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Sanjeev Sivarulrasa: New photo exhibit explores the cosmos with an artistic eye

By Alejandro Bustos on March 20, 2013

Who is responsible for explaining the heavens?  In today’s modern world, our understanding of the universe comes almost exclusively from science, which provides breathtaking images of outer space with such instruments as the Hubble Space Telescope.

Local photographer Sanjeev Sivarulrasa, however, wants to change this by having artists also provide insights on galaxies, nebulae and other celestial bodies.

“Scientists are the gatekeepers of the sky,” says Sivarulrasa in a phone interview. “(But science) doesn’t tell us much about how we feel about the night sky.”

While fully embracing the work of astronomers and astrophysicists, Sivarulrasa notes that artists provide a different perspective on the cosmos.  For instance, with the scientific method, an observer collects and analyses data objectively. “With art we take the opposite approach,” says Sivarulrasa, a former federal public servant who now works full-time as an artist. “The main focus of my work as an artist is to look at aspects of how I feel.”

This attempt to inject human emotion into our understanding of the cosmos forms the basis of Sivarulrasa’s current photography exhibit Night Light, taking place at the Karsh-Masson Galleryat 136 St. Patrick Street until May 5.

The photographs in the exhibit, which provide a unique perspective on the universe, can be divided into three categories.  The first are shots of the vast night sky with images of land at the bottom.  An example is the photo of the Milky Way Galaxy at the top of this article.

Photo by Sanjeev Sivarulrasa (Stellar Nursery in Orion II, 2012)

The second category consists of images from outer space that one normally associates with space telescopes like Hubble.  When observing these photographs, such as the one on the right, I had the feeling of being a speck of dust in an infinite universe, which is what I often feel whenever I look at images from NASA.

One of the goals of Sivarulrasa’s exhibit, however, is to combat this feeling that we are inconsequential beings in a vast cosmos. “What science tells us is that we are atoms and molecules, a piece of meat that happens to be alive,” he tells me. “That we are a speck of dust in the cosmos; but I have never felt like that.”

This brings us to the third category of photographs, which provide a purely conceptual take on the heavens.  While it is tempting to compare these photos to abstract expressionism, they are much more than that.

“What is interesting to me is not that I am observing a distant galaxy in my telescope, but that I can understand that,” explains Sivarulrasa, who has been observing the night sky for 11 years.

Photo by Sanjeev Sivarulrasa (Eastern Veil, 2011)

But how do you express the idea of a self-aware person who is observing distant stars and planets in the night sky?  For me, this is accomplished through the third category of photos, such as the example on the left.  You can think of these abstract images as representations of human thoughts about the universe, which is a radically different way of looking at the heavens.

A former federal public servant who specialised in international tax law, Sivarulrasa’s work sees him take photos from dusk to dawn in provincial parks and remote areas of Ontario and Quebec. He is also a former member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and was named “Observer of the Year” by its Ottawa Centre in 2010.

If you want to know more about his work, you can attend a talk this coming Sunday, March 24, at 2 p.m. at the Karsh-Masson Gallery.  The free talk will elaborate on his photographic technique, while also comparing the scientific method of understanding the world with the artistic perspective.

Night Light is taking place at the Karsh-Masson Gallery at 136 St. Patrick Street until May 5.  Admission is free.