Turn Towards, Turn Away exemplifies Har-Prakash Khalsa’s ongoing investigations into the nature of evil, death, war and the inner and outer causes that draw us towards or repel us with regards to this challenging subject matter. Khalsa posits the question “Where do our inner and outer wars reside and how might they fuel one another?” How do we recognize evil when we are exposed to it?

The exhibition consists of stark images. One installation consists of grainy portraits of young men in evening dress, seemly innocuous, until the darker context of who they are is revealed. We do not know from looking at them as individuals that each was a part of the Nazi regime, nor what their roles were in history’s most brutal genocide. There is no evident sign marking them as “evil”. History judges them as perpetrators, but how many realized it at the time? What were the choices each faced? How might each of us respond in similar conditions?

The inclusion of two swastika images, one as a traditional sacred symbol and one in the perverted form used by the Third Reich, mirror each other, reinforcing Khalsa’s questions about how we choose to act in the way we do. What are the consequences, individually and as a society, now and in the future, that emerge from our choices? In looking at those faces we are confronted with the reminder that we individually make choices that will ultimately determine the kind of society in which we live.

The “swastika” is an ancient sacred symbol whose name, from the Sanskrit “svastika” literally means “it is good.” It has been used since ancient times around the world, including in India, Iran, Nepal, China, Korea and Europe, before being co-opted by the Nazi Party of Germany in 1920. There are, in fact, two swastikas engraved on the bronze tablet on Tom Thomson’s memorial cairn, which was erected in Algonquin Park shortly after his death in 1917. A rubbing of this tablet is on view in our Canadian Spirit: Tom Thomson Experience Gallery.

Tom Thomson swastika rubbing

The pre-Nazi swastika represented numerous things, including the four aspects of nature (which may have been why it was chosen for Thomson’s cairn), the universe, the sun and the endless cycle of birth and death. It was seen as representing the cycle of life in our world.

Remember me as you pass by 
As you are now, so once was I. 
As I am now, you soon will be. 
Prepare for death, and think of me.

~ Traditional Gravestone Epitaph

The exhibition also includes three large photographs of the Paris Catacombs, which is an ossuary that contains bones rather than bodies. In these artistic works, the fragility of human life and the passage of time are encapsulated. Among the remains of more than six million Parisians found here, are bodies of the dead from the riots which took place during the French Revolution – the Place de Greve, the Hotel de Brienne and Rue Meslee. During the Second World War some sections of the catacombs were used as hideouts by French Resistance fighters, while other sections were converted by German soldiers into bunkers.

These photographs remind us that we are merely part of a larger continuum and that one day, we too will no longer exist in a corporeal form.  Memento Creatoris tui in diebus juventutis tuae, antequam veniat tempus afflictionis, is a passage from Ecclesiastes which features prominently in the photograph titled Memento Creatoris, Paris Catacombs. It translates into Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not. What is not written into the stone continues in Ecclesiastes 12:1 as nor the years draw near, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them. Khalsa presents us with his belief that it is through the connection with the spiritual or transcendent that the opportunity for finding meaning reveals itself to us in this world.

The artist has written: I am interested in the inner and outer causes and conditions that keep us fascinated and repelled by what some might call “dark” or “difficult” subject matter. How can we personally contemplate the nature of evil, of death, of war? What is evil, and how might evil surround us in this very moment? How might it be living unnoticed in each of us in our privileged Western society? How do we live with the continued massacre of countless people in war-torn countries? How do we deal with the loss that comes when someone we love dies, or another species becomes extinct? Where do our inner and outer wars reside and how might they fuel one another? What happens viscerally to us when we voluntarily turn towards and rub up against these experiences with an open heart, with consciousness fully metabolizing what is?

Khalsa has been teaching Kundalini Yoga since 1985, and mindfulness meditation since 2000. He has a deep love for the finer points of the meditation process from various traditions including the contemplative Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Sufi, Buddhist and scientific perspectives. He has an ongoing passion for teaching how each contemplative approach fits within the human sensory system, and how meditation in any style can be deepened for yogis at any level. The final component of the exhibition is a video titled Anatomical f-MRI Brain Scan. The video is from a mindfulness study that was done at Harvard University about the effects of meditation on the human brain – and the subject of the study was Har-Prakash Khalsa himself. Using the f-MRI technology, scientists have been able to assess how our brains process information and measure creativity. The resulting studies have shown that meditation strengthens our ability to focus, improves memory, decreases anxiety and increases both creativity and compassion. For those who meditate regularly, the effects are long-lasting, and increase the possibility of a life filled with peace, goodwill and loving kindness.

In the article “Museums and Dialogue” N. Postman writes “A good museum must…direct attention to what is difficult and even painful to think about.” Certainly the references that Khalsa portrays are dark, difficult and painful, but we’re presented with the opportunity to turn towards evil, war and death with open eyes and an open heart, fully metabolizing “what is”. In doing so we create the potential for a society permeated by acceptance, tolerance, love, inclusiveness and respect.

– Virginia Eichhorn, Curator, Jan. 2014

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