Meera Margaret Singh: What is Between Us

Meera Margaret Singh: Nightingale (2010): 48 x 60 inches, c-print. All images courtesy the artist.Meera Margaret Singh: Nightingale (2010): 48 x 60 inches, c-print. All images courtesy the artist.

By Kerry Manders

Sliding across the screens we dreamt we’d make our different dreams live on, I pause and feel the depth of the screen that keeps my body here and yours there . . . I now know that the architecture of the screen that holds our bodies is never flat. Take one.

— Peggy Phelan

Fallen Leaves: right forearm extended, reaching out (or in, from frame left) in a gesture that combines gift and display: “Here, look”, it seemingly exhorts. The hand exhibits a single red-wine-hued leaf that, in colour and shape, contrasts vividly with the square-tiled flooring below. Supple and slightly furled, the leaf appears freshly picked up (or off...is this leaf dying of natural causes?) for the staging of this photograph. At the top of the frame, a fragment of blue circle (with still more circles within it, and what look like echoes of the leaf: a vine design, perhaps). Frame right, a part of what appears to be a round table covered by a floral tablecloth. Given the proximity of hand to floor, as well as the shadow cast frame left, I sense, if not see, the rest of the body bent over, posing. So, too, the artist’s body, invisible yet powerfully evoked here. I imagine the camera poised to take a picture in which the floor becomes the backdrop. The contiguity of hands required physically to stage this shot renders the photograph a portrait of profound intimacy. “Look, here.”

Fallen Leaves (2010): 13 x 16 inches, c-print.Fallen Leaves (2010): 13 x 16 inches, c-print.Fallen Leaves (all works 2010) animated multiple motifs and themes at work in Toronto-based artist Meera Margaret Singh’s feature solo exhibition, Nightingale, which appeared at last May’s CONTACT Photography Festival: life, stilled; death, present(ed); relation, between; nature, aestheticized. Singh’s Nightingale comprises a series of fourteen photographs and one looped short film in which the aging maternal body—her own mother’s—becomes, repeatedly, the site for an evocative, elegiac and intimate contemplation. Eleven of the portraits feature Singh’s mother in various poses (dressed and undressed) or focus closely on parts of her mother’s body. There are no candid shots, no portrayals of Singh’s mother going about her daily business of living. Together, the staged portraits assert that her mother-as-model—with sundry signifiers of a life lived and living (grey hair, wrinkles, calluses, varicose veins, cellulite) on display—is a compelling subject for aesthetic engagement.

Singh was in art school and producing street photography when she became interested in domestic portraiture, largely in response to the live models she was repeatedly asked to draw and to paint in her classes: their bodies were inevitably young, naked, firm and, most jarringly for Singh, anonymous. “I had no relationship to or with the models,” she says. “I was trying to reproduce their lines, shapes and shadows. And, while I was intensely focused on them, I felt zero emotion towards them. I began to wonder what it would be like to work with someone who was more subject than object, and decided to ask my mom to pose for me. How would I approach a ‘known’ body differently?”

Singh’s shooting sessions were carefully choreographed events; Singh travelled from Montreal to Winnipeg in order to work with her mother. Their time together proved to be intense, and intensely intimate. Singh had never engaged in dialogue with art school models; but she and her mom conversed for long hours while working together. Singh recalls: “When I worked with models, the only thing that mattered was the product that I created. With mom, the product became secondary and the process primary.” In various ways, their process survives the portraits.

The first photograph in the Nightingale installation does not depict Singh’s mother. Or, rather, it features Singh’s mother via her absence. (Provocatively, the last photograph of the installation features a lamp: I begin with absence and end with illumination). Appropriately, this photograph is entitled Absence — perhaps as fittingly, all photograph titles were absent from this installation. Absence is a large print that shows simply a section of rose-coloured carpet, bearing the imprint of a body (of hands and feet, specifically) that once was — here, there — and whose traces we witness in the pressure marks in the carpet pile. Like the mother’s body, the carpet wears the signs of life and, possibly, of art. Were the marks left behind after the staging of a photograph? The artist-daughter, whom we don’t see in any of the photographs, is conjured by her mother: Nightingale refers at least as much to the artist as to her subject, the nightingale long a symbol for the poet and poetry.

The eponymous Nightingale features Singh’s mother classically posed, her hands and feet pressing into the (same?) carpet. Just as the hand in Fallen Leaves holds out a dying leaf, the hands in Nightingale hold up an aging body. Leaf and body, (di)splayed, confront us with what we might want to overlook: the wear and tear, the ongoing breakdown, of living things. Singh asserts that the complexly detailed patterns of her mother’s bluish, often varicose, veins, which complement the tones and textures of the rose carpet, should not repulse us with their imperfections. Like the veins of the fallen leaf, they tell a story of experience beyond our tendency to fetishize the unblemished flesh of youth. Singh bears witness to the mother’s beauty by insisting that we define “the beautiful” otherwise.

Nightingale series: Installation view at the Gladstone Hotel, Toronto, May 2010.Nightingale series: Installation view at the Gladstone Hotel, Toronto, May 2010.Although her photographs depict her mother in the very house in which she grew up, Singh does not characterize the series as documentary realism; rather, she describes Nightingale as a narrative “based on a true story”, featuring her mother as a complex “protagonist” who plays sundry roles at once: herself, aging woman, artistic object, mom, symbolic Mother. Singh explains that, in Nightingale, she attempts to ask how the daughter can create and maintain a crucial distance from the mother to whom she is always and inextricably connected. (Like the leaf is simultaneously both a part of and apart from its tree). How does the daughter make of the mother an other and learn to mother — to nurture — herself? Nightingale is a photographic rendering of Hélène Cixous’s notion of “tous les deux" (“all two of them”) or, as Singh phrases it, “entre nous deux” ("between the two of us"). How, Singh ponders, do you negotiate “separation and reparation, what is between you and what is between you?”

