Australasian Journal of Ecocriticism and Cultural Ecology (AJE), Vol 3 (2013)

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Minds in the Cave: Insects as Metaphors for Place and Loss

Harry Nankin


The practice-led PhD art research project 'Gathering Shadows' investigates the visual poetics of a speculative ‘ecological gaze’ at a time of ecological crisis. The project considers two environments but avers from the distancing objectification characteristic of lens-based capture and the tired genre of ‘landscape’. Instead, it proposes a symbolic order in which imagery of native invertebrates are presented as indices of the generic non-human 'Other'. This is conveyed with reflections on deep time, ecological sited-ness, ecological continuities and, most importantly, ecological disruption. Employing a unique analogic plein air technique for recording diminutive live subjects without a camera, the research pivots upon a trio of ecomimetic cues: first, its deeply indexical processes reveal an insect umwelten of uncanny intimacy and semiotic presence. Second, it is a process in which images tend to be facilitated not predetermined, where results are partially outcomes of chance-driven, counter-anthropocentric interactions between artist and environment. Third, rather than evoke traditional use of chiaroscuro the artworks present an inverted world of x-ray-like shadows—an oblique and somber metaphor appropriate to the 'dark' ecological conditions the project confronts. The project responds to two sites: semi-arid Lake Tyrrell in the Victorian Mallee, and the sub-alpine plateau of Mount Buffalo. Lake Tyrrell once informed a sacred reciprocity of sky with country in indigenous culture. The loss of this reciprocity is memorialised by using raw starlight falling on the lakebed to contact-print fresh photographic films with the imagery of relics of insect fauna gathered from the lakeshore. In the Australian Alps (the subject of this paper) the project focuses on the keystone species Bogong Moth Agrotis Infusa. These iconic invertebrates, and the imminent decline of their ecosystem due to climate change, inform the exquisitely detailed digital enlargements derived from cameraless images of swarming moths gathered from a summit cave. 

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