Dayanita Singh

Sea of Files


October 15, 2022 – January 22, 2023




Dayanita Singh is the winner of the Hasselblad Award 2022. In celebration of this, the exhibition at Hasselblad Center reflects how archives and archiving have been continuous points of interest, research, and reference in her photographic oeuvre.  Singh has developed a highly inventive archival methodology for publishing and displaying her work, creating new ways of seeing and experiencing photography.


Dayanita Singh challenges the conventional approach to presenting photography by creating her own accessible ‘museums’ in the form of installations or publications. Singh’s photographs seem to take on a life of their own, but in the manner of a skilled composer, she assembles her images in meticulously crafted arrangements of poetic plays with themes and associations.


Dayanita Singh has been photographing and documenting everything from local town archives to court registries in India since the early 2000s, and the seminal work File Museum includes 140 of these photographs. Some of the archive documents are carefully wrapped in fabric, while others are placed in piles stretching from the floor to the ceiling. Finding the right document can appear to be an impossible task, but in Singh’s photographs, a close tie between the archive and the archivist emerges, where the piles of documents become an extension of the custodian, thereby following an internal logic. Singh is fascinated by the fact that archivists in India not only create their own physical structures but also – in many cases – their own individual cataloguing system.


The book takes on a key role in Dayanita Singh’s work and method. This is exemplified in Museum Bhavan, which consists of nine different museums in the so-called accordion book format, where the pages can be unfolded in long rows. The books also make the museums mobile, enabling Singh to unfurl an exhibition wherever she wants. The seriality and sequencing of the books are paralleled in her large wooden installations, but here, she breaks up the order and reshuffles the images. The Pothi Khana installation consists of columns of photographs that spread out like a forest in the room. The Time Measures series presents the red bundles that are a traditional way of preserving documents in India, where the red colour keeps the contents safe from insects and vermin. Over time, the bundles have faded, taking on the imprints of the bundles stored next to them. Mona Montages (Mona in the archive) is one of Singh’s more recent works. It consists of 11 collages created from portraits and archives and can be viewed as a tribute to Mona Ahmed, who has figured prominently in Singh’s life since 1989, both as a close friend and a source of inspiration.


Museum of Innocence (The Madras Chapter) includes 20 silver gelatine photographs from three home museums, as well as a framed fragment of text from Orhan Pamuk’s novel Museum of Innocence. A “home museum” is a home preserved for posterity after the death of the person who lived there. When Singh read Pamuk’s novel, she was inspired to trawl through her archive, leading to her creating a series of photographs of home museums devoted to the residences of MG Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan and K Kamaraj: actor, politician and activist. In the accompanying text fragment, Singh answers the characters in Pamuk’s novel to embed herself in the story.


In connection with the exhibition and the award ceremony, a new book will be published about Dayanita Singh’s archive works, accompanied by a new essay on her photography written by Orhan Pamuk. The publication contains a number of works from the exhibition, including the visual essay Sea of Files in its entirety. It is also the first time that Museum of Innocence (The Madras Chapter) will be published.


Photo: Mona Montage, 2021  © Dayanita Singh


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