Friday, 22 November 2013

A Tale of Three Shows

Last weekend I saw three exhibitions: Dayanita Singh’s Go Away Closer at the Hayward Gallery; Philip-Lorca Di Corcia’s East of Eden at David Zwirmer and Edward Burtynsky’s Water at the Flowers Gallery. This blog will attempt to pull together threads from all of those. Normally I would try to separate them to avoid an over-long blog but in this case the three exhibitions all interact in my mind and I want to look at them all together. I went to the exhibitions with my friend Gilly and it really added to the experience to be able to discuss the work as we went along: thanks Gilly!
Dayanita Singh: Go Away Closer
Singh’s work was a revelation to me. I wasn’t very familiar with her before and wanted to see her in part because Amano had told me how much he valued the work and really whetted my curiosity. Sadly I can’t show any pictures of the installation as the Hayward didn’t allow any pictures to be taken and I was too slow to think of smuggling my phone in Winking smile. This is a great pity, as the physical installation is particularly important in Singh’s work. She describes her work as being less about any one individual picture but about the spaces between pictures, how they interact with and enrich each other and their environment.

On her website [] Singh describes herself as a bookmaker working with photography. This distinction is intended to signal that her interest in the plurality and form of images – sets, series, displays – informs all of her work: if you look at the website you’ll see that all of the work is arranged in books rather than projects or galleries. The books were all on display at the Hayward. One of their most notable qualities is that they are in general small books and not very expensive. Some are capable of being carried around in pockets: none are large, beautifully produced and expensive monographs for collectors.  They are intimate books, to be held in the hands rather than admired from afar. The book you can see above is the exhibition catalogue, edited by Stephanie Rosenthal. Singh is interviewed in the catalogue by Rosenthal: at page 39 she says “I have this category of the mass-produced artist’s book. I don’t think an artist has to be unique. I think a mass-produced book can also be an artist’s book.”  The books are artist’s books in the sense that the artist controls every detail of production just as they would if being made by hand: each book is uniquely designed for the work it incorporates.

Singh plays with form and each book is different, though there are identifiable themes. The same people (and sometimes the same pictures) reoccur in different books making new connections and meanings in each. She has photographed the same people over decades – a eunuch called Mona, celebrated Indian tabla player Zakir Hussain, and a family in Calcutta. Mona has a book of her own but appears from time to time in other books and in a claustrophobic and haunting film which is showing at the gallery.

The work as a whole has a dreamlike quality, consisting of intense moments of observation and impression. Apart from her early work, the books have no text and the pictures are intended to speak for themselves, to make connections and ask questions and evoke states of mind in the viewer. Her working method is to take and make pictures as they suggest themselves to her but not to use them until they make collections or a coherent set. When a book theme suggests itself to her she works through her archives to find previously unused images that work for that collection. This approach is summed up in the end wall of the first gallery at the Hayward, where a set of pictures are arranged in a rough oval – a cloud of pictures almost. The pictures are mostly black and white but with some colour and are different sizes and have some framing differences. There isn’t a single theme or common subject. But somehow everything works together – the pictures echo each other in different ways and there are plays of ideas and light and colour and themes that somehow all come together to make up more than the sum of their parts. I want a wall like that. Maybe I could make one for myself, using my own pictures… I thought the whole was a masterclass in curating and presenting work and want very much to learn from her. I worry from time to time about my two book projects and how I will bring all the material together into some kind of meaningful (I hope) whole and felt instinctively that I could gain much from studying Dayanita. In her own words again:
“I have to put myself into it. Perhaps somebody else may not be able to make good photographs consistently, but being able to do that is hardly anything to write home about. It may be fine for everybody else, but it’s not enough for me…
I think making the photographs is… like gathering the raw material. I used to think of it like gathering words: having a big desk… full of words and then seeing where the connections are… That is when photographs come alive, because they need to be transformed.” (Go Away Closer, Singh and Rosenthal)

She described the wall as the culmination of her work to date and I could see why. I’m struggling to put it into words, and these are very much the sort of images that say things that can’t easily be communicated in words. In an essay in the catalogue Geoff Dyer describes work in her Dream Villa series as the opposite of narrative: he says "You look at this picture without any irritable straining after truth, content in the permanence of the fleeting mystery depicted... (What we see is) A different kind of negative capability: one that might even be seen as a synonym for photography itself." Something about this sense of mystery, the dreamlike quality and the wordlessness, speak to me strongly. I will undoubtedly return to this work at other times.

