Intervallic: Reflections on Theme by Kerry Manders

First vision, which acted then, for me, without my knowledge, like the revelation of a door. There is a door. In the world, there are doors.
Happily there isn’t only the world.

– Hélène Cixous

The iconography of “shovel leaning against door” resonates throughout Canadian photographer Meera Margaret Singh’s Between Mirrors. To my eye, the space—call it a gap, call it an interval—featured here depicts the abiding motif of Singh’s current work. Singh’s photographs dwell in and on this ambiguous between. The door evokes various betweens: between inside and outside, home and away, invited and uninvited, open and closed, door and frame, door and camera. Singh accentuates spaces between not to divide terms of seeming binaries but to illustrate the ways in which they are constitutive of each other. In “shovel leaning against door,” a shovel stands temporarily abandoned in the space between door and wall. If door and wall (complete with its decorative blue-painted swoosh) frame the shovel, the stacked bricks behind it function as a kind of industrial matting. The shovel is doubly framed as the edges of Singh’s photograph frame the frame. While the shovel suggests an absent warehouse worker, figuratively it belongs to the artist who works the between, who digs in, around, and up its various meanings.

Singh herself embodies the kinds of splittings mirrored in her photographs. Between Mirrors is the product of Singh’s two-month residency at the JA.CA Art and Technology Center in Jardim Canadá, Brazil (located just outside Belo Horizonte, Brazil’s third largest city). With its mandate of cultural learning and exchange between international and Brazilian artists, the relatively new JA.CA is like the town in which it is located—a place of growth and transition. Singh is an artist-in-residence, a term beautifully evocative of the porous boundary between work and home: Singh is a foreign worker paradoxically “at home” or “in residence.” Between here and there, Singh lives on Avenida Canada and around the corner from Rua Ontario and Rua Quebec. Uncannily, Singh is away from home in a place named, inexplicably, after home. Singh has been unable to find the rationale behind the town name, and so the connection between the two Canadas remains a compelling mystery. Neither here nor there but always both at once: this state mirrors the artist residency itself, deemed by the powers-that-be something between work and play—usually a measure of both. Singh temporarily resides in Brazil on a tourist rather than a work visa. Her official political identity is complicated by the camera in her hand, which might identify her as either tourist or worker, depending on who is looking, and through what lens.

The gamut of possibilities that can be explored in the interval mode is vast. Intervals allow a rupture with mere reflections and present a perception of space as breaks. They constitute interruptions and irruptions in a uniform series of surface; they designate a temporal hiatus, an intermission, a distance, a pause, a lapse, or gap between different states; and they are what comes up at the threshold of representation and communication—often what appears in the doorway . . . there where the aperture is also the spacing-out of disappearance.
– Trinh T. Minh-ha

In the first ‘chapter’, entitled “Mirrors”, Singh depicts the people of Jardim Canadá and its surroundings, figures in a landscape indelibly moulded and marked by the numerous factories that originally lured the town’s population to it with employment opportunities. The absence of urban planning amidst the influx of people increasingly calling Jardim Canadá home has imbued the town with a rather haphazard or “accidental” vibe. Contrasting the rigorously planned and often identical box houses of North American suburbia, where buying a dream home is so often the goal of work, Jardim Canadá’s homes were initially the afterthought or after-effect of work. Where once “work” and “home” were separate spheres, now they mix and merge. Several of Singh’s shots feature local workers, but always outside their places of employment, often on break and in repose. These are candid rather than staged shots, and Singh is often at a distance from her subjects. This distance visually mirrors the invisible but always tangible language barrier that Singh experiences in Jardim Canadá, as she does not speak Portuguese. Like the town itself, Singh’s shots are not planned in advance. I picture Singh as a flâneuse, walking around town looking for work and/or play, for the viable shot. While some of Singh’s previous work privileges the intimate relationship between artist and subject, here she contemplates and cultivates the distance between her camera and the subjects, shifting her focus to the relationship between that subject and his or her surroundings. But Singh does not aspire to some ideal of objective observation. Rather, her photography explores the possibility that documentary, as we conventionally envision it (as real, true, objective), does not exist, is always interpretation.

