When we present a book of any kind to the public, we are saying, “Here is something worth thinking about / something worth a moment of time between me and you”. We are breaching a thin but important boundary between the individual thinking and making privately and the individual presenting what has somehow transcended that inner space.
It is in that breach that the possibility of another kind of privacy begins: that shared between the book and its reader. And it is this that makes a book precious or sacred — in all its forms — an acknowledgement of a meeting point between itself and another existing outside of it (this other can be the author of the book; once a book is complete it is as much in conversation with its maker as anyone else).
In Zones of Privacy, an ongoing exhibition aiming “to show a variety of activities around the book”, we see sketchbooks placed next to scrapbooks, photobooks, diaries and dummies; collections of essays aside piles of prints bound in leather, letters made up of photos unfolding on vitrines on the wall, zines from DIY artists that have been stapled together alongside boxes of sepia-toned photos.
What is a book?
Zones of Privacy is a fragmented collection that touches upon the question of what a book is. Curated by Rukminee Guha Thakurta of Letterpress, a book designer who has worked on several artist books in the last decade, the show marks her first attempt to display a “spectrum of artistic activities around the book”, in a commercial gallery.
Her selections range from works-in-progress by students from the National Institute of Design to an assorted collection of personal journals by graphic designers, illustrators and painters to the published books of photographers and artists of many stripes in between. Guha Thakurta writes that, “by sharing them, the artists allow the viewer the pleasure of a glimpse of their innermost lives, a glimmer of moments when they were immersed in private zones of bookish activities”.
Given the volume of books on display, it is important to point to some that mustn’t be missed before we look at the show as a whole.
Begin with the six books by Gagan Singh that are laid out on a low table on the left as one enters. Each gives us a glimpse of his dark humour. Here is an artist who looks at drawing as a field of enquiry, through which many questions can be surreptitiously raised. The most touching of his sketches, The story of my daddy, has a drawing of a small dog below it. Ensconced in a tiny diary, the drawings in this story seem feeble at first, almost illegible; but soon the frailty of the lines, and his tiny running script, begin to signal the fragility of his father, the extent of his illness and the thoughts that pass through Singh’s mind as he spends days in the hospital.
Singh wrote to us about this moment: “When my dad was in the hospital [was] when I just started to work in sketchbooks… you stop and pull away! That pulling away is getting into the river because you can’t take anything else into the composition”.
This metaphor of pulling away, to a point of no return, is also felt in Sohrab Hura’s Life is Elsewhere. Hura is a photographer and this is his first self-published photobook. It’s placed on a low silver table behind a wall in the right corner of the room.
A visit to the gallery is necessary to engage with this work alone. It begins with what can be read as a love letter. Hura confesses the state of his life so openly that one is vulnerable to him, to the words, to the images before there is a chance to stop and think. He shows us, from the inside, what his mother had become when she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He tells us what this does to him and their home.
Many pages on, as Hura steps into the world outside his home, we find ourselves exploding into life with him. We see his lover, his friends, his mentors, his travels. How large and lovely Holi and Benares and the ocean must seem to the boy trapped in his bedroom, waiting at night for his mother to beat him. This book is a long journey and a dialogue; it is difficult to walk away from such candour without revealing something of yourself.
A contrasting experience of honesty can be found in the ironic tone and self-reflexive journals of Sunandani Basu piled up on the centre table of the exhibition. An animation designer for 15 years, she had to sift through 96 journals to make her selection for the show. For Basu, journaling is a process of making life. She shared with us that through these “letters for her future self” she “often remember(s) forgotten wishes and goals or events” that shaped her. It’s delightful to stroll through the worries and victories of her daily life. One can trace the arc of the conversation the young designer has had with herself over the years and feel like a confidential encounter has taken place.
There are other stranger encounters lying in waiting in the exhibition.
The two publications of emotional architecture created by Nida Ghouse and Malak Helmy, We called it the summer of two fires and a landslide and No Fantasy without Protest are slim collections of essays that explore the legacies of collaborations that sprouted in Cairo over the past decade. Asking the question, “What happens to knowledge that was borne in collaboration when collaborations break up? [which often they do]”, Ghouse and Helmy reached out to people across disciplines to attempt an answer. The soft and splintered narratives they have collected briefly allow us to enter the intellectual, political and social life of this distant group, and engage momentarily with a very particular history in a place now synonymous with revolution.
There is a fullness, a depth in what these artists chose to reveal. Going beyond a cursory glimpse into their creative lives, they show us their world with humility. As John Berger wrote in his essay To Take Paper, To Draw: A World Through Lines written in 1987:
“… we look through a window into a man’s capacity to dream, to construct an alternative world in his imagination. And everything depends upon the space created within the alternative. Usually it is meagre… they do not speak directly to us. For this to happen the space created… has to seem as large as the earth or the sky’s space. Then we can feel the breath of life… That the achievement is rare… maybe because such space only opens up when extraordinary mastery is combined with extraordinary modesty. To create such immense space… one has to know oneself to be very small.”
Given the variety of platforms now available for people to publish their personal lives, their daily conundrums, the curiosities they see around them, their sketches, their photos, absolutely anything at all, it is heartening to see the book still at the heart of so many practices. One can immediately sense the difference between what is displayed online and the creativity slowly developed here. This show is timely in bringing together some interesting examples of book-making.
Given the attention generated by artists like Dayanita Singh about the form of the book, it is important for more work of this nature to find itd way into the public eye.
However, given the seriousness of the subject, and the long history of book-making, this exhibition could do much more to create knowledge and experience of this genre of the ‘book as art’.
Given the number of choices, one is baffled by the inclusion of some artists who are in the early stages of their engagement with the book. While youth is no reason for exclusion, when work is unripe it begins to seem “meagre” (in Berger’s words) next to the evolved practices in whose company it has been placed (there is also a fear of creating a false sense of accomplishment for those just breaking into the gallery space).
One hopes that the next iterations of this show, and other artists exploring the book, will go deeper in their research and range.
The author is a Mumbai-based writer.
Zones of Privacy: on show till September 3, at Chatterjee and Lal, Colaba.