In addition to the books and prints, the Hayward contains a number of structures which act as mini museums, showing her work in a way that brings it closer to the viewer, requiring them to walk around and through the museums and combining the pictures in different ways from different angles. The museum and the archive and the form and role of photography in our lives is one of Singh’s long-term areas of exploration. Much has been written about these structures. I didn’t dislike this approach and did find it interesting but at least at this first viewing not quite as engaging as some of her other work. I will try to make a second visit or at least consider further. I did very much like one of her earlier explorations in making mini-museums. For example, the work ‘Sent a Letter’ is a series of mini concertina books, each with their own theme and mostly designed as mementoes for particular friends. They come in a slip case for storage and carrying but each individual concertina book can be opened up for display as a mini gallery. Another excellent and at heart profoundly simple idea that I hope to learn from. Geoff Dyer again: “…Sent a Letter: in its high-art-home-spun way, it’s not unlike the kind of thing you might have tried to make as a kid in art classes – and it’s as far removed from a super-sized Andreas Gursky or Thomas Struth as one could get… playfulness, pleasure in the possibilities of the modest and the miniature, are not at odds with serious ness: they are what enabled Dayanita Singh to become ‘an important photographer’.”

Of all the work, the series that spoke most to me is (perhaps predictably) ‘Dream Villa’ a series of pictures taken at night showing dreamlike scenes of, or suggesting, houses and dwellings. I love the nocturnal strangeness of this work. There are suggestions of loneliness and isolation, of danger in the darkness and comfort in the light. There is an exploration of the interaction of nature and the manmade. The pictures are very beautiful and often haunting and poetic - Dyer describes them as ‘the glorious nocturnes of Dream Villa.” He goes on to say that “The Dream Villa pictures are all uncaptioned because the places in them don’t exist. Yes, they’re all there in the world somewhere and she photographs them in that interrogative way of photographers, but it’s only later, when they’ve stopped being places and become photographs, that it’s possible to see if what was once reality – or a piece of real estate, at any rate – has acquired the ideal and elusive aura of the dream image.”  Again I want to study this work, for its own sake and also for inspiration for myself. I could say much more but will move on in the interest of keeping this blog entry readable.

Happily David Zwirner and the Flowers Galleries were happy for us to take and publish images of their exhibitions, as long as the pictures are properly accredited. I am very grateful to both galleries for this: I find it really helpful to be able to illustrate the works I am talking about.
Philip-Lorca diCorcia: East of Eden

The Hamptons, 2008

Philip-Lorca Di Corcia’s exhibition ‘East of Eden’ at David Zwirner used constructed documentary images to explore themes of American landscape and culture. I was familiar with diCorcia’s previous work such as Hustlers and Heads, but wanted to see this foray into imagery based in landscape.  Like Singh, Di Corcia’s work has a dreamlike or surreal quality and the pictures in this show came together to form a set of intertwined pieces but didn’t tell a linear or straightforward story. The form of the work was very different from Singh’s, with traditional large prints and naturalistic colouring and lighting (though the work often signals that it is staged, with obvious lighting, for example) and there was nothing candid or small scale about any of this work.

The exhibition is the first European showing of this work. The project began in 2008, and the gallery tells us it is ‘an ongoing series of large-scale photographs, which the artist has said was “provoked by the collapse of everything, which seems to me a loss of innocence. People thought they could have anything. And then it just blew up in their faces. I’m using the Book of Genesis as a start.” East of Eden, John Steinbeck’s magnum opus published in 1952, parallels many themes in the biblical Book of Genesis, such as the classic struggle between good and evil (from the Cain and Abel story), the hunger for acceptance and greatness, and the capacity for self-destruction and especially of guilt and redemption. In his series, diCorcia takes the economic and political climate of the United States towards the end of the Bush era as a source of inspiration. These images convey a sense of disillusionment and seem to depict people and events just after “the fall.”’ (

I found the pictures intriguing, at times puzzling, but definitely engaging and thought-provoking. One of the themes running through many of the pictures was sight, in both a literal and metaphorical sense. The picture Iolanda shows a lady in front of a window looking out onto a wide river, with a television in the room showing a tornado. However she seems to be looking at neither scene but gazing inwards, perhaps reflecting some inner conflict. The exquisite dogs seen in the picture above are ostensibly watching porn but of course dogs can’t see television screens as we do – so what are they seeing or perceiving of the scene being enacted in front of them? They certainly appear engrossed.

