Select Amount

Recto/Verso by Elise Harmsen

Elise Harmsen

I’m lying down on a hard wood floor. I’m on the land of the Wangal people. I’m on my side and have an ear pressed up against the grain of the wood. I can hear the sounds of Arthur Russel’s recorded voice travelling through the floorboards from the next room.

“I close my eyes and listen…”

Does sound ever disappear - or does it just keep travelling through the universe? I’m not sinking into the foor as Bruce Nauman suggests in his work from 1973. In fact, I feel supported by the wood. The cool planks gently push against the aches in my right hip (perhaps the ache is the weight of history). I’m lying here thinking about the materials of time - how I can consider archives in relation to the work of three artists in this year’s National Photography Prize at Murray Art Museum Albury; Sammy Hawker, Olga Svyatova and Nathan Beard.

I roll face down and rest my head on the backs of my hands. I start to think how all of these foorboards used to be trees. I imagine the foor gently swaying back and forth in the breeze beneath me, and it occurs to me how many things that support our life used to be trees. In my work as a picture framer I cut and join timber frames, I handle art works on paper, I mount them with paper matboards. All of these trees supporting other bits of trees. I imagine I’m a piece of paper. I can hear creaks in the wood. I can hear the ticking of my wrist watch.

“For me the noise of Time is not sad: I love bells, clocks, watches — and I recall that at first photographic implements were related to techniques of cabinetmaking and the machinery of precision: cameras, in short, were clocks for seeing, and perhaps in me someone very old still hears in the photographic mechanism the living sound of the wood.”
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography

Sammy Hawker listens to time through her photographic practice. She amplifies non-human agents, recording their rhythm in resplendent colour and pattern. Her series Material Resonance [beyond the veil], 2023 is a sequence of chromatograms - a chemical/photographic process developed
in the early 1900’s that was used to determine the chemical makeup of soil.

A work in the series at the NPP is a chromatogram produced from soil located at the natural burial gravesite of Australian ecofeminist and philosopher, Val Plumwood. The alchemical transfer of light and energy that once constituted Val’s activism runs through the soil and transfers itself to the photographic paper in a shimmering outline.

My head is still connected to the hardwood floor, when I imagine the rhythms of Val’s seminal text Fight for the Forests (1973), co-written with Richard Sylvan reverberating its way into every creak and groan of the timber. I put my ear to the floor like the tip of stylus on a record player, and open my mouth just incase a voice falls out.

Sammy Hawker
Material Resonance [beyond the veil], 2023
National Photography Prize 2024
Murray Art Museum Albury
Image Jeremy Weihrauch

Olga Svyatova
Они/They, 2022
National Photography Prize 2024
Murray Art Museum Albury
Image Jeremy Weihrauch

I roll onto my back and remember the first time I saw the work of Olga Svyatova. It was in an exhibition held at the Rookwood Necropolis on Dharug land. A little while later, I came across the ongoing series of work Они/They (which is currently exhibited in the National Photography Prize.)

Они/They brings together black and white photographs from Olga’s family archive in Russia, together with moments that appear visually similar with their found family in Australia. The two images are presented side by side within the same matboard. There is simultaneously a sense of melancholy and a sense of joy in connecting vast distance and time together between a cheeky smile.

I was fortunate enough to have framed this series for Olga, so I have an intimate relation to the work having handled it. When I am framing images of people who you know have passed, I find myself talking to them. Historically, coffin makers would also train and trade within the guild of picture framers, as they already had all of the necessary tools to both care for the dead and the care for artworks.

It’s not just photographs that you fnd yourself wanting to talk to as an art handler. Olga also works within the profession and I wonder if they also have these conversations? A few years ago as I was working in a museum and I used to get the song Jerdacruttup Man (1986) stuck in my head.

“I live under glass in the British museum

I am wrinkled and black, I am ten thousand years

I once lost in business, I once lost in love

I took a hard fall, I couldn't get up”

Nathan Beard’s work in the National Photography Prize, A Puzzlement, draws from archival material with Thai provenance from various British cultural institutions. One portrait in the series is of A.F.G Kerr, an Irish medical doctor (b.1877 - 1942) who is known for his botanical work and is the so-called ‘founding father’ of Thai botany. Within the portrait, Kerr is surrounded by imagery of Thai orchids from the Kew Gardens library in London, where Nathan spent a six-month ACME Studios residency in 2022.

As I lay on my back I pick up my iPhone to see If I can find more information about Kerr and his archive. I read on the Kew Gardens website that they are working on digitising the botanical collection (at present the specimens and archive are only accessible by visiting the botanical institutions where they are held). I also read that Kerr donated a craniological collection to the Trinity College Dublin Anatomy Museum. My iPhone becomes heavy and I lay it back down beside me.

Staring at the ceiling I think about the years that I have known Nathan (we first met in 2005 during our undergraduate studies in art and have been close friends ever since). I reminisce on our shared moments - films, exhibitions, meals. I also remember the shock and sadness he had on loosing his mother in 2019. I think about the care he gives to his archives as gardener tends to their flowers. The intimate and immense relationship shared with his mother (and connection to his Thai heritage) thrives.

I stand up from my supine position on the floor.
I wonder if I’ll be a tree one day.

Nathan Beard
A.F.G. Kerr (1939), 2022
National Photography Prize 2024
Murray Art Museum Albury
Image Jeremy Weihrauch


Elise Harmsen is a retired artist who has an interest in performance, photography, video, sound and projection. She has worked collaboratively with Jürgen Kerkovius as Elise/Jürgen from 2006-12 and in exhibitions/ performances with Nicola Smith, Carla Cescon and MP Hopkins. From 2014-18 Elise was a resident at Sydney based ARI 55 Sydenham Rd where she also ran the adjoining studios and workshop.

Explore further