Life, but not quite as we know it

Mirrors and Windows

A Hermeneutic Interpretation of Place

Visions of grandeur

Nature’s Self Portrait: The Photographic Art of the Australian Harry Nankin

A Hermeneutic Interpretation of Place

Unpublished essay by Dr Freya Matthews about Harry Nankin’s MA exhibition Cathexis at Melbourne Contemporary Art Gallery, Fitzroy, March 1994

In these exquisitely executed and painstakingly honed works, Harry Nankin is retreating from recent fashions in Nature photography. He has given up the lush colour and easy naturalism of wilderness coffee table art, with its instant accessibility and ‘consumability’ and the titillating aesthetic of the recipe book and girlie magazine, for a more inscrutable, austere and mysterious beauty.

These luminous black and white photographs do not announce themselves readily, but need to be engaged with: as we allow ourselves to be drawn into them, their meaning – and their beauty – is revealed layer by layer. In this respect the photographs may be seen as in fact reflecting the Nature at whose essence variegated play of form and colour that much wilderness photography presents to us, these appearances might also be viewed in a different way, as clues to an inner world of meaning, a hidden subjectivity, which can be gently drawn into dialogue and invited to share its meanings with us – where we are in this case acting not merely as spectators but as co-respondents.

Clearly Nankin views Nature in the latter way; he not only attempts to reproduce this relationship between self and nature in the relationship between viewer and photograph, but also attempts to reveal some of the inner meanings of Nature in the photograph themselves. In these works Nankin is looking through the appearances – through images of trees, rocks, cliffs, waters, and so on – and searching out the underlying forms and structures, the metaphysical intent, while permeating the entire show, is made quite explicit in images of skeletons and fossils, as well as the juxtaposition of ephermeral and enduring forms (such as feathers and rocks).

The dialogic approach to Nature is also vividly expressed in the large works catalogued as shadowgrams. In these Nankin dispenses with the camera altogether, and allows skeletal trees and tree-like skeletons to cast their ‘shadows’ directly onto photographic paper, thereby affording the viewer a more immediate, less framed relationship with these objects. The x-ray-like effect of the shadowgrams reinforces the impression that the artist is looking through the appearances, trying to uncover the unfamiliar underpinnings and unsuspected meanings of familiar things.

What insights into these metaphysical underpinnings does Nankin seek to share with us? Out of the various metaphysical theses running through the show, two that stand out are the themes of interconnectedness, on the one hand, and the relation between individual and whole on the other.

The most explicit image of interconnectedness occurs in the photograph of an uprooted tree, in which an immense web of entangled roots – the great substratum of interconnections that had been holding the individual tree in place – is exposed to view. Such interconnectedness is also suggested by the many landscapes in which rocks and cliff-faces and vegetation and atmospheric formations are captured at the point of flowing into each other, conveying both the exquisite resolution and the fluidity of individual forms.

This theme overlaps with that of the relation between individual and whole. A sense of the simultaneous integrity of the individual and unity of the whole is communicated, especially in the picture entitled ‘The Order of Suffering’. Here dead sea birds are arranged on the sand in postures what already prefigure the impersonal skeletons they are soon to become, but also evoke the agonies of the deaths they have so recently experienced. The composition conveys a sense of the ways in which the lives of individuals – so full of struggle and anguish – fit into a greater Scheme, a Scheme which is characterized by stillness and serenity, a grave and beautiful necessity that transcends compassion.

Freya Mathews is a lecturer in the Philosophy Department at LaTrobe University. She teaches feminism and environmental philosophy. Her book, The Ecological Self, was published by Routledge in 1991.
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