The picture on the right above (Andrea, 2008 shows a blind lady with her guide bog, looking out at a flower-filled scene that she can’t see. The two women are in front of another picture showing a man who is clearly blind sitting at table with his wife and looking off into the distance as if struck by some intense realisation. The Biblical theme was clear in some pictures, such as this apple tree, where the bright red apples slowly emerge from the mass of green as you look at it Some scenes showed relatively natural subject-matter but most showed the made environment. Sometimes we saw exterior views of shuttered (sightless?) houses, sometimes we saw interiors. Fire and its effects was another theme running through many images, from the elegant dogs in front of their contained fire to a singed wall on one of the sightless houses and finally this image, of a man on a horse viewing a golden landscape, which is in fact a burned one.

Sylmar, California, 2008

A golden vale, but no Eden. Distance and light make this picture look warm and inviting but it shows a landscape scarred by fire, dead trees and burned plants. Perhaps it stands as a metaphor for our own destroyed Eden or Earth? Perhaps we are looking at our interaction with the planet through gold-tinted spectacles. Clearly the work looks at how we live now, how we interact with the land and animals and each other, but there are layers of additional meaning or metaphor in many of the images.

I found the overall effect of the exhibition compelling. The images are haunting in their different ways. I haven’t yet fully made sense of it for myself (I think the pictures are ambiguous enough that there may be a good number of different and equally valid readings) but am content to wonder about the meaning and return to the images from time to time. I am particularly drawn to the images that appear to be exploring our inability to clearly see the world around us and the despoliation of nature, the latter a theme which is further explored by Burtynsky. Like Singh, this was an exercise in combining a range of related imagery into a whole, but without her playfulness with form. I found it interesting and am very glad to have seen it. Combining images to make a set but without an obvious linear narrative is something that I am actively considering for my two books. I liked the cleanness of the layout here, though a bit of me missed Dayanita’s playfulness. You can get a good view of the installation here.

In many ways Di Corcia’s work acted for me as a bridge between Singh and Burtynsky: Di Corcia’s work having a surreal and dreamlike and non-linear element but consisting of large, realistically shot scenes. Large prints were certainly the order of the day at the Flowers gallery, where we saw Burtynsky’s ‘Water’.

Edward Burtynsky: Water

The magic of Photoshop (the original of this was taken at an acute angle as I couldn’t get far enough away). The picture in the window is Xiaolangdi Dam #1, Yellow River, Henan Province, China, 2011 Chromogenic Print, 152 x 203 cm / 60 x 80 in
Burtynsky’s Artist’s Statement for this exhibition tells us that:
While trying to accommodate the growing needs of an expanding, and very thirsty civilization, we are reshaping the Earth in colossal ways. In this new and powerful role over the planet, we are also capable of engineering our own demise. We have to learn to think more long-term about the consequences of what we are doing, while we are doing it. My hope is that these pictures will stimulate a process of thinking about something essential to our survival; something we often take for granted—until it’s gone.”

The picture in the window symbolised the two main aspects of the exhibition for me – there is a glorying in the sheer power and beauty of natural elements but also a fascination with our attempts to control it. Overall this project is divided into a number of elements: looking at agriculture, aquaculture, areas in distress due to lack of water, how we prize waterfront dwellings, and at the source of water itself. This was a typically huge project, involving travel across many continents, mostly shot from helicopters and all from high god-like positions.

You can get an overview of the exhibition here. The prints were huge and gorgeous. Really beautifully produced, in a way that I cannot do justice to in these snaps. I noticed that some were behind glass and some not: the gallery told me that this was essentially a practical decision. The smaller prints (which were around 4’x5’) were made in Burtynsky’s studio in Canada and were of a sixe which could be framed behind glass. Although glass is always more protective and would be their first choice, for the large prints (around 5’x7’) the difficulty of handling such a large pane of glass and the weight it adds to the frame posed their own risks, so on balance they left the larger ones without glass.

Xiaolangdi Dams #2 and 3, Yellow River, Hunan Province, China 2011

The two extraordinary images above are the first thing you see as you enter the exhibition. They convey a sense of tremendous scale and power, reminding me of images of the Biblical deluge by John Martin or Turner.

Rice Terraces #2, Western Yunnan Province, China 2012 (thanks to Gilly for this picture)

The picture above shows an example of a large tract of land intensively farmed and carved into water terraces. Agriculture represents by far the largest human activity on the planet. Burtynsky tells us that approximately seventy percent of all fresh water under our control is dedicated to this activity.

