Building Subjects of Light: Tavares Strachan and Dayanita Singh
Museums are places charged with memories. As both repositories and centers of display, they bear witness to changes in history, politics, culture. At their core, museums collect objects so that visitors—if not entire societies—can recollect things of import. How can artists today challenge the way that museums build spaces and memories? In works now on view at Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA), Tavares Strachan and Dayanita Singh rethink how architecture informs a memory that is doubly collective—both shared by a broad public and shaped by curatorial practice.
A conceptual artist based in New York, Strachan once Fedexed a 4.5-ton block of Alaskan ice to his country of birth, the Bahamas. Preserved inside a glass freezer powered by solar energy, this displaced ice was exhibited at his primary school; among other things, The Distance Between What We Have and What We Want (2006) poignantly evokes childhood dreams and contradictions. One of Strachan’s current projects, developed with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, involves putting into Earth’s orbit a sculpture honoring the first African American astronaut.
Strachan’s grand-scale explorations of space form an intriguing counterpart to Singh’s more intimate photographs and handmade objects, such as books. In recent years, Singh has embraced the archive as her primary subject. Visiting archives first in India, now in Italy, she captures only spaces that inspire her with their aesthetic and history. As the artist explains from her home in New Delhi, “architecture is very important to me. I often call [what] I do ‘photo architecture,’ because I think photography is an architecture of its own. I also miss very much the sense of space in many exhibitions.”
Invited by curators to participate in the 2018 Carnegie International, how would these artists respond to CMOA’s unique architecture? How would their work resonate with Pittsburgh, a Rust Belt city with a history and character unlike most art-world haunts?
Tavares Strachan, The Encyclopedia of Invisibility
A map of Pittsburgh often reads like a roll-call of great men. Carnegie! Mellon! Frick! The names of these 19th-century titans pepper the city where they rose to fame. Steel and coal once stoked their fortunes—and made Pittsburgh glow on the global map. Long since defunct are the mills and mining plants whose sooty plumes defined the “Smoky City.” Yet the names of past tycoons still haunt streets, parks, buildings, and public squares. Their names still have currency, in every sense. Like the smoky byproduct of history, these lingering words make the cityscape a legible archive.
Nowhere does the pantheon of names take stranger form than along Forbes Avenue—itself named for the man who named Pittsburgh after another great man, the politician William Pitt. Back in 1890, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie pledged a million dollars to build a local system of libraries that were “monumental in character.”1 Plans for the central branch on Forbes quickly grew in scope and grandeur. After several expansions, the imposing stone complex now houses a parade of institutions named after Carnegie: among others, a library, music auditorium, lecture hall, natural history museum, and art museum. These spaces cover virtually every field of knowledge, stamping each with the Carnegie brand—just like the steel beams that physically and financially undergirded the original structure.
The building thus constitutes a rather spectacular case of architectural manspreading. A bibliophile drawn to large-scale projects, Carnegie treats the cityscape as his own colossal library. In this sense, Forbes Avenue provides a shelf to hold the Carnegie building-cum-encyclopedia, a succession of volumes on different subjects. To signal the kind of riches held within, the neoclassical portion of the complex includes an external frieze, incised with a series of iconic names. Aristotle, Copernicus, Rembrandt, and Darwin keep company with other great men from the Western tradition. Coursing around the perimeter, this frieze imposes coherence upon a disparate collection of spaces. But such a ribbon of words also reifies—gift-wraps—a canon that defines genius as solely white and male.
For the Carnegie International, Tavares Strachan disrupts this frozen current of history with an electric blast: quite literally, an alternate and alternating current. His work, aptly titled The Encyclopaedia of Invisibility (2018), positions names wrought in colorful neon tubes between and over the names carved into the frieze. (Among the great men originally honored, Benjamin Franklin would likely commend the electrifying venture.) To rectify the blind spots within Carnegie’s roll-call of visionaries, Strachan lights up the names of eminent women and non-white people. These added luminaries range from Kassiani to Tupac Shakur, Haile Selassie to Shirin Ebadi. Their names bring color to the pale grey facade, jolting passersby to reconsider the spaces around them.
A classical frieze often depicts heroic episodes from myth or history. These stone narratives propagate the memory of significant figures and events, while establishing the building’s own social prestige. Working in this context, Strachan questions what counts as monumental character for both people and built structures. Rather than simply rewrite the past, his dialogic Encyclopaedia weaves one set of names into the other (the incised names are legible from a slant or through the neon letters). As the braided names speak to one another and to viewers, this discursive intervention gives currency to a more inclusive history and architecture. Inside the museum, viewers find a massive, gilt-edged tome that compiles biographical entries for Strachan’s alternative canon. While this physical encyclopedia rests–closed–inside a vitrine, handouts provide visitors with basic details intended to revive the memory of undervalued heroes. On the International’s opening weekend, a performance by local children gave audiences further insight into these figures, and ensured that future generations would cherish a fuller version of history.
