, Book Building breaks down each of her major projects, presenting specific details about things like paper and ink choices (and arguments with Gerhard Steidl), while outlining her transition from a traditional photographer to a multidimensional offset artist.

Each of these chapters describes several different book projects Singh developed, providing clear details about the logistics of each (how do different bindings work?) and deep insight into the philosophies and ideas driving their creation (how does understanding the specific binding properties facilitate new narratives?). I felt familiar with Singh’s work before reading Book Building — I have a few by her in my collection, and I’ve always loved her pictures — but quickly came to realize I know very little. Most surprising to me were the book performances she held in different venues around the world, including the Venice Biennale. Singh custom built a cart, a cabinet with wheels that unhinged to create a signing table covered with tapestries from which she sold the books stored inside, ritualizing each transaction with unique stamps and inscriptions based on her interaction with the collector purchasing the book.

Like anything Steidl produces, Book Building is beautiful. The cover is from Singh’s sketchbook, and the pages that follow reproduce every step of her process — on press with Gerhard Steidl, contact sheets of Zakir Hussain, installation views, studio and performance shots, and even simple mock-ups (early on we learn that Singh always starts her projects with scissors and tape). Very little of the writing, however, is by Singh. After short introductions by Singh and Gerhard, the chapters are written by book designer Rukminee Guha Thakurta and curator Simrat Dugal. Beyond that, Singh’s primary written contribution is step by step directions describing how to turn each of her individual books into an exhibition of any scale. These directions not only have a quirky appeal, but they also offer insight into how Singh developed her ideas about books as exhibition objects.

The appendix is a series of testimonials. A selection of curators and writers were each asked to write a short essay reflecting on one of Singh’s books. I must confess to finding this a bit too much, and by the time I reached this part of the book I felt full of Dayanita Singh and was ready for some different observations about books. Thinking of Book Building as an artist book itself, it might have been more interesting if each of these writers shared something more akin to the Rushdie thoughts cited above, sharing a seedling about their love of books. Dayanita Singh undoubtably has an incredibly complex understanding of all things book — from modest archives in Mumbai, to the Venice Biennale and the greatest intricacies of the offset process — and I love thinking of that in conversation with other philosophies built on a profound love of books. It’s clear to me that all these different contributors are interesting writers and artists, and their testimonials are not without value, but I found it more engaging to come back to them after putting the book down for several weeks.

Having finished Book Building I have a better understanding of why Dayanita Singh was awarded the most recent Hasselblad Award. She has pushed the mediums of photography, offset lithography, performance and photographic installation into entirely new terrain. The Hasselblad Award is always accompanied by a major retrospective monograph, usually printed by Steidl, and I am quite curious to see how Singh’s will follow Book Building, which provides such a unique cross-section of a deeply complex artist. There is no denying that the photobook is a major part of contemporary photographic discourse — while all eyes are on Paris Photo and the Aperture Book Awards, interesting new photobook festivals and exhibitions are popping up in places as far-flung as Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta — and I think Book Building is an essential contribution to contemporary discourse about photobooks. As much as this book is about Dayanita Singh, it also offers perplexing, elemental questions; what really is a book?

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Brian Arnold
is a photographer, writer, and translator based in Ithaca, NY. He has taught and exhibited his work around the world and published books with Oxford University Press, Cornell University, and Afterhours Books. Brian is a two-time MacDowell Fellow and in 2014 received a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation/American Institute for Indonesian Studies.