The most provocative work in the exhibition My Body is Your Home is a six-piece suite of photographs which depicts a small child with chicken pox. Covered from head to toes in sores, the infant is documented at a time of intense vulnerability. The photographs give us views of the child’s front and back sides, and isolate different areas of his body.

The photographs initially seem repugnant, not so much because of what is depicted but instead because someone has made a conscious decision to photograph it. Aetheticizing disease is risky if not risque. With time however, the work transmutes and reveals itself as embodying a fundamental concept in the work of Har-Prakash Khalsa, namely the nature and wisdom of surrender.

Surrender is not a concept Western culture widely embraces. To many it implies weakness, submission, an inability to go it alone. A conservative, consumerist culture instills us with the belief that we can truly be masters of our own destiny; if we only pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, we can overcome any obstacle. Churchill summed it famously up with a pithy “we shall not surrender.”

If the concept of surrender does gain acceptance in the mainstream imagination, it is usually as a last resort for those who have hit bottom. The numerous twelve-step programs in circulation have as one of their basic tenets the belief that one needs to “surrender to a higher power.”

Yet undeniably we live lives of compromise and capitulation. Daily we negotiate the delicate dance between our desires, the needs of others, and the vicissitudes of simply being human. Only folly could convince us that we might fully control our lives and those around us.

The philosophical split that exists between those who accept and those who reject the wisdom of surrender might best be demarcated along cultural and spiritual lines. If an atheistic or scientific approach contends that this life is all we have, it is understandable that one would want to "rage against the dying of the light." If one takes a more transcendental view however, and accepts this life as just one stage in an ongoing spiritual process, then our relationship to the joys, pain, and suffering of existence is fundamentally transformed. Rather than something to be avoided at all costs, pain (and pleasure, for that matter) can be comprehended as vehicles for a greater connection to one’s own life. It is within this context that Har-Prakash Khalsa's photography is executed.

Our bodies are, on one hand, a “brute corporeal fact." Yet it is through the depiction and meditation on the brute facts of birth, death, disease and pleasure that Khalsa undertakes to provoke thoughts of our transcendental potential. Photographing the objective reality of a child with chicken pox is ineffectual and even offensive if it fails to transcend the particular and provoke an examination of how we individually deal with the instances of pain in our own lives, and how we might consider the notion of surrender. (The connection between the corporeal and the transcendental is apparent in the working title Khalsa had for this series: Burning Constellation literally and visually links the pain and the pox’s physical mimicking of the stars on the body with the transcendent goal that submission to such pain can achieve.)

Khalsa, as a parent confronted with a child with chicken pox, understands there is nothing he can physically do for his son. The reality of chicken pox is that human contact only exacerbates the pain and the child must suffer it alone. But both as a photographer and as a practising Sikh, this instance of suffering presents the opportunity to dramatize a universal pain. It invites the photographer and the viewer to connect the specificity of the illness to the larger question of how we engage with our human condition, and ultimately how we choose to live and die.

This question is approached through other works in the exhibition as well. The photographs of Khalsa’s wife Sat Dharam Kaur pregnant with each of their three children depicts another significant human moment, the “initiation into the motherhood of humanity,” as she has named it.

When my daughter entered the world

the earth split,

I was born

into her blood.

- Sat Dharam Kaur

Like the acceptance and submission to the pain of disease, pregnancy brings a woman to a place where she chooses how to listen to the intelligence and instincts of her body. She must consider both its physical and the spiritual nature and what it would mean to deaden the pain of childbirth with drugs. It becomes a question of whether to fight or to submit.

The series of seven photographs of Sat Dharam and his daughter Gurushabd expands on the relationship expressed in Sat Dharam’s poem. Visually, these portraits display a complex relationship of movements, a flow that moves backward and forward through time, and upwards in time and space. They are portraits of the generations. They represent ascendancy and they also seem to suggest the lines from Ecclesiastes 1:8,

What has been is what will be,

and what has been done is what will be done,

and there is nothing new under the sun.

The cycles of birth and death, growth and decay, the transitory nature of our physical state and the immortal character of the spiritual, are all in evidence.

The expression of these cycles is continued in the Mother/Daughter Diptych. A natural bridge between the family portraits and The Hole Project , these images of the closed eyes of mother and daughter are placed side by side to reveal two halves of a whole. The photographs record a harmony of telling details, a pairing of innocence and experience, and suggest a continuity and connectedness that goes well beyond the two individuals depicted.

The thirty-nine photographs that make up The Hole Project also insist on a commonality of the personal and the universal. Rich in specific detail, these highly-magnified photographs of the body’s orifices seem to assert themselves both as specific portraits and as depictions of what could be almost anyone’s body. There are recognizable differences with regard to gender, age and skin colour, but the final result is less a set of particular “portraits,” than it is an inventory or typology of holes or “gates of consciousness” of the human body. Our ability or inability to recognize our individual selves at this level of magnification, both as sensual and spiritual beings, allows us to consider the body as something other than just flesh and blood.

Identification, ultimately, isn’t the purpose of the photographs. Instead, as Khalsa himself has written, the importance of the holes is that they are the gates of consciousness for the individual person and that our “consciousness shifts depending on how we use our holes . . . They are entry points into the realm of the senses, and sensory activity can take us toward or away from our relationship with our soul.”

Taken as an entire group, the series’ of photographs that make up My Body is Your Home are meditations on the relationship between the human body and spiritual consciousness. They question our mortality as individuals and, by reflecting various of stages of consciousness, emphasize the tension and need for reconciliation that exists between the physical “fact” of our bodies and our spiritual capacity.

Brian Meehan - 1998