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Nuit Blanche 2010: Nothing Artsy about being Artless

Auto Lamp, Nuit Blanche 2010, Toronto

The idea of hanging out all night at an arts fest that takes place only under the cover of darkness inspires novelty. Or, so it would appear. However, Nuit Blanche only seems to get progressively worse each year and inspires nothing but insipid interest for what passes for art these days.

A good excuse to get-together with friends and to give in to the colourful character that lives under your skin, Nuit Blanche brought forth crowds of people, perhaps more than last year, on  October 2nd right after sundown. I hit the party in Zone A near the Royal Ontario Museum with friends and friends of friends- as is often the case- close to eight-thirty. The long lines and half an hour waiting time for many of the commissioned (in other words, usually the exhibits worth catching) works discouraged us from moving forward. Yet, exhibits like the “Monument to Smile” by Agnes Winter on the Holt Renfrew store on Bloor Street did not require line-ups and attendees like yours truly could click from a safe distance. A giant projection of faces of Torontonians clicked by OCAD students, this exhibit had people milling in front of it, pointing out funny faces.

Monument to Smile, Nuit Blanche 2010, Toronto

However, many of the “art” on display were disappointing, like the LED light activated by movement and stillness- “Ning Ning” – on Bond Street. It was frustratingly similar to an exhibit that had been done in the past.

Part of the Bus House Collective, Nuit Blanche 2010, Toronto

A defaced bus stop near the old city hall- part of the “Bus House Collective”- garnered criticism from Torontonians. As overheard: “Destroying public property is no excuse for art!” The comment may have been discouraging for an increasing disillusionment of an event that I had looked forward to all year if it hadn’t been for the concert in Nathan Phillips Square. The loud rock music, coupled with multiple giant screens with projections of the performance, transformed the space into a haven for music lovers who wanted nothing more than to relax; and in some cases, smoke up (yes, there was a pot party too. In fact, several ones.), make out, and enjoy the music in the process. The magic in the air was palpable and only the urgency to catch more exhibits (and possibly discover similar gems) pulled my senses in another direction.

Later that Night at the Drive-In, Nathan Phillips Square, Nuit Blanche 2010, Toronto

Our walk took us to a swinging guitar coupled with loud gongs amidst huge screens of moving images. Playing a guitar that was non-static garnered attention for its unusual idea. Although, I have to admit the gongs were quite annoying.

Next, a huge bonfire in a corner of Dundas Square was a gratifying testimony to our inner selves who are quietly mourning the summer gone by. The crowd around the bonfire re-enacted what can be said of summer camping trips with group singing around the fire. Marshmallows were absent.

Just because you can feel it, doesn't mean it's there, Nuit Blanche 2010, Toronto

On another corner of Dundas Square, there was an open air opera that should be applauded for its attempt at theatre in the middle of sniggering crowds. Walking further south along Yonge Street, a perforated white van- “Auto Lamp”- lit from within by multiple bulbs greeted my group. As one of my friends put it, it was “pretty”, if not fresh. And that, in the long night of artless art, is a compliment.

The night ended with us walking further into Zone C at Yonge and King and catching the eerily blown up clown faces caught between two buildings on Yonge Street. Aptly named “Coulrophobia”, or fear of clowns, the images tapped into my horrific memories of Stephen King’s “It” at age ten, and at the same time, made my night worthwhile. If it wasn’t for the clowns, I would be planning to stay at home next year.

Endgame (Coulrophobia), Nuit Blanche 2010, Toronto

Photographs: Copyright Sanchari Sur

An edited version was published in South Asian Generation Next on 6th October 2010.

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Artists Can Make it Big: A Conversation with Upcoming Photographer Meera Margaret Singh

This interview was published in South Asian Generation Next on 22nd September 2010.

Flipping through a local newspaper, I was arrested by a woman’s photograph. She sat with her back exposed and her eyes lowered. She wasn’t young, like those models on magazine covers with saucy bodies and delicious curves. Yet, there was a serene beauty in her aging body. The name of the photographer was even more intriguing- Meera Margaret Singh- and hinted at untold stories.

A week later I find myself sitting at a tiny nondescript cafe in downtown Toronto, sipping teeming huge glasses of hot drinks with the artist herself. I had expected a little proud artsy type, with an air of pretence. Instead I find all my stereotypes slipping away in the face of Meera’s candidness and down-to-earth personality.

She wasn’t born a photographer, she reveals. It was only a six week photography class that she took “for fun” after her graduation with a BA in Anthropology that introduced her to her true calling: “I had this euphoric feeling… I felt like my perception had shifted and I felt that I couldn’t stop once I picked up the camera.”

Faced with opposition from her father, she decided to pursue photography through academia: “I think my father’s perspective was more of a pragmatic look at career. Of course… you have to make money…  And definitely at first, I was discouraged. I think my father wanted to see that I had… financial stability and independence and that art could be a hobby. The way I kind of approached entering into Fine Arts was that at the end of [my degree], I will be able to teach. To my father, teaching was a profession. And, what I had to negotiate was that [art] was something I couldn’t have on the side”.

Going back for another BA, this time in fine arts, was a decision that put her on the path to becoming an artist. She believes that “academia is not for everyone in so far as art is concerned [however] what academia granted me was an immediate community… it helped me grow as an artist. Especially in Winnipeg, I had an incredible mentorship there. Through school, as well, I was allowed more access to opportunities. I learnt there how to apply for shows… for grants… What school provided me was a space to how to talk about my work and I think that’s important”.

Coming from a mixed background of an Irish mother and an Indian Punjabi father, Meera had always been caught between two worlds. When asked if she ever felt a cultural disconnect, her face lights up for a moment with her sudden laugher as she says, “Yes!”, but then she sobers up and continues, “It’s almost like a gift that you can feel a sense of belonging in multiple contexts, and at the same time, you belong and you don’t belong.” Not being introduced to her South Asian roots growing up in Winnipeg, Meera felt an urgency to access those very roots as an adult, “We didn’t have a lot of interaction [with my father’s side]… I wasn’t taught the language… [and] I had met my [paternal] grandmother once when she had come to Canada”.  While on one hand, she was able to “envision” her mother “as a young girl in Ireland” due to the healthy dose of stories that she was fed by her mother, on the other, she felt that her ‘Indian’ part of herself was a “blank”, since her father was silent about his past. She felt that she “needed to fill that part of herself”.

Currently one of the most sought after photographers on the Toronto art scene and a professor at OCAD, her philosophy on success appears to be unselfconscious: “I don’t gauge my success in the same way as my parents would… I think it’s about feeling fulfilled with yourself and your accomplishments as opposed to ‘do I have a job?’ or ‘do I have an income?’. I always struggled financially, regardless (laughs); that is the nature of being an artist half of the time”.

For more information on Meera Margaret Singh and her work, visit www.meeramargaretsingh.com

Photographs: Copyright Meera Margaret Singh.

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