Salt of the Moon

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'Craters of the Moon' Centre for Contemporary Photography Harry Nankin exhibition (1999)

Helen Light opening Harry Nankin's exhibition

Harry Nankin takes us along a hard road. Craters of the Moon concerns the most barbaric event of 20th century Europe, in which an entire people was targeted for extinction. Over the years, the shock of this story has been lessened with familiarity. But in this gallery, there are none of the usual props—no swastikas, yellow stars or frightened faces. Harry Nankin presents the holocaust in negative.

There are maps of Poland before Shoah. In Melbourne, we have been blessed with opportunities to enjoy this Yiddish universe: performers like Gilgul Theatre, writers like Arnold Zable, and institutions like the Jewish Museum of Australia have in their time provided a refreshing borsch to compensate for the otherwise dry culture indigenous to Melbourne. We have the means to re-create these map names in our imagination

From the same period, there are German maps of the moon. The inventor of mathematical science, Pythagoras, believed that the dead were housed in the moon. For Nankin, this association is interwoven with his own pilgrimage to Poland, where it was difficult to escape the contrast between his inherited memories of village life and its absence today. We read the moon here as the way Nankin made sense for himself of the cultural desolation around him.

With these materials before us, we follow the path of the artist. Harry Nankin’s previous work has included plein-air shadowgrams, which use the night as a means of turning the world into a darkroom. His monumental The Wave captured the moment of the ocean exhaling onto the land. It’s difficult not to relate Nankin’s idealistic projects back to the world of his ancestors, back to the mythology of Jewish Poland, and back especially to the village of his father, Chelm.

The ‘wise men of Chelm’ were the subjects of a kind of gentle humour that we now associate with comedians like Jerry Seinfeld. They constantly attempt to fit the world into some crazy scheme. In one plan, the wise men decide to develop their tourist trade by making the moon an exclusive attraction. Their idea is to leave a barrel of water out on a full moon; when the moon in visible in its reflection, the barrel is covered with cloth and the moon is captured. Unfortunately, a neighbouring village has the same idea so they could no longer claim a unique feature.

Given the breadth of the diaspora, the post-holocaust experience of people like Harry Nankin has served to define much of 20th century culture—such as existentialist literature, abstract expressionist painting, atonal music and social theory. The film Life as Beautiful demonstrates the continuing fascination for the life under the final solution. We might wonder, therefore, what Craters of the Moon adds to this story. One way of answering this question is to consider the context for this exhibition—the Centre for Contemporary Photography. This location invites us to ask what it might have to do with the history of this medium of representation.

Craters of the Moon opens at a time when the scene of photography is split between the wet and dry worlds. Traditionally, photography has been a matter of controlling the interaction between light and chemicals. The specialist skills needed to manage this were located in the darkroom—a place unique to photographers, as the hospital theatre was to the surgeons, or the studio to the artist. The technologically advanced digital processes have now replaced darkroom techniques. With this evolution, there is not only an increase in efficiency, but also a freedom from the toxic vapours of the darkroom. Yet many artists persist in the use of wet processes. In the cultural economy, wetness may seem a natural medium for the impression of artistic uniqueness, which underpins the hard currency of the art object.

In the case of Harry Nankin, we look for cultural resonance with the darkroom. There are two broad links between wet photography and the Jewish tradition. The first link is darkness. Commentators stretching from Matthew Arnold in the 19th century to Derrida and LÚvinas in our own time have set the Jewish tradition in opposition the Greek. In contemporary terms, the opposition is between two different knowledge systems. In one, the fabric of meaning remains opaque, acknowledging the limits of understanding. In the other, meaning attempts to account for itself in a self-supporting system. While there are elements of the text and light in both traditions, they have evolved in Western culture in opposition to each other.

It is along these lines that we might locate a pre-modern ancestry of the darkroom. The kernel of Solomon’s first temple in Jerusalem was the Qodesh Ha-Qadashim, the ‘Holy of Holies’ that housed the Ark of the Covenant, accessible once a year by the High Priest on Yom Kipur (20th September 1999). To obscure the sacred is to revere it: ‘Then spake Solomon, The LORD said that he would dwell in the thick darkness’ (Kings I 8.12). By contrast, the Christian priest displays the miracle of transubstantiation in the monstrance for public exhibition.

There is a paradox in the representation of darkness: how can the absence of light be revealed? One answer to this contradiction lies in the moon. As a source of light, the moon is visible only in darkness. Accordingly, the Jewish calendar has maintained its lunisolar system. While months follow the lunar cycle, an occasional leap year includes an extra month to align it with the solar year. As a custodian of the darkroom, Nankin accords with the limits of representation that is found in Judaism.

The second link is salt. The covenant of salt refers to a contract between the Israelites and G-d.

All the heave offerings of the holy things, which the children of Israel offer unto the LORD, have I given thee, and thy sons and thy daughters with thee, by a statute for ever: it [is] a covenant of salt for ever before the LORD unto thee and to thy seed with thee (Numbers 18:19).

For people of the Levant, salt was an essential element for preserving meat and thus provided a natural symbol for a lasting compact with G-d. All sacrifices had to be accompanied by this salt. Besides a place of worship, Solomon’s temple served as the main abattoir, with a carefully organised system of salted pools for the preserving of meat. Outside Israel, Jews have traditionally settled close to salt sources in order to fulfil their covenant.

These two elements—darkness and salt—form the elemental matrix of wet photography. Darkness holds life at bay while the chemicals embalm the past—sodium compounds develop the film, then fixer transforms silver halide crystals into soluble silver salts. Nankin’s installation heightens the alchemical nature of this process. Like X-rays, light permeates through his shadowgrams, revealing the skeletal remains of the past. We see dead leaves of the Polish forest, genocidal text, fabric weaves, and the talis that Nankin was given by a holocaust survivor (remember the wise men of Chelm covered the moon in the barrel with cloth). It is all kept behind glass, remote from our contemporary experience. Against the dazzling schlock of the new outside, Nankin maintains his covenant with camera obscura.

Harry Nankin "Craters of the Moon"Thus we can follow one man’s path through Craters of the Moon, mourning the lost world of Polish Jewry. But eventually we end up in our own time, considering the evanescence of the darkroom, and the forms of life that it takes with it.