Syzygy: gazing at shadows, darkly

To consider an ‘ecological gaze’ at a time of the putative ‘end of nature’ is to engage in “dark ecology”, a mournful attendance to global ecological destruction, the collateral termination of the moribund ontological binary ‘man/nature’ and the concomitant decay of spatial ecological identity. To uncover an ecological gaze photographically is to bear witness to what might be characterized as ecological ‘tragedy’–tragedy for which the germane ocular trope is not a morbid iconography revealed by light but an elegaic index (or anti-index) of shadows, and not distancing monocular hubris but a visceral chiasm of binocular seeing, photo-kinetic action and photo-chemical reaction. Such is the rationale of Syzygy, a project about Lake Tyrrell in the Victorian Mallee.

Lake Tyrrell was reputedly once an indigenous celestial observatory. The heavens mirrored in its shallow waters informed a sacred reciprocity of sky with country, reciprocity long since ruptured. Syzygy reflects upon this sacrament and its loss by turning the lake’s surface into a photographic focal plane that no longer mirrors or reciprocates the heavens. This estrangement between heaven and earth is indicated ironically by imagery created literally by exposure to starlight falling on the lakebed on moonless nights. The resulting heavenly shadows trace live invertebrates and reptiles gathered from the lakeshore and rare astronomical glass plate photographs brought to the location. Syzygy was a collaboration with scholar/artist Paul Carter, astrophysicist Maurizio Toscano and many volunteers. The process was organised on-line and documented on video.

This paper locates Syzygy within contemporary art practice by addressing how this groundbreaking 4-year experiment revivifies analogic methods as an arena for speculative research and critique, transforms appropriated scientific data into affectual imagery through remediation and reframes environmental art as politics in a transdisciplinary context.


Harry Nankin is an environmental photomedia artist and educator. His practice focuses on the contested meanings attributed to ‘nature’ and ‘land’ in modernity, a concern he describes as the search for an ‘ecological gaze’. His recent oeuvre is distinguished by the use of camera-less analogue imaging procedures in which the environment itself becomes the camera. Nankin’s work has been widely exhibited in curated shows and is regularly shown at his representative venue, Dianne Tanzer Gallery, Fitzroy, Melbourne. His artworks are included in many public collections and he has been the recipient of multiple Arts Victoria and Australia Council art production grants. He teaches in the School of Art at RMIT University, the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University, Burwood and the Australian Academy of Design, Port Melbourne. Harry Nankin is a PhD candidate with the ‘Art & Environmental Sustainability Research Cluster’ in the School of Art, RMIT University, Melbourne. The project, Gathering Shadows, is an enquiry into the narrative of ‘tragedy’ in photographic ecopoesis.