Photographs Toward a Supreme Fiction: The Hole Project by Har-Prakash Khalsa

“I can’t show everything. Countless are the shadows, countless

the categories of shadows. Overrun by the unheard-of world

of one’s fellow shadows, infinite demonstrations of our infinitesimalness,

a marble in the midst of millions of warehouses of marbles....”

Henri Michaux (1)

Consider the body’s orifices, its portals, thresholds, ports where the software of the universe - its breath, its nourishments - clicks into the mainframe of selfhood (body, soul, yes). Consider its orifices from the other side, the in-side, where the body’s seeds and sibilances, its enlarging utterances, spring away into the waiting world, where the silting of the body’s renunciations and excesses, is drummed from the temple. These are encyclopedic comings and goings.

I am in the throes of a no doubt improper metaphorical fantasy, a new map of the body, which I can exorcize only by positing it: if the human body were flayed and tanned and stretched out flat like an animal skin, and pinned up on the wall, the body’s orifices would become a lateral system of tiny openings, points in a matrix, an aerated topological plane. Lift this shard of punctuated human leather up against the sky, make it as wide as the firmament, light it from behind, and the body’s pinprick orifices are suddenly stars in the night sky. We are, after all, entirely composed of star-dust. Lifted high like a galactic flag and illuminated, our orifices are now a constellation, a cosmic phoneme, an orific utterance. There is an echo here of Wallace Stevens’ great poem Notes Toward A Supreme Fiction (l947): “...We move between these points”, writes Stevens, “From that ever-early candour to its late plural/ And the candor of them is the strong exhilaration / Of what we feel from what we think, of thought/ Beating in the heart, as if blood newly came....” (2).

Photographer Har-Prakash Khalsa is, I think, a modest man. “One of the reasons for undertaking this [Hole] project”, Khalsa has written, “is to attempt transformation of the ordinary to the extraordinary through visual magnification.” This he has clearly accomplished. His modesty, which must not be misunderstood as any sort of retreat from vaulting ambition, especially of the metaphysical kind, has led him, paradoxically and satisfyingly, onto a trajectory arcing from the base-camp of the humility, almost the abjectness, of the sublunary body, in all its frailty and vulnerability and gaminess, to an almost fable-like (i.e. fabulous) exploration of the body’s orifices as “doors of perception, experience, pleasure and pain”. And having gone through those transformative doors, it is, for Khalsa, but a tiny galactic step into a large new universe of considerations: “It is my belief”, he has written, “that consciousness shifts depending upon the way in which we use our holes, or the ten gates, as they are called in some religious and yogic texts. They are entry points into the realm of the senses, and sensory experience can take us towards or away from our relationship with our soul.”

The first photograph I saw of Khalsa’s Hole Project was a glistening aerial view of lateral moraines and contour ploughing which I was initially somewhat taken aback to find (i.e. be told) was in fact a male anus, the donor being called (appropriately, I thought, given the surprisingly generative nature of the image) Adam. Here, in spades, was “transformation” through, as the artist had put it, “magnification”. Here was a shiny gateway, morphologically similar to the “wormholes” and “sub-space disturbances” so often encountered in Star Trek and Babylon 5. Here was fundament as firmament. Micro become Macro. Multum in Parvo, much in little. He has the whole world in his end.

Is there an irreverence creeping in here? Well, maybe. That’s because we are still, at some level, giggly, sniggering children, so close to our bodily orifices, so in awe of them, we smirk and guffaw at them to keep them distanced and therefore under control. There is an inevitable scuffle of adjustment to be made when, even as an adult, you’re shown an up-close image, almost two feet square, of an anus, a vagina, a penis, a nipple. There’s a moment of recovery, of visual and then emotional recalibration.