In thinking through her photographic practice, Singh looks back to 19th Century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, famous for her intimate portraits/portraits of intimacy, and early 20th-Century photographer Gertrude Käsebier, known for, among other things, her exploration of the bonds between mothers and their children. Cameron and Käsebier used “real” people to explore not the truth of identity but its ultimately phantasmatic and infinitely malleable character. Their photographs, Singh asserts, “lead one to wonder rather than to fact.”

I hear Singh’s “wonder” here as both noun and verb: wandering through Nightingale, I wondered about what Singh calls its “narrative.” If there is a narrative in this series, it is neither linear nor transparent, but inferred through recurrent themes, tensions and motifs. Installed on the third floor of the Gladstone Hotel, Singh’s photographs hung (seven individually and seven in a photo cluster) along two corridors, literally among and between hotel room doors. Her film was projected on a white wall between two rooms in a lounge area (a public living room) situated in the centre of, and adjoining, the corridors. There was no particular place one had to start or end with this exhibition. Moreover, given that the film played in the passage between corridors and on a loop, one encountered and re-encountered the film. Singh cites filmmakers such as John Cassavetes and Ingmar Bergman (with whom she was obsessed as she worked on this project) as inspirational in their depictions of temporal and relational “rupture and dysfunction” — their efforts to eschew linearity and closure, and their ability to mesmerize the spectator with emotional “rawness” — to elicit affective and visceral responses. Singh’s film, during which the mother’s body appears and disappears, highlights Singh’s play with spatial and temporal (dis)placement throughout the installation.

Ironically, however, it is in Singh’s moving images that her mother appears least life-like. Watching her mother’s unmoving body in the bath, I think she looks like a naked corpse and that this is a kind of rehearsal of the funereal open casket. Then, I see her eyes blink. In the usually private bathroom space, the film reveals Singh’s mother at her most naked, vulnerable and, seemingly, still. This is just one of the many ways in which Singh plays with the form of still life. Singh stills her mother’s life for and in these (very moving) pictures, mementos, art that will remain when the mother does not. Singh suggests that there is still — continuingly — life.

There is an overwhelmingly elegiac quality, a tenor of mourning, to Singh’s work that she used to resist — “Because I was afraid,” she says — but she has come to embrace because “it is a beautiful sorrow”. The work with her mother, Singh explains, enabled her to perceive the fleetingness of experience as something other than loss. Interested in the liminal space between life and death, presence and absence, Singh enjoys an adrenaline-filled thrill from trying to represent that space: “I photograph life but, in the printing and in the exhibition of the photographs, I’m dealing with something that is ‘other’ to life,” she explains. “When I’m shooting, I’m with my mother, live and in person but, in the darkroom and in the gallery, I’m with unliving photographic objects.”

Juan, from the series Farmland (2010): 30 x 40 inches, c-print.Juan, from the series Farmland (2010): 30 x 40 inches, c-print.It is vital to Singh that these objects are physical and tactile. Thus, she works with film rather than digital images. Intriguingly, Singh tells me that she got to know her mother even more deeply in the aftermath of shooting, in her solitary darkroom work where she spent a different kind of time with her mother. She saw her mother photographically stilled for prolonged periods—often in extreme close-up, and often extremely fragmented. Singh describes the uncanny experience of looking through her grain finder and discovering something oddly unfamiliar in this familial, familiar figure—a wrinkle here, a mole there. The still image in the darkroom sometimes overwhelms her: “I can stop and stare and examine my mom in minute detail, and it feels even more intimate than shooting. I spend this time alone with mom, paying careful attention to her, and it becomes difficult to print the work. I think: at some point this is the only way I’ll be able to see her. And that’s when I realize that the process is a kind of pre-mourning.”

Just as her relationship with her mother has changed and will change, Singh’s relationship to the photographs has changed and will change — perhaps most profoundly when her mother goes (gentle or not, or however she may) into that good night. The photographs themselves may remain technically the same, but they will cease to be the same for Singh.

In Nightingale, Meera Margaret Singh represents and honours a body that bears (and here I invoke the rich and varied meanings of the verb “to bear”), a body nearer its end than its beginning. There is certainly what Freud calls a “foretaste” of mourning here, a grappling with what will be, but is not yet: the death of the mother (Singh’s own and “mother” more symbolically), that first object that we lose from the moment we leave the womb and for which we endlessly long. Nightingale astutely, gorgeously, proposes that we don’t “work through” mourning: mourning is never completed, never past tense, but is, instead, a perpetual way of being in the present. Although Nightingale is complete and this installation is putatively over, the work with the mother, like the work of mourning, never will be. “What kind of ending is Nightingale?” Singh wonders. Indeed, what kind of beginning?

Meera Margaret Singh’s most recent body of work, Farmland, is currently on view in the Beyond Imaginings exhibition at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre until June 2011. See more of Singh’s images on her website.

Kerry MandersKerry Manders writes about ‘lost ladies’, memory and mourning in Modernist literature at York University, Toronto, where she also teaches. When not professing, she assists BookThug press/the Toronto New School of Writing with media and publicity. Her own current photographic work explores unofficial signage in and around Toronto.