A series of single and multi-piece toned gelatin silver film artworks created by exposure to starlight without a camera at Lake Tyrrell in northwest Victoria. Each film is mounted on an individual pane of 335 mm x 355 mm x 4mm starphire glass. Unique objects. The largest number of pieces have been acquired by RMIT University (82 panes in 27 artworks) with others in the collections of Swan Hill Regional Art Gallery (4 panes in 2 diptychs), the Walter & Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Parkville (nine panes in 3 triptychs) and two private collections (5 panes in a diptych and a triptych).
Lake Tyrrell in the semi-arid Mallee region of Victoria, Australia, once served as a celestial observatory for the indigenous Boorong people. The heavens mirrored in its saline shallows enunciated a sacred reciprocity between sky and country, a reciprocity long ago ruptured by clearing and colonization. This pre-history is reflected in the source of the lake’s name, ‘tyrille’, meaning ‘a space opening to the sky’ analogous to the ‘chora’ of classical Greek myth. The project ‘Syzygy’ – a ‘yoking of opposites’ or an ‘alignment of three or more celestial objects’ – is an act of poetic restoration, an ersatz re-yoking or realignment of the lost reciprocity of earth with sky using camera-less, indexical methods of image-making.
On nights free of reflected solar light, large sheets of gelatin silver film were placed under pre-recorded images, laid out on the lakebed and exposed to the naked light of the stars. The prepared images included rare glass plate negatives made in telescopes at Mount Palomar (USA) and Siding Spring (Australia) borrowed from the private collection of astrophysicist Rachel Webster; film photograms of native live invertebrates gathered from the lake’s shore; and carbon powder prints on paper, as well as the chemical traces of dancers’ skin on photographic film as they performed on the lake-bed. This technically complex nine-year undertaking took place in consultation with scholar Paul Carter and astrophysicist Maurizio Toscano with contributions from sound artist Christopher Williams and a team of volunteers. State and federal Australian government art grants assisted early phases of the endeavour, a process documented on video.
The completed body of work comprises over ninety photographic films, each mounted on a pane of starphire glass of a similar size to the appropriated astronomical plates – a reference to the history of human star-gazing. The panes are grouped into forty-four horizontally aligned and stacked multi-piece artworks intended for display ‘in syzygy’ (paired and/or aligned) in semi-darkness, backlit on light boxes. The work is divided into two series.
‘Syzygy’, the major series, consists of invertebrate and astronomical plates, most of which have a circular black mask screen-printed on the reverse face. Shifting viewpoints optically displace underlying layers producing sensations of parallax depth and orbital movement. Tyrrell’s invertebrates are relics of its pre-colonial ecology. Juxtaposing tiny insects with ancient sky provokes uncanny correspondences between near and far, abject and sublime, organic agency and cosmic eternity. These animated reminders of resilient life amidst the untouched heavens offer the possibility of tragic catharsis: in the face of the decline of wild nature on Earth, we find solace in the great wilderness of the stars.
‘Flay’, the minor series, reiterates the body imprints. It inverts the conventional presentation of landscape as an anthropic sign by alluding to correspondences between poignant, salt-flecked veneers of human flesh and the eviscerated skin of the salt country upon which they were made.
The gathering of faint nocturnal light invited ‘reciprocity failure’ – depressed sensitivity in low light normal with analogue emulsions – a sensitometric decoupling analogous to the story of ‘failed’ reciprocity between land and sky informing the project. By turning the lake’s surface into a photographic focal plane/plain reciprocating the night sky in a ritualised imaging process, the project honours the lost sacrament and serves as a metaphor for our global ecological predicament.
Like all elemental silver found on Earth, the silver in the project artworks was forged aeons ago by stellar nucleosynthesis. Exposed to the night sky, the invisible silver halides of the unexposed films were transformed into visible metal literally by the ‘light of the universe’. Thus, in a very real sense, the images are congealed starlight – a haunting vision of the numinous.
The positive Syzygy invertebrate images replicate negatives comprising part of the affiliated artwork Down in the poor country (films). Fifty astronomical films exposed at Lake Tyrrell but not used in Syzygy now constitute the new artwork Elegy.
by Paul Carter
In Syzygy Harry Nankin juxtaposes congealed starlight and the silhouettes of communal insects in expanding motion. Besides the obvious contrast of physical scales, there is a contrast of time spans. Much, if not most of the ‘information’ contained in Nankin’s images is invisible to the naked eye. Forty to seventy per cent of the light used to produce the shadow photograms of the Mount Palomar and Siding Spring astro-plates originates beyond the Solar System. Light from the nearer part of our galaxy began its ‘journey’ – although we should think of the photons expanding, insect-like, in all directions – towards ‘us’ at about the time of Australia’s white settlement. Further out: further back – so that, if you could see reflected in those tiny, more distant specks of light a mirror of the time on earth, you could see back to the origins of life. In contrast, caught in the lightning of an exploding flash bulb, the scatter of the insects has no more depth – the social arrangement no greater longevity or legitimacy – than the duration of its illumination.