In Khalsa’s macro-photographic project, mouths (often photographed and hung sideways to add objectification) loom as large as fault lines in the earth, fissures of men and women, or they tower as nobly as cliffs and promontories: the mouth of Helene (l997) looks like the Scarborough Bluffs or the White Cliffs of Dover. Nostrils beckon darkly like the new English Chunnel. Eyes end up looking like scars, rents in the flesh sewn up again with stitches of eyelash. The ear is a dusky labyrinth, and sometimes it looks like an Edward Weston pepper. The penis is a place on the moon, a soft-shelled crater, tranquillity-base (until, perhaps, arousal). Nipples are childrens’ playgrounds, those soft hillock sculpture gardens, mounded and safe, that sculptor Isamu Noguchi used to devise (see, for example, his Billy Rose Sculpture Garden, Israel Museum, Jerusalem, l960-65). Vaginas are lush forests with the prospect of a pathway, a cloven entrance somewhere “under the hill”, as Aubrey Beardsley put it so pastorally. The vagina of the subject Rose (l997) reminds me of Albrecht Altdorfer’s tiny, vagina-sized parchment-painting St. George in a Wood (1510) in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. Khalsa’s photograph is like The Wood, that is, without St. George. And the top of the head, the anterior fontanelle (the “10 th gate”), that slow-closing barn door of the newborn body, that continental drift of the cranium, what is that? A pampas-place, a cerebral meadow, waving grasslands gently covering the planet- brain, where, as Har-Prakash Khalsa reminds us, “spiritual energies may be received and where, it is said, the soul exits the physical body at the time of death.” This last “hole” is a sort of full- stop, a period-like place of punctuation, for the square-dance hoedown of the other orifices. By contrast, it is also a full-opening place, the opposite of punctuation, the cosmic ventilation point where the breath of soul (geist) rises like smoke from the quenched fireplace of the living being. It is fitting that Khalsa’s photographs of the 10 th gate show endless veldt-grasses of hair, blown about this way and that by the winds of, by the vectors of fate.

The spectre raised - or half-raised - by Har-Praksh Khalsa’s Hole Project photographs is nourished by the degree to which these cosmically particularized photos might seem divisive in their partialness. As Ernest Becker points out in an essay called “Everyman as Pervert” in his Angel in Armor: A Post-Freudian Perspective on the Nature of Man (l969), talking about “part objects” and “whole objects”, “When we say that a patient relates to people only as ‘part objects’, we mean precisely that he is able to call up only a limited range of behaviours with reference to them.” (3) In talking about any inability of person A to relate to anything less than to the entire spirit of Person B (Martin Buber’s I-Thou relation), Becker is, of course, talking about fetishism. The part equal to or greater than the sum of its wholes. Or in Khalsa’s case, holes.

Are Khalsa’s Hole photographs fetishistic? Do they (to misuse Wordsworth) murder to dissect? Is there any way, having metaphorically suggested the locus of Khalsa’s photographs as being somewhere else, imaginatively removed from the body (a fissure, a playground, a green pepper, a crater on the moon, etc.), that we can bring them back home again, recentering them within the human experience? For me, these powerful photographs do that all by themselves. For Khalsa’s photographs are details, not fragments, of the human body–and this is important. Omar Calabrese, in his Neo-Baroque: A Sign of the Times (l992), makes the difference etymologically clear: detail, he points out, derives from the French de-tail, to cut from. It thus presupposes a subject cut from an object. But the prefix “de-“ is important here too. “This particle”, argues Calabrese, “not only indicates an anterior state and origin, but also illustrates the nature of the operation. The detail is, in short, “de-fined”, that is, made perceptible from the whole by the action of the cut. Only the existence of the whole and the action of the cut [the framing and the focus, photographically speaking] permit the “de-finition” of the detail...In other words, we approach the detail after having previously approached the whole....” In the case of Khalsa’s work, we approach the detail, retreat to the whole for help (the metonymic made real by memory), and then, once again, return to the detail (now enlarged by our reassurances about the whole and now, and only now, minutely explorable). The fragment, by contrast, derives from the Latin frangere, to break. In looking at the fragment (the result, contends Calabrese, of an “accident”, breakage, that has isolated the fragment from the whole), the most we can do is “hypothetically reconstruct the part’s relationship with the whole. The fragment, considered as part of a system, is then explained according to it. The detail, on the other hand, while being considered in the same way, explains the system in a new way.” (4)

For me, The Hole Project clearly enlarges, rather than delimits. Its photographic tuning is so fine, it magnifies the human perspective in the act of getting up close to it. Here is William Blake’s suggestion about seeing the world in a grain of sand, made photographic. Khalsa’s Hole photographs invariably remind me of the cosmic focus-journey enacted in the astonishing Charles and Ray Eames film, Powers of Ten, in which the viewer is whisked from a family picnic in the park out to the furthest reaches of the universe (a view ten million light yeas across) and then back again to the family, finally penetrating the skin on the back of the father’s hand and continuing the journey into the interior of matter, ending at last with the view (we are now as far inside as we were cosmically outside a few moments ago) of a single proton–the building block of the universe. “Man”, writes Emerson in his essay Nature, “is the dwarf of himself. Once he was permeated and dissolved by spirit. He filled nature with his overflowing currents...”

