Venice grids

Antonio Biassiucci, 2011

Dayanita Singh, File Room 2011

Birdhead, 2011

There is something intrinsic to photography, compared to other visual media, that an idea needs elaboration, repetition and variation to make its point. Paintings and drawings can stand alone, their pictorial space is plastic enough to allow complexity and multiplicity, and an artist’s idea can be stated in one instance. The space of a photograph is different, inherently smaller due to the tiny negative or digital sensor and enlargements are usually modest in size.

The monocular eye of the lens sees only the world of things and resists larger meanings – narrative, allegory and the like. But when variations can be shown, the re-statement and reiteration of an idea makes more complete communication possible, ideas can be teased out and explored, given breathing space. So photographs are often displayed in books, series, sequences, clusters and grids. The Venice Biennale this year is showing a lot of photography and it’s noticeable what a large proportion is in grids.

The tight geometry of the grid acts as a foil to the multiplicity of forms within the photographs. It contains them so there can often be a pleasing tension where the forms want to burst out into disorder but are restrained, for our inspection – look at the Birdhead grid above. Since time is a large subject in photography, images taken over time can be presented in a grid of related moments. And that other common subject in photography, typologies, is ideally suited to display in grids, where comparison of forms is easy – look at the works above by Antonio Biassiucci and Dayanita Singh.

At the Biennale, where the art on display is typically so big, small works are at a disadvantage. Perhaps that’s why small photographs where always shown in large numbers. The sheer scale of twenty or fifty photographs in a wall grid is protection against being overlooked. Whatever the inherent quality of the work on show, and I had my doubts about some of it, at least you couldn’t miss it.


File Room

Dayanita Singh, File Room 2011

“Storage rooms filled with paper archives demonstrating the aftermath of human presence.”

Dayanita Singh’s grid of black & white photographs shows office back rooms in India, stacked with bundles of bureaucratic files, an archive from another time. It’s funny at first, in an alarming sort of way. Then you think about all the human experiences packed away in those bundles, the histories of lives, the struggles, circumstances, predicaments that are vetted and filtered in bureaucracies, which in India are notorious for red tape. The New York Times described the files in these pictures as “stacked like so many desiccated lives”.

File Room is showing at the Venice Biennale. Dayanita Singh is an Indian photographer working out of New Dehli. She often presents her work in book form and you can see them on her website here.