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Harry NankinIntroductory statement
It is important to fully understand the context behind the work of the Australian artist Harry Nankin as it blends photography with the environment in a very direct way. This is an online version of his 2004 exhibition at Mildura Arts Centre and the following press release gives the background to the processes used and the thinking behind it.
Alan Griffiths (February 2007)
PRESS RELEASE FOR CONTACT SHOW AT MAC OPENING MAY 21 2004
EXHIBITION OF WORK BY HARRY NANKIN AT MILDURA ARTS CENTRE
Contact is a spectacular installation of artworks made in the Mallee recently completed by Melbourne-based environmental artist, Harry Nankin.
Hanging from the ceiling of the gallery are a sequence of huge and beautiful ‘shadowgrams’: life-scale images made on photographic material exposed to light without a camera.
The shadowgrams on exhibition are made with large sheets of translucent photographic film. In the gallery setting these films seem to glow from within with a soft and eerie light.
Most of the shadowgrams are dark and mysterious imprints of nature recorded at life-scale. These are ‘negative’ (‘shadow’) films actually made plein air (outdoors) on site in the Mallee bush at night. They record living vegetation, animal remains, crawling insects, dust and falling raindrops that touched or were adjacent to the photographic film as it was being exposed to flashlight and moonlight.
The artist’s working methods are unique. Planned meticulously in daylight, each intended picture required a temporary scaffold to be built on site to position the film and flash prior to the nocturnal exposure. Images of animal remains were recorded by laying kangaroo carcasses on the film and exposing them to the light of the flash above. Low vegetation was photographed by suspending the film behind bushes and branches and lighting the scene from the side. Elevated compositions were photographed using a gantry to hoist the film high into the trees and lighting the arrangement from below.
The results reveal an imprint of nature otherwise invisible to the naked eye or camera vision. They are a kind of cross-section or x-ray of the world in which, in effect, the landscape has become the camera.
All the outdoor films are inscribed with texts drawn from nineteenth century Mallee literature including the journals of early explorers.
A few of the images are luminous ‘positive’ (tonally reversed) shadowgram films that have been exposed by contact with the outdoor originals in the studio. Most of these have been sandwiched together to create multi-layered, translucent composites or palimpsests. These palimpsests are like inscrutable maps evoking the imaginary presence of the Mallee site itself.
The project is called Contact partly because the working method involved literal touching of the photographic material by the artist and the physical environment.
The title is also an ironic reference to what Contact is fundamentally about: the difficulty of conceiving -let alone experiencing- an emotionally intimate or spiritually meaningful relationship with nature in a secular consumer culture.
As Nankin says:
"Contact may be understood as a ‘semi-devotional’ ecological artwork that critically reflects upon the tension between a dominant ‘anthropocentric’ (human-centred) response to nature at one extreme and an emergent, speculative ‘biocentric’ (biosphere-centred) gaze at the other. This perceptual continuum pivots around a presentation of the site as a genius loci: the classical idea of place as the habitat of a distinctive deity or atmosphere. Though long discredited in western culture, genius loci is invoked here as a useful concept ripe for contemporary ecological reformulation."
The imagination, innovation and poetic sensibility manifest in Contact is typical of the kind of work that has made Harry Nankin one of the most respected and influential photographic artists in Australia today.
During the 1980’s Nankin was widely regarded as one of the country’s finest wilderness photographers. Then, in the early 1990’s he pioneered the rediscovery of shadowgrams as an expressive art form. In 1993 he began to produce what are probably the first outdoor or plein air shadowgrams of real living landscapes in the history of the medium. Some of these have included the largest shadowgrams–and the largest photographic negatives–ever made. In recent years he has investigated the poetic possibilities of translucency, transparency, multi-layering and hand-inscription using large sheets of photographic film in the studio–and now, with Contact- in the bush.
Sydney arts writer Bronwyn Rennex once summarised Nankin’s oeuvre as "the eerily beautiful and intelligent use of the revelatory power of simple photographic processes". Prominent Melbourne art academic and critic Dr Robert Nelson has simply described his work as "brilliant". No wonder Harry Nankin has been dubbed the ‘master’ of the shadowgram.
Contact began as a project commissioned by Mildura Arts Centre/Mildura City Council for the Mildura-based art event Palimpsest #5 held during April 2003. In July 2003, the project received further financial support from Arts Victoria to assist its completion. The exhibition at Mildura Arts Centre is the product of this 16-month endeavour.