Electricity, for most of us, is a given and invisible. Switch on a light, read a review online, boil some water, surf the internet – the power and its source are ironically invisible, despite how pervasive electricity is to everything. In some ways, I would struggle to answer the question ‘what does electricity look like?’. Lightning, maybe, or a Tesla coil.
Felix Wilson, on the other hand, has published a book that exposes exactly what electricity looks like. A web of wires, buildings, illuminations, and their ripples. His book ‘Nocturnal Ecologies’ explores (literally, a lot of the photos are like walking and seeing) this inter-connected, overlooked, totally mundane and very fundamental biome of coal-powered electricity that feeds Melbourne’s ever-growing population and changes what Melbourne is.
The book opens with a satellite image of Melbourne at night – a light network traces the outline of the city for hundreds of kilometres, next a power plant, then an empty office building. From the outset, Wilson is tracing the networks of energy and what they power: an imposing and empty office building, all its lights on, like a shell and a beacon all at once. And these photos are almost all shot at night.
And we continue to get images of light itself, buildings and power stations during the night-time. Wilson is making this connection very clear – he is demonstrating how this, at times, incredibly mundane network of wires and poles connects this impressive and imposing series of power plants with the, at times, impressive and ugly series of buildings and interiors. Murky stairs, with barely enough light to see that look skeletal, with the railings and stairs, lit up just enough to look at. Roads, devoid of life, exposed and ugly. Wilson has shot this at night exactly to make it clear that he is showing us what we don’t always see – that he directs his flash then directs our gaze. There are no superfluous details, just precision and the dark.
So, in one sense, he has demonstrated one part of this nocturnal ecology – a web of human made machines, buildings and infrastructure connected and co-dependent. However, there is more to this ecology than just what is constructed. The second part is made up of photos of nature.
Possums are the most photographed animal here, and always provide such strong juxtaposition. Where the human ecology is imposing, the possum are seamless. Where the power stations light up the sky, burning coal, the possums play. Where the wires cut across the sky, the possums roam. And it’s similar with the other photos of nature – the bird is comfortable, the trees belong and the plants inhabit – fewer jagged edges, less domineering. I think that Wilson is under-scoring how un-natural our human made landscape is, which sounds simple, but the execution is layered and balanced. There’s a connection between them – coal is natural, after all – as is light. But humans creating spaces that stay open and visible through the night is, itself, harsh and ugly when compared with the way that the native nocturnal animals are shot. But this is life, and these things irrefutably now co- exist.
There are two photos that, to my eye, complicate this co-existence. One is of a light and the trails left by bugs flying towards and around it. Wilson is showing us the interaction between these two elements – it’s not just that nature is comfortable and the human world extreme, but that there is influence and change in behaviour, like in any environment. Similarly, a photograph of a dead bat (often they die on electricity wires) near the coal station implies a cost. The ecology is not simple – it is interconnected in the most minor ways that we so often do not examine despite consuming electricity like oxygen. The Venn Diagram of what’s out there at night over-laps.
Finally, there is a third type of photograph, or a third environment. That of coal itself. This is made up of still life shots of coal, things found near the power plants, and fossils. These are the only photographs not shot at night and they are clinical in tonality. But they underline a surface
difference between what is dug up or found (curved, often like a sculpture) and what is made (aggressively sharp). He is, again, showing us what we do not see. How many of us, who rely on coal, really know what it looks like? Or what’s found near it, in in the seams? Or that there are power-plant branded mugs? He photographs the process of nature’s cast-aways becoming coal and the human cast-aways remaining.
Wilson plays with balance and contrast so deftly across this book: light and dark, natural and made, curved and angular, clean and polluted, harsh and beautiful. These still life photographs are a continuation of that, which is, I think, about reinforcing that we are all apart of these ecosystem, that ecology is about a web so inter-connected it cannot be untangled, and, therefore, that we all share in the good and bad parts. We all do switch on the light, but we all recoil from the dead bat.
So, I like this book. It’s not beautiful, but then neither is coal, and maybe neither is night to me. But it is restrained. Avoiding clichés and extremes, instead focusing on the night-time and how Melbourne’s biome is now a new thing because of power coal power, Wilson breathes a little nuance, a little balance, a little worry and a little shame into a subject that could have easily been simplistic and self-righteous. — Matthew Dunne
Felix Wilson graduated from the Tasmanian College of the Arts, University of Tasmania with a Bachelor of Fine Fine Arts with First Class Honours in 2013.
His work explores contemporary relations between human and nonhuman species, particularly as they occur in places that exist as boundaries between the built environment and what might be considered natural places. For Wilson, it is in the edges and liminal spaces that we can begin to reconceptualize our place in the world, as interlinked and interdependent beings, engaged and implicitly a part of what Timothy Morton describes as the mesh of life forms.
Using video, sound recording, and photography, the work asks viewers to engage with their own perceptual processes and to understand their relations with the quiet vitality of the nonhuman in new ways.
To see more of Felix Wilson’s work visit — www.felixwilson.com
To purchase Nocturnal Ecologies visit — perimetereditions.com