As birds hovering

As birds hovering, 2001

This is an ersatz hardwood ‘vessel’ imprinted with photo paper ash pigment, mirror, incandescent light globe, nylon thread. Vessel 32 x 21 x 168 cm; mirror 0.5 x 35 x 170 cm. Overall dimensions variable. Unique object. Private collection, Australia.

As birds hovering is a painted asymmetrical hardwood ‘vessel’ suspended above a mirror reflecting its projected shadow. The hardwood is painted with acrylic emulsion and gelatin silver paper ash sealed in resin. The artwork was commissioned for the group show Tilia europaea in memory of the German Jewish émigré family who built the structure now housing the Linden-St Kilda Centre for Contemporary Arts in Melbourne. The brief from curator Naomi Cass became the starting point for a work that grew to respond to generic questions of displacement and inhabitation, rejection and acceptance, destruction and regeneration both ecological and human.

The primary object is the hollowed out elbow of a National Trust-registered ‘Spotted Gum’ (Eucalyptus maculata) reportedly planted in 1852 at Melbourne University from Queensland seed collected and donated by the great physician, geographer and botanist Ferdinand von Mueller. In a peculiar coincidence, von Mueller also designed the original garden at Linden. The tree fell following natural degeneration and wood-grub infestation in December 2000, a past clearly evidenced in the woodworm striations, burrowing-holes and channels of the finished piece. The original log has been hollowed-out to a small fraction of its original mass, partly re-sculpted, cleaned, sanded down and sealed. The leaves of the European Linden (Tilia europaea) picked green from a suburban Melbourne planting have been daubed with acrylic paint and pressed against the raw wood surface leaving their imprint.

The paint was rendered from burnt gelatin silver photographic fibre paper mixed with an acrylic base. The photographic paper carried imagery created for an earlier project Craters of the Moon dealing with the Holocaust. Texts include the ancient and perhaps most fundamental of all Jewish prayers, the Hebrew Sh’ma whilst the German phrase refers to the Inn of the two Lindens from Michaelis family history. As birds hovering, the title of the work, quotes the prophet Isaiah.

Tilia Europaea, Linden-St Kilda Centre for Contemporary Arts
St Kilda, Melbourne, August 2001
by Naomi Cass

With loving care, Harry Nankin lays the…story of migration inside a vessel – carved from the hollowed-out elbow of a National Trust-registered ‘Spotted Gum’ (Eucalyptus maculata) reputedly planted in 1852 at Melbourne University from Queensland seed collected and donated by Ferdinand von Mueller – alongside the broader context of Jewish persecution and multiple identity in the Diaspora…The interior of this craft is marked with imprints of Linden leaves and cryptic inscriptions in English, Hebrew, German and Greek, using ash-grey paint derived from burning photographic paper mixed with an acrylic base.

Nankin presents a curious juxtaposition of discursive gestures: a sacred Hebrew text [the Sh’ma] is placed alongside organic and indigenous references such as the bark canoe, a coolamon or receptacle. His texts point towards…a discontinuous cultural identity. The form itself recalls a boat, a coffin, perhaps a Tiq (Eastern Jewish case for theTorah or Five Books of Moses) or simply a receptacle for holding significance, indigenous or European. Carved paper thin, there are holes in this vessel: tradition is only a shell or husk of the past, but through which bright light passes and [leaves it’s]…mark.