Frith Street Gallery, London, UK
Night, Delhi-based photographer Dayanita Singh asserts, is transformative; it conjures figures lurking in shadowy recesses and renders small movements — rustling leaves, distant footsteps — threatening, even ominous. In ‘Dream Villa,’ the largest single body of her colour work shown to date, Singh explores the mysteriousness of ordinary spaces obscured in darkness. She exploits colour photography’s unique ability to reproduce gradations of colour and density in light, juxtaposing artificial lighting with moody night skies.
The resulting images are formally experimental yet atmospheric, almost cinematically so. One of the first photographs in the exhibition, DMV 27 (2008), presents a symmetrical landscape: a shack, with two identical doors, is flanked by two lights — one harsh, the other hazy. Like two opposing forces, a fluorescent rod brightly illuminates the left half, saturating the surrounding foliage and washing the foreground with cool light, while, on the right, the moon casts a warm yellow glow. DMV 11 (2008), an aerial shot of a city at dusk, reveals a network of golden arteries, with traffic rushing like blood through dense urban tissue. Here, lapis blue twilight sky meets the dazzling gleam of headlights and street lamps.
Though Singh is best known for her black-and-white portraits of India’s urban well-to-do, ‘Dream Villa’ is mostly devoid of human presence. Instead, the series’ vacant, quiet, anonymous spaces allow the drama of light and shadow to take centre stage. The few photographs with figures, surprisingly, are among the weakest. While the exhibition’s subject matter and colour represent a departure for Singh, its depiction of India is consistent with her larger oeuvre. This India is no Bollywood romp, third-world tragedy or Orientalist fantasy. Rather, Singh photographs the world’s second most populous country but leaves her images empty. In her shift to colour, she eschews the sunny palette of saris and spices for hues that are both richer and more muted. Just as when she turned her lens on India’s urban elite, here, too, Singh reveals a side of the subcontinent less familiar to western eyes.
As one of India’s most celebrated photographers, Singh’s work will also be shown at the Serpentine Gallery’s ‘Indian Highway’ (19 December 2008-22 February 2009) — a snapshot of the country’s flourishing art scene that follows their 2006 survey of Chinese art. (Next up is the Middle East; these three regions form a trifecta that, independently, will constitute a series of three shows at the Saatchi Gallery.) ‘Dream Villa’, however, is emphatically not about place; the photographs were taken all over India and their setting is rarely identifiable. The exhibition, the gallery press release insists, ‘exists as much in the artist’s imagination as in the real world.’ Singh endows her images with a mysterious and sometimes sinister air, just as we embellish the shadows and sounds of night, creating paranoid fantasies in response to the obscured, the shrouded and the unknown.
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