Obviously, at the heart of Nankin’s desire to repair what he regards as a tragic blindness in contemporary culture towards its origins – and therefore a destructive amnesia regarding our common responsibilities to care for our time- and spacebound world held in common – is a kind of vertiginous willingness to test the extremes of his own proposition: is there any shift of scale, is there any juxtaposition of phenomena in the natural world, that would not on close and sensitive inspection reveal the principle of reciprocity? For it is remarkable that in Nankin’s selection of remembered portions of the night sky – triply remembered if we follow the genealogy of the images (they have their own life time) from a) the negatives of an astral survey conducted between 1948 and 1988, b) the laying of these over unexposed film on certain appropriately starlit nights at Lake Tyrrell and c) the collection of the negatives of the negatives to produce these positive images – one begins to see, much as the Ancients with their animal-ridden imaginations saw scorpions, adders and hunters, the constellation of societies, the hum and buzz of cosmic community.
Nothing in science quite prepared us for this discovery of shared gestalten imprinted on the extremes of matter. Nankin’s insight depended on respecting a Keatsian injunction to lie open, passively and receptively. Keats advised this attitude under the Sun but Nankin and his team of faithful assistants – including the benevolent astronomer Maurizio Toscano, who, like some Chaldean sage, predicted the various alignments, eclipses, elevations and approaches necessary to the optimisation of the image – pegged themselves and their oyster beds of unexposed silver halide-saturated film to the beaches of Lake Tyrrell. The location was critical to this vertiginous experiment – vertigo-inducting because, in a human world rapidly expanding its coefficient of fragmentation, what chance was there that a point of coincidence would be found on the earth’s surface, a convenient focal plane in which a remnant of the original reciprocity between Heaven and Earth might still be made out?
In siting his research, Nankin took a hint from two mid-Victorian papers which the squatter and speculator William Edward Stanbridge published documenting the starlore of the ‘Boorong’ people. These otherwise shadowy traditional owners of the Lake Tyrrell basin were reputed to have exceptional astronomical knowledge, and historian and cultural ecologist John Morieson holds that their starlore was a cryptic guide to the proper constellation of relationships and responsibilities on the ground plane. Nankin’s exploration of the common place – the remnant constellating of life across time and space detectable at Lake Tyrrell – is also a homage to a people who understood the surface of Lake Tyrrell as a reflective surface, as a glass in which to glimpse darkly the divine dance whose puppets we are – or were, until modernity drained the water out of understanding in favour of a dry thinking that dismissed the evidence of reciprocities between the human and nonhuman world as mythological.
The word syzygy refers to the alignment of two or more heavenly bodies but it also aptly describes the method of Nankin’s work. To obtain an image, a number of variables have to be correctly reconciled and aligned. If the night sky is to provide the right amount of light to produce a silhouette of the teeming clusters of galaxies pinpointed on the astro-plates, excessive reflected light from the major planets needs to be avoided. Every emulsion used in traditional photography has a different reciprocity index which must be discovered if there is not to be a fatal ‘loss of information’. Added to this are the other chances that can be foreseen but not calculated – the power and direction of the wind blowing salt particles across the lake bed, experimentally, adding their sodium chloride scatter to the negative galaxies being reproduced; the cheeky clouds,
nurturing apertures to the heavens, then sliding insouciantly over the quiet night sky.
A pataphysical brio accompanies the seriousness of Nankin’s work: in a fallen world where the old reciprocity of Sky and Earth has been forfeited, work – the years’ long refinement of technique, the Chaldean calculations, the ‘alignment’ of human and archival resources – is the necessary pilgrimage that must be undertaken if a glimpse of the old Paradise is to be had. But what prevents this from being simply a religious meditation is its play. Schiller once wrote of a ‘play drive’ that ‘by activating the material drive at the same time as the formal drive … set limits to both.’ The recognition of limits, he considered, gave both ‘the freedom proper to each’. The cryptic, even playful, formal correspondences between the distributions of galaxies and the ‘undescribable blots’ of the insect clusters reconciles these two drives. The limits of demonstration – the fact that so much has to be hinted at but left embedded, in the history of the project, in the poetic analogues between astronomy and photography – is integral to the poise, the restraint and, ultimately, the tragedy that the work stages.
It is perhaps impossible for an artist to think or dream non-reciprocity: the drift of his desire is always to understand the meaning of things, and meanings are strictly unthinkable except in terms of relations lost and found. But insofar as disjunction can be represented, it may be through the tightrope of the poetic operation – the syzygy of elements chancily and calmly balanced in these pool-like, still twinkling, migrating depths – where so much of what is communicated strictly defies imagination. For what in our daylight world prepares us to orient ourselves to these visual patterns: pre-imaginal or post-imaginal, they draw us close to the horizon of poetic thinking, to the mortal zone where these points of light congeal, like remembered time, into tears.