Death Becomes Them
It’s carnage out there. According to the NSW Wildlife Information and Rescue Service, at a conservative estimate 1.2 million animals are killed on Australian roads annually.  Other research suggests that every year over five million frogs and reptiles alone are killed by motor vehicles in this country.  It is this barely noticed slaughter that is the focus of Narelle Autio’s photographic series Mercy Street.
The series began in the summer of 2001 when she and her partner Trent Parke were driving from Sydney to Adelaide to spend Christmas with her parents.
“On one toilet break, while Trent went searching for a suitable tree for modesty,” Autio explains, “I found myself looking at a particularly striking cockatoo. It’s yellow crest vivid in the harsh noon light, the white feathers of its body clean and pure, its one eye glazed and lifeless. The harsh surface of the asphalt it lay on only emphasised the bird’s glory. I was compelled to take a photograph.”
After that, their journey slowed to a crawl as they stopped to examine and photograph the many corpses along the roadside. Autio goes on: “Both being animal lovers we found ourselves moved and overwhelmed by the huge number of road-kill. By the time we reached Adelaide, way overdue, we knew we had only just begun.”
Many of the animals and birds in Marian Drew’s Australiana series also ended their lives in the uneven battle with human ‘progress’, but the images construct a very different cultural framework for considering the interplay of life and death. In the artful arrangement of animal corpses with drapes and domestic utensils her images echo the traditions of 17th-century Dutch still-life painting. That genre developed a particular vogue when the religious subjects that had previously been the stock in trade of professional artists were forbidden by the Dutch Reformed Protestant Church. Painting began to focus on the burgeoning middle classes, taking on a domestic subject matter. The images are infused with the allegorical language previously associated with religious subjects and, hiding within the richly detailed comestibles, lay symbolic reminders of mortality.
Drew’s arrangements are sparer than those Dutch paintings and her animals are Antipodean. They died not to provide food but as the unwitting causalities of modernity – the high-speed roads, high voltage power lines and prey to high-maintenance family pets. While the still-lifes of 17th-century Holland reminded the viewer of their own individual mortality, Drew’s images are meditations on our collective role as agents of death.
The spectral images in Christine Cornish’s recent body of work, Threshold, are made using X-rays. In revealing the inner structures of the body that normally remain hidden until death or trauma conjure them into view, the skeleton is both the assurance of structure and the signature of demise. The uncanny sense that overtakes one while contemplating these images is that, with the superficial physiology dissolved by the high-energy electromagnetic waves, the underlying structures seem so similar to our own. Limbs, joints, ribs, skull, teeth: the common vocabulary of bone.
These animals are not themselves dead. They have found their way to a veterinary surgery and it is there that the X-ray images were made. Death in these images is an implication, a function of allegory. The ghostly traces remind us that death is the lot we share with all living things. It sits at the core of our being just as our bones form the underlying structure of our physical form – a form which, in its engineering, makes evident our common ancestry and our kinship with the wider animal world.
To be accurate, the animals featured in Beverley Veasey’s Natural History were living when they were photographed in zoos, animal sanctuaries and at agricultural shows. They were ‘shot and mounted’ as museum specimens courtesy of Photoshop in the software equivalent of the taxidermist’s laboratory. Here the life is sucked out of the living and the pale shell of their vital animated selves is mounted on a podium for our inspection. Lifted from the complex interconnectivity of the environment in which they were found, each animal is placed in a neutral featureless space – a virtual museum.
“Increasingly, we live in a manufactured world where we have little or no contact with the nature,” Veasey says. “I am fascinated by the way we relate to animals, particularly when we visit institutions. It’s such an artificial experience and I wanted to heighten that feeling in this work.”
It is this growing separation from the natural world and the ominous threat of extinction that echoes through these four bodies of work. Australia already has the dubious distinction of having witnessed the demise of more animal species in the last two centuries than any other place on earth.  And scientists project that unless global warming is controlled, over one quarter of all living species worldwide will be extinct by the year 2050. 
Seductive as these images are, the message they bring us is sobering and urgent.
1. Based on statistics quoted in ‘Environmental impacts of Australia’s transport system’ in Year Book Australia 2003 Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra 2003
2. Mackey BG, Lesslie RG, Lindenmayer DB, Nix HA & Incoll RD The Role of Wilderness in Nature Conservation, a report to the Australian and World Heritage Group, Environment Australia, July 1998
3. ‘Issues in Society’ ed Justin Healey in Endangered and Introduced Species vol 174, 2002 p23
4. Chris D Thomas et al ‘Extinction Risk from Climate Change’ in Nature No 427, 8 January 2004 pp145–8
This essay was first published in Photofile issue 79. You can buy the magazine here.