Large, exquisite prints in their Mayfair home: Mount Edziza Provincial Park #1, 2013

This is one of the ‘Source’ images. Source comes from Burtynsky’s journey to British Columbia and Iceland, places where a critical stage in the hydrological cycle takes place: the mountains, containing glaciers and snow. We are told that these are the first landscapes in over thirty years Burtynsky took focussing specifically on pristine wilderness, instead of the imposition of human systems upon it.

Overall I very much enjoyed the exhibition. It would be hard not to be awed by the beauty of the work and Burtynsky’s technical mastery. The scale and ambition of the undertaking is extraordinary: Water creates a compelling global portrait of humanity’s relationship with the natural world and this most vital and rapidly depleting resource. I found myself much less conflicted by this exhibition that by Oil and I think that is in large part due to an essentially more neutral subject matter and approach. Perhaps there’s also a slight element of lack of imagination on my part, in that the crisis of water and the need to conserve what we have is almost as critical as with oil.

Technically I felt many of these were a slight improvement on the already excellent works in oil, some of which showed some slight artefacting from being reproduced so large. I think all of these were digital files, which now scale up much better than film, keeping their detail with no softness. Many of the pictures, such as the rice terraces below, had a strong abstract quality of pattern and form. They played with scale and could have been small details from a larger landscape. However when you went in close every detail was resolved, down to some tiny figures in the field and pathways.

In almost every way this exhibition was opposite to Singh’s: the huge scale, the relatively accessible and linear narrative: a complete lack of playfulness or experimentation with the medium. I found that it spoke to me less than Singh’s work did, certainly less than it did to Gilly -, though it has made me think again about buying intensively farmed fruit and vegetables. I do admire the scale and ambition and seriousness of purpose. But I have no desire to make pictures like this myself, whereas Singh (and to a lesser extent, diCorcia) did inspire me and give me ideas for my own work.
References and links
Dayanita Singh Go Away Closer. Edited by Stephanie Rosenthal. Hayward Publishing © Southbank Centre 2013
All links were accessed on 21/11/2013 (Singh speaking about Go Away Closer)


  1. Hi Eileen,
    Now that I've had a week or so away from them, I've been pondering my own responses to these three exhibitions. It's true that I was blown away by the Burtynsky images, to a large extent because I responded so strongly to the sheer beauty of them. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, but I've been thinking since then that while I still love them to bits, they don't provoke nearly as much thought as the other two photographers - they have less depth, I think. These are the prints I want on my walls - oh that that were possible! - but if I want to be made to think, then the Di Corcia exhibition wins outright. It was my least favoured of the three in terms of the pleasure of looking, but gave the greatest intellectual satisfaction - I'm still thinking about some of the themes running through the images as, like the best pictures, there's more here than is easy to put into words. Singh came somewhere inbetween - I responded on an emotional level to some of the images, and also found a lot to think about in terms of how she groups and displays her work - something you've explained really well in your post.

    I'm wondering if there is an element of tension between the sheer gorgeousness of Burynsky's prints and the point he's trying to make. I know you had similar thoughts regarding his 'Oil' exhibition. To me, they're just overwhelmingly wonderful to look at - it comes as an afterthought that what I'm looking at is actually despoiling the land. On the other hand, if he made things look as ugly as they probably are at ground level, I wouldn't have much interest in spending time gazing at the result - I'd want to turn away. And, his image of the thousands of greenhouses covering the Spanish Almira Peninsula has really stuck in my mind, and not solely because of the wonderful pattern it makes from the air. It really has made me think about where my out-of-season tomatoes are coming from and whether or not it's justifiable to turn a whole peninsula into an environment where nothing can live other the crop, including humankind.

    As we said at the time, there's loads to think about. It was a real pleasure to go round these with you, and a further one to read your account of it afterwards.

  2. So much to see here Eileen and I enjoyed the way you wove your own narrative around the very different threesome. I certainly want to go to the haw yard and David Zwirner Galleries.

  3. Thank you both. I too keep thinking about those Spanish greenhouses Gilly. It is interesting how things settle in your mind over time and how some things come to the forefront and some recede a little from how they seemed at first viewing.

    I hope you do find time to get to the Hayward Catherine - it really is an interesting exhibition, and the books made me think of you, especially 'Sent a Letter'.