“All photographs, installations and conversations in the Chairs exhibition are a blend of understanding and wondering.”
New Delhi-based photographer Dayanita Singh defies labeling. While she got her start as a graduate of the ICP program in documentary photography and cut her teeth with Mary Ellen Mark as her assistant, Singh’s own imprint on the photography landscape has been rather diverse.
About 10 years back she set upon a photography documentary as she was allowed to follow the life of Mona, a eunuch. That resulted in a book called, “Myself Mona Ahmed.” Exhausted documenting only social justice issues, she took a break of sorts to document the lives of people from a social class she knows best – the rich elite in India. That too resulted in a book called “Privacy.”
Dayanita Singh has a string of exhibits in the US; mostly in Boston and New York city. A group show she is in called PRESENCE is located at Sepia International and is on till April 16th. Another group exhibit she is a part of called EDGE OF DESIRE, at the Asia Society is on until June 1. The exhibit in Boston, at the Isabelle Stewart Gardner museum, is on until May 8th. The title of the show is simply – CHAIRS.
Gardner ‘Chairs’ for seeing, not sitting
By Christine Temin, Globe Staff | February 18, 2005
“Empty” is not a word generally associated with the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Gardner was one of the great collector/pack rats of her era, as her faux Venetian palazzo on the Fenway attests. The place is stuffed.
But let an Indian photographer and an Italian furniture expert loose in the dense, eclectic collections, and the surprisingly minimalist result is ”Chairs,“ among the finest of the contemporary shows the Gardner has mounted to reinterpret its holdings.
Dayanita Singh is the photographer and Fausto Calderai is the expert who has refined our knowledge of the Gardner’s furniture, a part of the collection that has gotten far less attention than its signature paintings. There are other players in the ”Chairs” project: the Italian/Indian artist Andrea Anastasio, designer of the overall exhibition; museum educator-in-residence Carla Hartman; and filmmaker Michael Sheridan, who documented the making of the exhibition. A six-minute excerpt from his longer behind-the-scenes film is playing outside the museum café. Watch Sheridan’s contribution last, so the ”how“ doesn’t overtake the ”what,” even though his film is a series of poetic snapshots rather than a dry blow-by-blow.
This is a surprising show, one of resonance and even poignancy, sparked by the Gardner’s copious collections of chairs of various periods and provenances. The empty chairs in Singh’s works also echo the empty frames in the Gardner gallery that was once home to works by Rembrandt and Vermeer, paintings stolen in a still unsolved 1990 heist.
Through rearranging furniture and adding temporary labels where none existed, lest they disturb the museum’s residential style (and possibly violate Gardner’s famous will that allows very little change), the team of artists draws our eyes and minds to objects most of us routinely walk by en route to a Botticelli or a Rembrandt.
This multifaceted show extends — without fanfare and somewhat surreptitiously — through the Gardner’s three floors of exhibition space.
The prescribed route begins with Singh’s elegant photos of chairs from various countries and eras, installed in the Gardner’s small temporary exhibition space. It continues in a niche carved into a first-floor wall, moves to a jarring ensemble of seating in an ornate second-floor gallery, and finishes quietly, with a subtle intervention in the long gallery on the third.
Singh’s chair photos come without the visual clutter of labels. (A free handout that identifies each chair is available in the gallery.) She has followed Gardner’s lead in asking us to focus on the objects alone.
The range of seating in her images is even broader than Gardner’s. She photographs an old theater from above, looking down on seats in rigid rows. In other images are chairs piled so high with books you can barely see them, or bookcases acting as backdrops for Asian-style cushions on the floor. Singh, like Gardner, is a bibliophile. And, like Gardner, she goes for weird juxtapositions, as in a photo of Buddha statues in the lotus position, seated on the floor, their dignity compromised by the sheets and clothes drying on the laundry line above.
Despite all the connections to Gardner, Singh is working in a completely contemporary mode, one related to the photographs of unoccupied theaters by Hiroshi Sugimoto (a sampling of which are across the way at the Museum of Fine Arts), the photographs of empty psychiatrists’ couches by Shellburne Thurber, or Abelardo Morell’s eerily unpopulated interiors, upside down, thanks to his use of the camera obscura. Absence becomes a potent presence in the works of all of them.
Each of Singh’s chairs has a distinct personality and even a gender. An ethereal example with thin legs, straight back, and no arms suggests a delicate, flyweight female with exquisite posture, graceful enough to avoid tipping over a little table nearby that seems to have only two legs. A fluted pilaster on a wall accentuates the image’s verticality. Singh calls this photo ”Ballerina Chair.“
The objects in the images suggest particular places and scenarios. We’re left to guess at the particulars, if we want, but the deliberate lack of information isn’t frustrating. We can easily identify the things in Singh’s rooms, and that is satisfying in itself.
In ”Amnesia,” the niche-in-the-wall piece, most of the back of an ornate 18th-century Italian walnut chair has been excised, replaced by a flat white surface on which projections of Singh’s photos appear, as if the chair-turned-screen were a memory bank. The sequence of projections ends with the image of the chair itself. It reads as a returning prodigal.
Wandering upstairs we take note of the huge variety of chairs in the museum’s collections, from a sedan chair in which some 18th-century aristocrat was carried through the streets, to choir stalls. The sight of the chair that sits quietly in a corner, in front of the Raphael ”Pieta,“ will be familiar even to those who have never visited before. Singh’s photo of the same vignette hangs downstairs. The ”Pieta” is beside a window that sheds filtered daylight on it. In the days before the museum had electricity, natural light was the only way to see it. Today’s conservation-conscious curators would balk at placing a light-sensitive masterpiece by a window, even with protection from ultraviolet rays. But Gardner’s will prevails.
There isn’t going to be any electric lighting in the second-floor ”Little Salon“ for the run of the show, unless it’s the darkest of days. Into this ornate room where nearly everything but the visitor is gilded, the artists have put a suite of sofas and chairs in a deliberately haphazard arrangement that suggests at least two separate conversations going on, with a couple of outcasts at a distance from the central groups. All the furniture is upholstered in the same blue silk, as if a reminder that this was a meeting of people of equal rank. One of Calderai’s whimsical touches is the squashed cushions, suggesting that the party has broken up but the maid has yet to arrive to plump the pillows.
In a glass case in the Gardner’s Long Gallery are two artists’ books — with more chairs — that Singh made for Calderai and Anastasio. Roughly the size of prayer books, they unfold, accordion style, so your eye can quickly scan all the images without moving your head.
The show has its ironies. So many fragile, historic chairs in the museum, but almost no place for the public to sit. Sheridan’s film has a hysterical shot of curator Pieranna Cavalchini and Calderai sitting on the floor as they talk.
And even when the Palazzo was private, those carved and gilded chairs didn’t come in for heavy duty. In the film, Singh laments that they’ve never been lived in and loved, which, for her, diminishes their personalities.
Many people see them as objets d’art, not seating. In that group was Henry James, who remarked on Gardner’s ”seven glorious chairs (the loveliest I ever saw); but they are not a symbol of her attitude — she never sits down.”