Dayanita Singh File Museum at Frith Street Gallery.
Dayanita Singh describes herself as a bookmaker working with photography, and the intimate relationship with paper that this suggests is at the heart of her current exhibition at Frith Street Gallery. Paper, both subject and object, is celebrated for its steadfastness in the face of widespread digitisation, its paradoxical mix of fragility and endurance. Frith Street Gallery cite mortality and the monument as themes central to the works, and the sense of the archive’s memorial function is strongly conveyed in this affecting set of photographs.
Singh’s experiment with ‘photographic architecture’ is manifested here in the form of a folding cabinet reminiscent of archival furniture. The architectonic structure uses approximately 150 photographs that form the series as its building blocks, both underlining the importance of the relationship between image and location and evoking the latter for the viewer. The potential for an encounter that is not only intellectual, but also bodily, is not fully realised by the gallery, which sticks to the white cube formula.
Creating a more atmospheric space could have been more effective. If ‘photographic architecture’ is motivated in a desire to evoke the multi-sensory experience of entering a building, we see the archive but we also feel it and are enveloped by it; turning the spotlights down a few notches could have helped this along.
The overall impact of image-upon-image, of archive-upon-archive is somewhat dizzying. One gets a sense of referent after referent without an end point, that each file will contain further sub-divisions within sub-divisions. Re-tracing the connections, uniting reference with reference point, signifier with signified, appears to be a frankly impossible task. The archive has become, in this sense, its own world, as emphasised by its inhabitation of its own architecture, which has long since separated from the outside world. This divorce from lived experience reminded me of Pierre Nora’s essay ‘Between Memory and History’ which, albeit in a more critical tone, captures this sense of the archive as a harbourer of memories severed from their creators. Nora mourns what he sees as the loss of living memory and its replacement by the archive. He writes, ‘the archive has become the deliberate and calculated secretion of lost memory… the sacred is invested in the trace that is at the same time its negation’
For Singh, this trace of the sacred is not negated; rather it leaves a residue within the dusty files. Although we may at first be struck by the apparent disconnect between the archive and the world it represents, Singh persuades us that this very trace is what animates the archive, what ties it to the world outside. This connection is exemplified by a photograph somewhat lost amongst a host of others: a woman meets the camera’s eye as she walks down a corridor with a file under her arm.
By Laura Purseglove
All photographs by Stephen White. Courtesy of the Artist and Frith Street Gallery, London.
 Nora, Pierre, Nora, Pierre, ‘Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire’, Representations, Number 27, (Spring) p. 14.