But, having made for himself this huge shell, his waters retired;

he no longer fills the veins and veinlets; he is shrunk to a drop.

He sees, that structure still fits him, but fits him colossally. Say,

rather, once fitted him, now it corresponds to him from far and

on high. (5)

I am interested in the ways in which Har-Prakash Khalsa has employed the metonymic as a way of refocussing the painful partialness and fragmentation of the human body/experience, how he repositions the part so that it is bigger than the sum of its wholes (holes)–and the ways in which these parts lead to a reclaiming of the whole. The paradox vibrating at the centre of Khalsa’s photographic universe (like the Eames’ solitary proton, buzzing with its own dense indivisible infinities) is that, as before human beings dwindled into dwarves of themselves, there was, presumably, one body/soul being. Wallace Stevens laments that

From this the poem springs: that we live in a place

That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves

And hard it is in spite of blazoned days. (6)

By reinvesting the body with what is arguably an over-compensatory tight focus, Khalsa reinvests the parts (and portals) of the body with connection, both one to the other and the whole bodily system to the great billowing giganticism of soul. Khalsa here sets up a congruence between great body and great soul, bringing the two more closely into alignment than before. As Norman O. Brown puts it so ringingly in his remarkable Love’s Body (l966), “the divorce between soul and body takes the life out of the body, reducing the organism to a mechanism, dead in itself but given an artificial life, an imitation of life, by will or power....” (7). What Har- Prakash Khalsa has done in The Hole Project, is to reverse the direction of the demonic diminishing process described by Brown. Khalsa re-amplifies the mechanism (nostril, penis, lip, ear, nipple, vagina) back into its status as an organism, revisiting the body with metaphysical life, reinstating wonder, fusing together, as well as he can, the split between body, mind and soul. Khalsa’s giganticized body sites militate against the crippling separateness that diminishes, discourages, and alienates us from ourselves and each other. As Brown puts it, “ the fall–the fall into division, the original lie. Separation is secrecy, hiding from one another, the private parts or property. Ownership is hiding; separation is repression.”

How is separation defeated? Through the acknowledgment of our common extraordinary complexities. We value ourselves as the loci of desire, and our locations in the economy of desire (men as well as women) is too often calibrated as nothing more substantial than the product of the gaze. Objectification is the cruelest form of distancing. Khalsa’s profound accomplishment in The Hole Project is to interrupt the confining, diminishing, mechanizing vector of the gaze, changing the discourse of desire into the fabrication of an alternate widening terrain–into ongoing typologies of the human experience, where categorizing desire is defeated by the sweet, vast geographies of the body-as-meaning. As Peter Brooks notes in his Body Work: Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative (l993), “Sight may be inadequate to account for another’s body.” Is there, Brooks goes on to ask, “another representational system in which that otherness [i.e. the essence of otherness in all people that allows us to love and understand ourselves as indexical to their variegated being] would make a difference other than the familiar evocation of difference?” (8). I would say there was, and I would suggest that such a representational system might well lie in the direction here begun by Har-Prakash Khalsa’s tender anti-gaze–and its nourishing elevation of human fact into human truth.

- Gary Michael Dault Toronto, December 15, 1998.

1) Henri Michaux, “Space of the Shadows” in Darkness Moves: An Henri Michaux Anthology: l927-l984, Selected, translated, and presented by David Ball (Berkeley: University of California Press, l994), p. 186.

2) Wallace Stevens, “Notes Toward A Supreme Fiction”in The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (New York: Vintage Books, l982), p.382.

3) Ernest Becker, Angel in Armor: a Post-Freudian Perspective on the Nature of Man (New York: The Free Press, l969), p.10.

4) Omar Calabrese, Neo-Baroque: A Sign of the Times (Princeton: Princeton University Press, l992), pp.72-73.

5) Ralph Waldo Emerson, from “Nature”, quoted in Norman.O.Brown, Love’s Body (New York: Random House, l966), p.142.

6) Wallace Stevens, “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”, op. cit., p.383.

7) Norman O. Brown, Love’s Body, p.138.

8) Peter Brooks, Body Work: Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, l993), p. 161.