It takes a moment for the eyes to adjust when stepping out of the glare of a 32-degree day into the cool darkness of the Hugo Michell Gallery, enough to pause and draw breath before arriving in a liminal space where the familiar is transformed into the strange and beautiful.

Adelaide photographer Narelle Autio’s pigment prints glow with the blue-green viridescence of deep ocean, in which shadowy figures struggle and succumb to unknown forces at once threatening and seductive.

The waters surrounding Australia and its coastal dwellers often figure in Autio’s work. Side-stepping the easy clichés of coastal photography, she layers her ocean-themed works with the deep textural interplay of colour and light, with painterly and psychological nuance, and spotlights them with a quiet tension, as if their subjects are on stage. The Seventh Wave, her first exhibition in 2000 following the establishment of her career as a photojournalist, was a collaboration with photographer and husband Trent Parke, the series of silver gelatin prints — some of which are included in this current show – capturing the relationship Australians have with the sea.

Around a Golden Sun, Autio’s previous exhibition at Hugo Michell Gallery in late 2019, depicted scenes of Adelaide beach life. Iridescent with the peaches and lilacs of the setting sun, or drenched in the inky indigo of a summer twilight, the works showed people standing poised and peaceful in the shared experience of an Australian summer, arranged as if in a still-life painting. But one image differed from the others; shot underwater, its cool turquoise contrasted with the warmth of the rest, framing a girl sinking into the depths, arms outstretched in euphoria or alarm.

Entitled Beyond, that image captures a moment of youthful seaside play; yet with hindsight, the girl appears to be in freefall, helpless against the momentum of her descent, a harbinger of what would follow. In 2019, when the events of 2020 were still the stuff of dystopian fiction, Autio’s exhibition quietly signalled our other global emergency. A line from her artist’s statement at the time reads:

The ocean is calm and embracing, restoring us but perhaps it is an illusion. Maybe the magic hour is hiding a truth.

Narelle Autio’s Place In Between: The Changelings, 2021 at Hugo Michell Gallery. Photo: Sam Roberts Photography

Like Beyond, the images of Place in Between: The Changelings are captured using a technique Autio has perfected without the aid of tanks or weights. Sinking to the sea floor with her camera, she waits, breath held, until the moment she can capture a serendipitous arrangement of kicking limbs and writhing bodies that evokes a narrative, a feeling. She takes as many shots as she can before the urgent demand for oxygen forces her back to the surface. Then, life-force restored, she dives back down into the depths to wait again, camera poised.

The figures in a 2007 series, simply entitled The Place In Between, are fully submerged like those in the current exhibition, but still carry the context of swimmers at play. The images in the current exhibition seem to prompt deeper dives in search of that hidden truth. Shrouded by effervescent bubble-mists, the context of summer play is stripped away as the figures arch, flail and flounder as if morphing into mythical undersea creatures. Often partially obscured, they are identifiable as human only by an outstretched hand, a foot, a shadow.

Changeling XI sinks, helpless, his legs floating upwards, one arm and those legs his only identifiers; a ghostly cloud of pearlescent spume twists in the dark, as if the human who caused it has just been magicked away. The few visible faces, blurred behind puffs of exhaled breath, are often screwed tense as if in pain and the shadowy Changeling XII clasps hands to her head in woe, as if fleeing from the Furies.

Narelle Autio, Changeling XI, 2020, pigment print, edition of 8, 82 x 120cm or110 x 162cm. Courtesy the artist and Hugo Michell Gallery.

The sensuous beauty, drama and textural depth that are characteristic of Autio’s work evoke a newly explicit tension, an unease that signals the dangers that might lurk in the depths. The disquieting tension of these images invites questions that arrive through the filter of recent global experience: Are we drowning? What are we now, in this age of profound transformation, we changelings?

In her artist’s statement, Autio gives her personal reasons for creating this work, one of which is to explore the ocean as a metaphor for the immersive, transformative nature of motherhood. She writes:

For me, the sea has always had two sides. It is this life giving place of birth, of new beginnings, but it also has a dark side. The moment of immersion is always a choice. The water embraces and holds, and maybe like the old stories it calls for you to stay, but it is always a moment of suspension. You are not breathing, not dying but not really living, in the undersea surviving on a breath of air, listening to an old ancient question. Waiting for that moment of choice. A place in between.

There is something alluring about these images, inviting desire and yearning as much as unease. Sixty per cent of our body, after all, is water. Carrying the imprint of those early moments before life begins, suspended in protective amniotic waters, we are driven again and again back to the sea as if it were home, to play, to relax, to cleanse; yet ultimately we are powerless against its elemental forces.

Changeling XIV (2020), the final image in the exhibition, is one of the few that shows the ocean surface above. A body sweeps up through the water towards a sphere of sunlight glimmering through the brine. When the eyelids are closed, the ghostly imprint of that submarine glow briefly remains; then, stepping back out into the glare of the burning sun that beats onto the pavement as cars and trucks hurtle by, the visceral impact of Autio’s art is carried back out into this world, and that glimmer of light drawing the changeling out of the dark becomes a gift of hope.

Place In Between: The Changelings is at Hugo Michell Gallery (260 Portrush Road) until March 6.

Narelle Autio’s Place In Between: The Changelings, 2021 at Hugo Michell Gallery. Photo: Sam Roberts Photography

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.