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Minutes to Midnight

Virginia Baxter

My Parents, Richard and Pam Parke, Newcastle NSW My Parents, Richard and Pam Parke, Newcastle NSW
photo Trent Parke
Beyond the breezy prelude to the exhibition (diary notes, postcards, family photos and snapshots from the 2-year road trip that Trent Parke and his partner, photographer Narelle Autio, have just undertaken around Australia), the atmosphere is apocalyptic—dark walls, portentous text rolling on a black screen, an animated clock-face counting down. In the installation of the work, Parke says, he wanted to create “an experience for people—something on the grand scale of epic cinema.”

Minutes to Midnight is a vivid experience. Parke has returned from his odyssey with a dark vision to share of an Australia that he sees as very different from the one in which he grew up.

"I suppose it’s a hard country with the droughts and firestorms and poverty. And while there is a kind of freedom to it, there is also a stifling sense of ‘this is the way it is.’" Diary entry, Trent Parke

Our journey begins with a midnight self-portrait taken in outback Menindi, the photographer annointed in his own ghostly light. In the series of large, unframed photographs that follows, Parke works the film to its limits, employing his trademark wide-angle slabs of black intersected by myriad patterns of light to powerfully reveal a shadowland of violence and unease. There’s a palpable sense in his pictures of the photographer wrestling with what he sees. It’s a tough, sometimes frightening view but nuanced with signs of exuberant life. Threatening looking crowds transform into ecstatic tableaux or become transcendent in a shower of rain. There’s roadkill, but also animal life and evidence both brutal and benign of human co-existence with nature.

"At times I feel like I’m looking through the eyes of an actor in a film. We stop at some strange place, pop into the live set and click away as the plot unfolds before us, the scene and characters ever changing as the reality reel rolls on." Diary entry, Trent Parke

Some images appear snatched in passing, others offered freely to a welcome visitor or through gritted teeth to an intrusive one. Transience abounds—people living in caravans, sleeping in cars. A camper sleeps beneath a dead pig dangling from a tree; a line of local lovelies draped on car bonnets is caught between smiles as their funereal parade stalls. In one of the few portraits in the show, the photographer is held in thrall as a strange young girl sizes him up.

My eyes rest for a minute on pictures that glisten from light-boxes—a slither of silver of Sydney Harbour, a jellyfish preening for the camera. I read in the floor notes how this image turned into a nuclear explosion for the photographer and am drawn back to the dark.

In the last room are 3 large photographs, some collaged into diptychs. A playground at night spells out some sudden poetry, a word in light—”Hum.” Then, the most desolate of all the images in the exhibition, a group of Aboriginal people in a dusty street exposed to the glare of their country’s neglect. “Welcome to Paradise” says the sign above them. On the wall opposite, the hauntingly serene image of the photographer’s parents, he motionless in pyjamas, she ghostly in her nightgown. What do these pictures whisper to each other at minutes to midnight, I wonder? The sound of insects. Overhead, a fluorescent flying fox and a circle of moths drawn to the light. In the corner, the photographer’s newborn son—another outcome of the journey—rises from water like the moon, a vision of promise.

We leave as we entered, past the collage of what seemed at the outset like sunny snapshots and as we pass the photo nostalgia, the romance of the journey, a shot of Narelle Autio’s legs covered in insect bites leaps out, then Parke rinsing film in a grimy shower block, his strips of film like flypaper drying in dead trees. In the final image as we leave, on a TV screen in some nondescript interior, John Howard announces Australia’s entry into the Iraq War.

Minutes to Midnight, Trent Parke, Australian Centre for Photography January 7 February 20 2005. Curator Alasdair Foster.

RealTime issue #65 Feb-March 2005 pg. 7

© Virginia Baxter; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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