Artist: Dayanita Singh (Indian, born 1961)
Title: Pothi Box
Medium: 30 unbound image cards, teakwood enclosure, and embroidered muslin
Dimensions: 7 7/8 x 6 ½ x 1 in
Credit line: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, gift of Lisa Graziose Corrin and Peter Erickson in honor of Christine Robb, 2019.14
Dayanita Singh pushes the boundaries of traditional photography books by creating deconstructed volumes that reject fixed sequences and allow for play. Pothi Box, which she describes as a “book object,” includes a set of 30 off-set prints on cards whose order can be changed according to the preferences of the object’s owner. Singh explains that she feels a strong kinship with writers and other artists whose medium is defined by sequencing and editing. On photography, she remarks “Of course I love the medium, but I think we’ve been limited by the art world in terms of what photography can be.” Through both the format of her artworks, and the context in which they are encountered, Singh questions the traditional division of categories in the art world, blurring the boundaries between artist, collector, archivist, and curator.
These strategies slowly reveal themselves when interacting with one of Singh’s 360 editions of Pothi Box, which is published under her imprint Spontaneous Books. The title itself encapsulates the artwork’s hybrid status as a “book object”: “pothi” is an archaic term meaning “book” in Hindi and several North Indian languages, sometimes referencing older manuscripts, and the term “box” reminds us of the work’s status as an object and container. The object is wrapped in hand-embroidered muslin that is tied into a loose knot, both concealing its contents and inviting you to reveal what is inside. Within is a smooth, teak box with a front window that displays one of 30 cards.
The artist gives parameters for experimenting with the “book object”: the box’s 30 cards should remain intact as a group, but their order can be changed to feature different images. For display purposes, she suggests that the box can be “hung on the wall” or “placed as an object on a table.” Her instructions prevent the artwork from becoming too static and unchangeable—at risk of being stowed away and forgotten—by inviting the collector to play curator, archivist, and co-creator of meaning. Pothi Box has characteristics of a mass-produced book, a photo album, a mini exhibition, and a handmade sculptural object that is crafted with care.
The subject matter of the photographs—archives in India—also reflects an interest in the human impulse to impose organizational structures onto objects and documents. Many of the images transform archival materials to abstract, beautiful shapes: some show bundles of documents packed tightly into shelves in irregular patterns; others are close-up views of dense stacks of paper that form rich, craggy layers. But the most striking photographic elements are the subtle and insistent signs of human life in archives that otherwise appear deserted: a plastic water bottle on a desk, handwritten text on the bundles, and the haphazard stacking of cloth packages. These details make us think about the people behind the scenes, taking care of these massive collections. Cloth-wrapped bundles in the photographs also echo the wrapped Pothi Box itself, encouraging the owner to consider their own role in creating order, sequence, and narrative.
–Contributed by Melanie Garcia Sympson, Curatorial Associate, with research by Curatorial Associate, Essi Rönkkö, Associate Curator of Collections, and Kate Hadley Toftness, Senior Advancement Manager, Grants and Collection Council
- Artist website. “Pothi Box.” Accessed March 18, 2022. https://dayanitasingh.net/pothi-box/.
- Estrin, James. “The Photo Book as Art Object.” The New York Times. October 8, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/08/lens/dayanita-singh-photo-books.html.
- Grant Johnson. “Interviews: Dayanita Singh.” Artforum International. November 30, 2018. https://www.artforum.com/interviews/dayanita-singh-talks-about-the-photobook-77852.
- Vartanian, Harg. “The Book Object as Exhibition, an Interview with Dayanita Singh.” Hyperallergic. November 1, 2018. https://hyperallergic.com/468977/the-book-object-as-exhibition-an-interview-with-dayanita-singh/.
 Grant Johnson, “Interviews: Dayanita Singh,” Artforum International, November 30, 2018, https://www.artforum.com/interviews/dayanita-singh-talks-about-the-photobook-77852.
 Pothi.com, “What Does Pothi Mean?”, November 15, 2009, accessed August 6th, 2019, https://pothi.com/blog/2009/11/15/what-does-pothi-mean/.