Dayanita Singh, Time Measures and Pothi Khana
While Strachan explores how visibility informs the grand narrative of history, in public domain, Dayanita Singh takes a more oblique approach to memory and knowledge. Two of her recent works are tucked inside Carnegie Museum of Art, upstairs in the Heinz Galleries. Time Measures (2016) consists of 34 photographs, each featuring a bundle wrapped and knotted with a bright red textile. Uniformly composed against a backdrop of stone blocks, these 34 bundles appear the same upon first glance. Indeed, Singh enforces a sense of repetition by hanging the photos—identically sized and framed—along a single line, close to eye level.
This horizontal stream of images flows across three walls of the gallery, easing around corners and across an entryway. Such a uniform band cinches the space together aesthetically, creating an architectural bundle; form thus mirrors content. More strikingly, Time Measures describes an internal frieze that recalls Strachan’s Encyclopaedia outside. Even the palettes reveal a kindred sensibility: both the red bundles and neon letters stand in bold relief against pale grey stone. Like the names of those usually made invisible, the bundles are glyphs that deserve a closer reading.
Indeed, Time Measures rewards viewers who measure time without modern distractions. A more attentive survey, for example, reveals how subtle breaks divide the circuit of photos, defining sub-groups that range from two images to seven. These spatial pauses articulate a staggered rhythm that literally marks time differently across the walls. What initially seemed a lyrical, sustained line now buzzes with syncopation.
This complex, shifting quality extends to the photos themselves. Knots vary slightly from one bundle to the next. Sun-bleached patches and striations render each wrapper unique. With more time and scrutiny, the bundles assume the weathered charm of people’s faces; the series begins to resemble a taxonomy of portraits, each calibrated against nearby images. Indeed, the close-up images exude such a powerful sensuality that viewers might feel tempted to reach into the frame, loosen the knots. But a click of the shutter has forever sealed each bundle.
As Singh explains, these enigmatic objects come from one of the many archives that she visits. Across India, bundles are often used instead of boxes to hold papers and other materials. While most people enter an archive to peruse items retrieved from storage, the artist focuses her camera elsewhere. For Singh, the unopened bundles in her photos betray their own secrets: “I prefer to leave the contents ambiguous, as I really don’t know what’s in them or [where] they are from. What interested me was how they had measured the light that fell on them, depending on where they sat in the archives.”
By reading the container rather than its contents, Singh conjures both a material history and a map of the archive. Patterns of fading outline the position of surrounding objects, while gradations of color suggest the length of sun exposure. These indelible marks transform the wrappers—generic, disposable—into artifacts of rare import. Like jigsaw pieces, the bundles help reconstruct an archive’s layout; like photographic film, they register a picture based on light and time.
By inverting the values usually attributed to objects, creating an encyclopedia of the invisible, Time Measures queries the politics of knowledge and recognition. What do we neglect to bring a certain object into focus? What do we forget to sustain a desirable version of truth? Even archives, often perceived as hermetic sites of authority, cannot escape the impact of their social and physical environs. No matter how tightly wrapped and knotted, every bundle of knowledge remains subject to changing light, changing times. Like Strachan’s neon letters, which blaze at night and fade into day, Singh’s bundles force viewers to consider how local context affects visibility.
Time Measures never makes overt reference to politics, however. Singh elegantly abstracts her images from a specific time or place, giving the series a transcendent quality. Nonetheless, the bundles have a visceral presence that implicates the materiality and messiness of the world just beyond the frame. As the artist herself suggests, the bundles might be conceived “as gifts, as newborn babies wrapped in blood-soaked cloth, or indeed as time capsules.” Missives from another place, another epoch, the bundles evoke both newborn blessings and bloody sacrifice. To borrow the words of poet W. B. Yeats, what rough beast slouches toward birth?2
The unseen body returns to haunt Singh’s Pothi Khana (2018), a work named after a particular archive. While Time Measures courses around the walls, Pothi Khana occupies the floor with six towers built from large, open cubes. Lining the sides of these wood-framed structures are photos slotted into hidden grooves. Singh cleverly adopts a modular design that keeps the display flexible: anyone can rearrange the stackable cubes, swap photos, or leave slots vacant. Though such privileges remain off-limits for museum visitors, the artist hopes to empower others—such as private owners—to curate their own shows.
Singh’s work often plays with alternative modes of display. For instance, Museum Bhavan (2015) offers an impressive array of custom-built framing devices: hinged screens, groups of boxes, various furniture-like objects. Each type of device not only houses a thematic group of photos, but also forms a built space that Singh calls a “museum.” As a companion piece, the artist published a boxed set of miniature books, each indexing a specific “museum.” Between the covers, readers discover a series of images linked with accordion folds—to mimic the experience of looking at a hinged screen. Opened and standing (or positioned any number of ways), these books allow ordinary people to install and curate “museums” inside their homes.
As the artist observes: “I find the book on the bookshelf not enough for me, you know? So I want the dissemination of the book, and I want….that quality that makes things very special in a museum or a gallery.”
