In contemporary usage, the word park is perhaps associated equally with open recreational public spaces and with the arresting of movement—as when we park our cars, or park ourselves at a particular spot. Given the increasing encroachment of urbanisation and privatisation, and the way in which these phenomena place extra pressure on the inhabitants of suburbs and cities, public spaces like parks are often discussed as functioning in the paradoxical manner of providing both the opportunity for a break from movement and the possibility of recreation. On the one hand, parks seem to allow us an opportunity to park ourselves—or to ‘plonk’ ourselves down, as the wonderfully onomatopoeic idiom states—so as to interrupt the perturbations of everyday life, whilst, on the other hand, parks also offer the possibility of communal recreations—that is, those leisurely and playful activities through which people might rejuvenate themselves.
However, such a contrast between the action of playful activity and static relief from movement is perhaps more apparent than actual. For example, if we were to take the term recreation, not to refer simply to the rejuvenation needed for returning to work after a hard week of labour, but instead to refer to the possibility of re-creation, reinvention, or the emergence of something radical and new, then we might be able to better appreciate the two senses of park that were gestured to previously. In stopping, ceasing, and withdrawing from what is normal and habitual, one is offered the possibility of reemerging in a heterogeneous guise. It is perhaps only in stopping or arresting one’s course or movement towards something that there is the possibility of successfully deviating into the radically different.
Arguably, such a double gesture of arresting and seizing the familiar, but only so as to possibly recreate it, is one of the greatest strengths of Toni Wilkinson’s photography. Especially in a body of work like The Park, a photographic series presented at the Perth Centre for Photography, we find Wilkinson petrifying our gaze so as to open up the possibility for reconsidering such seemingly banal public spaces as sites for thinking through the enormity of our ecological and economic interconnectedness. There is something like an animism in The Park’s web of relationships between people, architectural objects, and animal and plant life. By animism I do not necessarily mean some specific set of spiritual practices related to the powers of certain totemic figures, but, instead, the more general sense that there is something animated and animating even in that which we overlook or posit as inert.
For example, in a work like The Night Comes On we find the Rio Tinto building and the semi-obscured BHP building imposing their stature from out of Perth’s King’s Parks’s tree-tops. In this twilight shot, emerging from dark tree-branches that cluster like the cloud formations, the neon-light of the Rio Tinto sign casts the building as sentinel-like, suggesting a ceaseless gaze and a cold immensity. In this work, rather than suggesting the conventional juxtaposition of inert built matter against living organic nature, both the tree-tops and the Rio Tinto tower suggest looming systemic forces that threaten to intrude into the familiar and everyday. Connected both to global currents of international capital and mineral extraction, the trees and towers suggest mysterious animating powers—and the curious confluence of economy and ecology—as is offset by the miraculous purple of a twilight sky. Here too, what might strike one as a place of quietism and simple leisure, the forces of global capital and ecological dynamism animate trees and towers as if to suggest the continued existence of obscured but vengeful gods.
Deep Hit of Morning Sun presents discarded underwear protruding from a reflective pool of water, with the partially submerged fabric breaking the mirrored beauty of a night’s sky strewn with stars and overhanging trees. While the privileging of the discarded has become a mainstay in contemporary photo-media, insofar as one sees endless repetitions of the inversion of the conventional photographic hierarchies—insignificant objects emphasised over human subjects, for example—here it seems that Wilkinson is approaching something closer to what Donna Haraway has referred to as ‘tentacular thinking’. For Haraway, when ‘human exceptionalism’ and ‘bounded individualism’ become untenable in the world of ecological and economic crisis, there is a need for a form of thought that moves across various lines of inquiry, that feels out different possibilities, and that resists the primacy of centres and points in favour of the dynamic horizontal movement.1 What matters for Haraway is that we avoid simply reordering the hierarchy, re-stacking the deck, so as to reconfigure and reproduce the same hierarchies that exist in our present world—though with different figures at the top and bottom. Instead of this, Haraway implores us to ‘stay with the trouble’, to connect just as much with what seems frightening or alien as with what seems comfortable and redemptive.
Such a spirit of ‘staying with the trouble’ resounds in Wilkinsons’s photography, as she is able to both arrest our gaze and transform our sense of the shared muddle of figures and forms that make up public spaces like parks. While Wilkinson’s work does engage with public space as a site for the maintenance and reproduction of dominant notions of community—as is exemplified by her shots of Australia day crowds—the possibility for openness and conviviality that parks can afford is indicated, nevertheless. However, with such openness, such far reaching interconnections and tentacularity, Wilkinson’s photography reminds us of the risks inherent in the messy world we find ourselves in. However, and despite the darkness of Wilkinson’s compositions, a generative set of relationships between what openly exists and subtly insists in the park is never absent. Far from isolated and parochial, the concomitance of risk and possibility extends across the tacit relationships produced by each photo’s relation to its other.
Toni Wilkinson, The Night Comes On, 2017. 600 x 450cm.
Toni Wilkinson, A Deep Hit of Morning Sun, 2017. 1200 x 900cm.
1. See Donna Haraway’s ‘Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene ’, E-Flux, No.75, September 2016. http://www.e-flux.com/journal/75/67125/tentacular-thinking-anthropocene-capitalocene-chthulucene