Life, but not quite as we know it
Review by Robert Nelson of Transcription exhibition by Harry Nankin, Dianne Tanzer Gallery, Fitzroy published in The Age newspaper, October 5, 2005
Photography has a well-known kinship with painting; but the relation with printmaking is also striking. The word photography was invented from Greek roots to signify a writing or drawing with light. But in a way it’s more a case of printing with light. The light leaves an imprint, etching itself into the chemical fabric of a plate to form a tone or colour.
You especially notice it with photograms, which are photographs taken without a camera. A motif is places over a photosensitive surface, which is then exposed to the light. The motif obscures the photographic surface, thus protecting it from the effects of the light. When the photographic paper is developed, the intruding object is semi-transparent, the object will register in half-tones. It’s a kind of negative for the positive form, a trace where the light hasn’t been. This inversion of positive and negative also reminds me of some printing processes.
The relationship between photograms and printmaking is brought home most forcefully in an exhibition by Harry Nankin at Dianne Tanzer gallery. Entitled Transcription, it contains monumental kangaroo-size photograms, which are themselves transparent and presented as light-boxes. The luminous plastic screens are also held out on the diagonal, which makes them seem like specimen cases in a museum rather than pictures on a wall.
The motifs are nevertheless the ingredients of colonial landscape: scruffy vegetation of variable density and the large indigenous marsupials that encounter today, mostly via road-kill. The imagery is thus unmistakably Australian, representing samples of the landscape that you don’t often study through photography.
The creatures are dead, in fact I would say decomposing; otherwise the light would not have seeped into their carcasses during the process of exposure to the light. You see muscle tissue but also some skeletal remains, like the rib cage.
The art of the photogram finds objects strangely leaky. The things placed on the plate don’t entirely quarantine their place in the world, because ambient light seeps around their form to create a combination of sharp and blurry edges, a host of incidents by looking at the form that sits on top of the photographic paper or film.
It seems that Nankin may have exposed his plates for long periods, because there’s much evidence of chaotic fragments finding their way onto the exposed field, perhaps airborne particles landing there from the winds or attracted by a static charge. The surfaces are thus aesthetically punctuated with little episodes, a scattering of marked that is random yet not messy.
Nankin’s photographic absorption of the stipple and scatter of nature resembles another signal feature in the aesthetic of printmaking, especially etching. It’s the random corrosive biting of the plate by acid through the protective layers, a beautiful pitter-patter that is sometimes called foul-biting.
The control of foul-biting is one of the key ingredients in the charm of the printerly. Irrespective of the image, the surface is visually seductive in its air of push and pull, an organic registration of growth, accident and decay that goes beyond the drawn mark. Nankin manages a similar kind of grainy argument in the photogram.
From this expression of natural processes, Nankin’s images featuring dead nature acquire a beauty beyond their morbid associations. You realise that the herbivores are rotting; but somehow they’re subsumed in a grand aesthetic entropy, a natural cycle that consumes and produces, claims flesh and leaf but makes living soil.
Perhaps the reason that Nankin doesn’t use a camera is that the lens inherently spies on nature; and if the artist photographed decomposing animal corpses, you’d see it as a macabre form of voyeurism. Besides, seizing the ghastly or the picturesque side of such spectacles would only inspire disgust and you wouldn’t be drawn to contemplate the greater ecology of nature, much less its relation to a medium that depends on chemical change.
Cameras set up the world in a flattering and convenient way; but lens photography turns everything into scenery. Using photograms, Nankin deconstructs that very idea of scenery; because although he refuses the optical system of the camera, he still manages to picture nature with a sense of perspective. Things are layered: some branches are tonally fainter and therefore appear more remote.
It’s quite a spooky result, familiar and harrowed, lyrical and scientific, a world impregnated by decay and now embossed by light.