“Lunch Break” depicts a factory employee sitting outside, at work but not at work (though I note the official-looking clipboard on his lap). Singh works his break: he eats what appears to be a homemade lunch while she takes his picture. Between work and rest, the dripping factory wall literalizes the porosity of boundaries that do not contain. At first glance I think that the metal can is directly below the hole in the wall, there to catch the excess spillage. But then I see through the optical illusion: there is a space between the can and the wall that renders such a holding or catching impossible. Whatever liquid is coming out of the factory stains the exterior between the hole and the ground beneath it; liquid falls down and seeps into the ground—potentially (is it water?) nourishing the weeds and helping them grow up. Strangely, the black hole resembles a camera lens, and the white paint rectangle enveloping it appears to be a camera body. The architecture is itself spectral, giving the impression that, though the worker on lunch break does not return Singh’s gaze, something does. Another trompe l’oeil, reflecting the photographer back to herself.

The other originally collaborates with meaning. There is an essential lapse between significations . . . The caesura does not simply finish and fix meaning . . . primarily, the caesura makes meaning emerge. It does not do so alone, of course; but without interruption . . . no signification could be awakened.
– Jacques Derrida

Singh’s photo series (the chapter entitled “Narratives”), in particular, highlight the temporal resonances of the gap, the interval. Looking at each sequence of shots, I consider the white space above, below, and between the shots almost as much as I do the shots themselves. The gaps between the pictures mark time as much as space: what is missed in the interval between shots? Does it matter? What is the matter of—with—absence? Singh’s series comprise the most self-reflective of her work in Between Mirrors: they remind the spectator of both the repetitive action of snapping shots, as well as the subsequent work of editing. Which shots will make the final cut, and how? “Seduction” showcases the beautiful accidents of Singh’s street photography. As Singh focuses on her main subject, others enter her frame in the foreground or background to become part of the composition: a boy passing by on his bike, a woman walking her dog, an (unpictured) parent with child in stroller. And from where did that man who embraces and kisses the star come? Is this moment between strangers or lovers? The stroller child smiles at Singh (who inevitably haunts her own framings) and ignores the couple who pose for another photographer—a photographer captured in Singh’s background. The fellow photographer shoots the same couple from a different perspective. In the time between frames, the scene itself transforms from candid to staged. The couple becomes caught up in their set and performs for an impromptu audience. The image teases us with an elusive distinction between the unconscious and the self-conscious, and the spirit of the series lies somewhere, someplace, between. If they suddenly become ‘stars,’ then Singh unwittingly morphs from artist to paparazzi.

Singh photographs Jardim Canadá as a liminal zone, a town emerging, proliferating. The various piles in Singh’s photographs connote at once construction and destruction, building material and debris. In this transitional space, Singh’s eye is perpetually drawn to elements that are familiar and recognizable: natural repetitions and mirrors in the landscape, grids in the architecture, structures in the vegetation, frames in the walls. The photographs in the third chapter, "Landscapes," and the fourth,"Reflections," discover and create order in the foreign world around her.

Here are sundry symmetries both natural and artificial: a termite mound whose contours mirror the hills behind it; a stack of bricks in layered order; a fence with perfectly regular pickets. She is attuned to doubles (two piles, objects and their shadows, split scenes and screens) and to sets (three snake plants, three shrubs, an army of palms). Equally drawn to the surprising interruptions of the orders she finds and photographs, Singh and her camera simultaneously open to and capture the unexpected: in “silver puddle”, for instance, that mercurial pool reflects the quality of quicksilver, of a gap that appears and disappears, always on the move. Gaps move, and though we often try to close them, they are, thankfully, unbridgeable. Gaps gape, impossible to close, evoking a multiplicity of interpretation. Meera Margaret Singh’s Between Mirrors looks systematically and enigmatically at the interval, tracing the gap at and in every take.

In a concrete landscape, green cannot be contained or quelled. It erupts, pushing into octagonal spaces, laying itself against the plane of what is moveable. Its top unframed, the “mysterious green door” hints at what lies beyond.

Ah if we could go out, and, once outside, turning around, see with our own eyes the face of our own door.
Have once on ourselves the other’s point of view. Taste our taste.
Ah, if we could catch ourselves at it.
Travel around ourselves perhaps.
To see, our limit, to have seen, with other eyes, other eyes. . .
Sometimes, trying to circumscribe ourselves, we graze our door.

– Hélène Cixous

Kerry Manders
York University, Toronto, Canada