Few hours until closing time. There’s a rush of activity and a heady mix of collectors, first-time buyers, art enthusiasts and random visitors who are quite obviously clueless about art. I feel like a wise sage in this frenetic crowd. I’d been so organised this year about the fair-layout I’d managed to visit every gallery booth that was worth my time. In fact I was pretty much ‘done’ with the fair and was ready to leave in an hour’s time to make it to Dayanita Singh’s walk-through at Nature Morte Gallery in Neeti Bagh. So I decided I’d do one last round, to revisit some of the work that moved me, and to be sure I hadn’t missed anything significant.
In fact, I cannot remember the last time I was so intensely moved by a work of art.
Right beside the Jitish Kallat painting at the Arndt Gallery booth were two works by one of the most exciting contemporary artists in the world; Sophie Calle.
I don’t know how I missed them. I’ve yet to figure it out. But I made up for my sin of omission by spending at least an hour at that booth. First by staring so passionately at the work the world around me had begun to cease, and later, leafing through the book that features the work during which I’m convinced I experienced something akin to the Stendhal syndrome.
I discovered that the work on display was essentially a life-size version of four pages of Sophie Calle’s wonderful book, Exquisite Pain which is a visual record of a trip made by Calle in 1984 to the Far East, a trip she was reluctant to make because her then lover wasn’t keen on her absence, he even threatened to forget her. Calle reflects later in the book that this threat was possibly the reason why she may have decided to go anyway, to test the strength of their passion. They made a pact, they would meet in a hotel room in New Delhi in 92 days.
But the lover’s self-prophecy came true. On the 92nd day, Calle waited for him at the Imperial Hotel. He never showed up. Instead she received a message, a telegram, I think, suggesting he’d had an accident. She found out later he was in the hospital for barely a few minutes, his only injury being an infected finger. When she got him later on the phone, she asked if he’d met someone. He confirmed her suspicion. “Is it serious?” she asked. “I hope so,” he said. “Poor me,” she said.
The second half of the book, “After Unhappiness” has Calle retelling the same incident over a similar number of days as an attempt to exorcise herself of the sense of grief she found herself overwhelmed by. Alongside each retelling, which grows increasingly brief with the passing of each day, is a testimonial written by friends and strangers about the unhappiest moment of their respective lives. Each left page that features Calle’s retelling has the same image heading the text: the red telephone on the bed and a bed-side table beside it atop which stands a lamp-shade; the scene of her unhappiness. The pages on the right feature a photograph by Calle interpreting the testimonials below.
The first half of the book is a visual chronicle of the 92 days before Unhappiness which she spent travelling through the Far East. Each photograph bears a stamp marking the countdown to unhappiness.
Seven.six by 4.2 by 1 inches, hardback, cloth bound, with the emblem of the telephone imprinted on the cover, the book is in itself a work of art. The detailing is subtle, like the thin red border that frames each page which, when the book is closed, lures you with its red fringe. I spent at least an hour marveling at each page. There’s something irresistible about the book. It lures you because it documents something as universal as pain, and yet, it questions the relativity of suffering and grief, it proposes, compellingly, not just the idea that art can be cathartic, but it also makes suggestions about the inherent nature of an artist, the self-consciousness that seduces her into the act of creation. There’s a moment in Calle’s retelling when she suggests that she remembered to take the photograph on that tragic night, as if there was an artistic impulse that possessed her to take the photograph, document the moment despite herself.
Reluctantly, I leave the booth. By now I’ve asked the gallerist at least five times if he has copies of Exquisite Pain on sale. I even contemplate buying his copy off him, but from the look on his face I could tell it was out of the question.
So I head to Nature Morte. A small bunch of us surround Dayanita Singh’s mobile table which is stocked with copies of House of Love. I’d read rave, gushing reviews of the book. One reviewer called it a ‘literary accomplishment‘, another spoke about how successfully it had blurred the lines between art book and literary fiction, and listening to Singh, its easy to be swept away by her rhetoric.
Singh begins her walk-through with a passionate introduction about the intention behind what she referred to as her ‘experiment’, how she believes photography needs to look to literature, the need for it to move beyond the form of the photo essay. She insisted that she would like the reader to ‘read’ the image as against viewing it, and how she would like the image to be as open-ended as poetry generally is, and finally, her excitement over ‘photo-fiction’ as the new buzz word.
Frankly, House of Love, doesn’t seem to reflect these intentions. To begin with, I’m not entirely convinced that as experiences, viewing and reading are necessarily divorced from each other. Even if they are, who’s to decide which is the greater of the two. It’s possible to read the text of a novel and yet view it in your head at the same time, just as its possible to view an image and read it in your head. And when did the photograph cease to be open-ended, rendering itself to multiple perspectives?
Then there’s the ‘photo-fiction’ or ‘photo-novel’ label that I think is being overstated in this particular instance. I fail to understand the basic premise by which House of Love could be called a work of photographic or literary fiction, or a genre that sits somewhere in between. Formally, I can see the attempt, but it doesn’t ring true because it isn’t substantiated by content, and I’ve yet to see an instance in literature wherein form successfully supersedes content. The greatest works of literature are those that have achieved that delicate balance between the two. House of Love doesn’t.
Singh, who describes herself as a bookmaker working with photography, goes on to explain how she feels that the exhibition at Nature Morte which she was to walk us through is really an extension of the book and not the other way around, as is usually the case. This I can buy. The show features a mere fragment of book’s contents.
Still, it doesn’t answer the question, how is this a work of fiction?
So I begin to wonder if I’m being too prescriptive and conventional in expecting a work of fiction to contain at least a trace of the standard elements of fiction, like narrative, plot, character(s) and most importantly, the element of invention. I realise that my problem with House of Love is that it doesn’t hold together, despite the ‘clues’ that Singh seems to hand out, despite her intention to allow each reader to create her own narrative. To me it seems half-baked, like a poet who strings together a set of disjointed lines expecting that the form of the poem will validate the arrangement or the aspiration to poetry. Structure is more than just a framework that gives form, it must be built on solid foundation, it must have roots.
I’m not challenging the merit of House of Love as a book of photographs, I’m questioning its claim to being termed a photo novel, since there’s nothing novelistic about it, or its claim to blurring the boundaries between the art book and literature, since I don’t see how the nine ‘stories’ are interconnected or how they are vastly different from a photo essay, which is a term that has its etymology in literature, but which, nonetheless, is quite different stylistically and formally, from a short story or a novel.
House of Love features some poetry, a few lines scattered randomly here and there from various sources, and constant references to work by brilliant writers, including Italo Calvino and Vikram Seth. Some of the photographs stand out, but I find myself biased towards Singh’s earlier work in black and white and unable to engage with her experiments with colour, novel as they may be.
The walk-through is finally over, but there’s an unexpected power failure and Singh cannot quite take us through the work on display. So she continues to hold court at her mobile display rack but she changes hats, from spokesperson for her work (and an eloquent spokesperson she is), to passionate salesperson. Quite a few among the bunch are impressed with the book, but I didn’t stay to watch it fly off the shelf.
All I could think about was how I could get my hands on a copy of Exquisite Pain.