That special aura of a treasury—a museum, a library, a sacristy—infuses Time Measures as well as Pothi Khana. Indeed, Singh’s work consistently probes the slippage between the material and ineffable, the quantities we can measure and the qualities beyond value. Archives foreground these concerns as institutions that preserve, classify, and showcase tangible pieces of knowledge. Both Time Measures and Pothi Khana involve photos of archives, but only the latter translates structures of knowledge into architectural form. Locally, the slender towers of Pothi Khana recall the Cathedral of Learning, a University of Pittsburgh landmark diagonally across from the museum. With its medieval flourishes and soaring ceilings, this Gothic Revival skyscraper imbues higher education with the awe-inspiring mysticism reserved for a temple.
Such wonder suits the images filling the six towers. Singh’s photos—mainly black and white, some lightly tinted—depict archives packed with the kind of bundles seen in Time Measures. Shelving units display rows of wrapped and knotted parcels, their contents as mysterious as ever. But here, the lines of shelves in the photos echo the lines dividing the towers into cubes. Just as every archive protects and sorts irreplaceable artifacts, each tower collects and arranges a treasury of photos. The cubes thus serve as windows into a faraway archive while mirroring that repository’s form and function.
By mingling real and virtual shelves, Singh introduces a self-reflexivity that troubles how visitors perceive built space. Like Museum Bhavan, Pothi Khana experiments with framing devices that reorient the viewing experience. Just as the former inserts “museums” inside a museum, the latter challenges the very structure of museums from within. How do visitors encounter objects? How are meanings are produced and made legible? Strachan expresses a similar desire to enact systemic change by “working within [a given] structure to try and create new structures.” Both artists embed alternative spaces of display to unsettle an institution’s protocols of seeing and knowing.
Singh finds a graceful but potent way to disrupt architecture: by placing six matching stools among the towers of Pothi Khana. Sporting the same teak frames and gold hinges as the towers, these seating cubes evidently belong to a cohesive, planned landscape. As Singh explains, the stools are provided for visitors to relax, converse, study the photos at length, or simply experience the installation from a lower-than-usual angle. With a single gesture, the artist welcomes us into her domain, her allotted space in the museum. As we linger in Singh’s creative “home,” lounging on stools designed for our bodies, we become part of the work. When we leave, traces of us inevitably remain: a footprint, a hair, the warmth of a seat, a disturbance in the air.
Pothi Khana’s towers and stools transform a collection of photographs into a social, engaged space much like an archive. As Singh’s images reveal, such places do not exist as islands. While Time Measures records the visible effects of a world outside the frame, Pothi Khana shows the everyday objects used by staff who make the archive a kind of home. Desks and chairs, thermos flasks and cups: the presence of these human comforts steer the photos from pure formalism. Yet the users of these furnishings remain stubbornly off the scene, leaving behind only traces, memories of themselves. Lest we think some disaster has struck, Singh includes one image of a bespectacled man sitting at a desk, looking sternly into the camera with an old-school librarian’s gaze. Pen in hand, the man appears ready to mark a bundle sitting before him on a wooden stool—which resembles the ones used in Pothi Khana.
Singh’s work reminds us that archives—and museums—cater to people. Even when hidden from view, human bodies leave traces that haunt the photos. How could a machine secure bundles so intricately? The sheer variety of knots in Time Measures suggests the effort of many hands, many years. Sitting and pondering the vacant chairs in Pothi Khana, we realize that our own bodies mirror those of the absent people. Just as the shelves formed by the towers mimic those in the photos, the stools allow us to envision ourselves occupying a space inside the archive. We too could be seated by a table, pouring a cup of tea. We too could be unknotting a bundle, poring over a text. Might we detect a footprint, a hair, the warmth of a seat, a disturbance in the air? Even the artist has a phantom double: several photos depict a camera on a tripod, presumably used by an unseen staff member.
The built structures enable viewers to place themselves in new subject positions, to project their own dramas. As a device for both staging and framing, Singh’s architecture brings the unknown into empathic proximity. By allowing us to construct our own communities, imagined and real, the modular cubes prompt us to curate our own lives with careful reflection. Unlike a bundle resting passively on a stool, ready to be classified and shelved within a prearranged matrix, we can decide what kind of riches we contain, how we identify. By controlling what lenses we see through, what light we shine, we determine the memories we make–and the memories we leave.
Amid the names written across the frieze, Strachan nestles this phrase in neon: “all the people that have been made invisible by the mechanism of history.” While Singh has less interest in names than Strachan, her work makes visible those behind-the-scenes workers who usually toil without credit. More importantly, her work serves as a mechanism that makes us visible, to ourselves and to others. While we may not be Carnegie, or any of the famous men inscribed onto maps, into history, we too have a humble seat to call our own. In a continual process of dialogic reinvention, we define the sites that allow us to grow and build, to find our place in the sun. Indeed, both Strachan and Singh open up new possibilities for how identities are conceived. As we gaze into Pothi Khana’s faraway archive, what might that bespectacled man see and think of us? What rough beast does he discern slouching toward birth?
The 2018 Carnegie International is on view at Carnegie Museum of Art until March 25, 2019.