For a photographer whose primary subject is death, Judith Nangala Crispin is surprisingly bubbly. Her works are “portraits of what remains after the death of an animal”, she tells the Guardian Australia. They are elegies to newly deceased creatures: lizards crushed underfoot, stillborn calves, pigeons smeared against windshields. And in Crispin’s art, they become haunting, translucent shapes, sporting the night sky as if halfway between this life and the next.
Crispin’s latest exhibition – presented as part of this year’s Head On Photo festival – is the culmination of five and a half years of work. Its title, Dangerous Stars, refers to a spirit’s journey after death. “In the desert, there’s this idea that if you die and you’re not in your own country, then other people can look up into the sky, and they’ll see a shooting star – to which you’ll return your own country,” says the artist, a descendant of the Bpangerang people of Victoria. The same goes with animals.”[I’m] follow the passage of these animals after their death.
The work is photographic, though it pushes the boundaries of image creation in a painstaking process that often takes over 50 hours at a time – and as long as six months. She places her corpses on photographic emulsion, then exposes them for long periods of time as they decay, leaving their ghostly portraits in the final print – what Crispin describes as an “after-echo”. She often introduces natural materials – seeds, honey, sticks, ocher – into the mix to form textural starscapes behind the animal. “You can look at those skies and know what time of year it would be, or what part of the planet you are in,” she says.
Occasionally, if she has found the animal on her property in the southern tablelands of New South Wales, Crispin will create her work in a giant geodesic dome she has built outside her home, which functions as an oversized lens. If she encountered the body in the wild, she will display the print with a portable Plexiglas box. It was a long process of trial and error. “I’m a very impatient person and I hated it,” she says. “And the process changed me, because it made me slow down… I had to overcome my own sense of frustration and all the failures.”
She came to the process after decades of searching for her ancestors, the details of which had been obscured by a swamp of government documents. She ended up in the Northern Territory, where “the old Warlpiri ladies took pity on me, and they sort of adopted me,” she says. “What they used to do was leave their webs outside so the country could mark them with dirt or sand or dead animals. They said that was the question. the country had asked them – and they were trying to answer that question with their painting.
His work, in turn, is a way to reconnect, instinctively, to the land in its riches and mysteries. She wants viewers to come away with a newfound reverence for the animals they encounter — even roadkill. “We can feel terribly upset because David Bowie died or someone we never met, and we don’t notice a snowy owl we pass on the highway. I want to show that the life of a finch is just as important as the life of a world leader, objectively.
“There are actually a lot of finches that I would save compared to some of our world leaders.”