Borderland

 

Start in the light-filled room, looking towards a doorway that opens into deep, shadowy blackness. The mirror hanging by this door does not reflect the space but projects a blank otherness. This threshold image offers both cautionary warning and salutary welcome to Ben Cauchi’s Borderland of 2008, eight photographs that conspire to produce a dense interior world that is as much psychological as physical. This is a claustrophobic space of bolted doors, vacated chairs, and objects dislocated from their logical contexts or turned from their audience.

Borderland’s existence in between spaces, objects and expectations carries over to the making and presentation of these photographs—most notably their manifestation as large-format, lightjet prints. To anyone familiar with Cauchi’s work, there is a glaring absence here—that of the glass or metal plate. As object and artefact, the plate has come to signify Cauchi’s decade-long engagement with mid-nineteenth-century photographic processes and the possibilities that come with pursuing such a practice through and from the contemporary.

The absence of the plate in Borderland shifts these terms of encounter, encouraging a different form of engagement with the photographic image and object. Yet this is far from some sort of radical ‘going electric’ moment. Borderland alters the object-making dimension of Cauchi’s practice to extend its long-term investigations into the nature of photography and the psychology of viewing. The glass or metal plate may often be the final product of Cauchi’s darkroom practice, but it also provides the starting point for his broader explorations into the subjective experience of the medium.

Cauchi’s apparent turn to the digital is one of a number of tricks or partial truths that run through his practice. The Borderland photographs were in fact originally tintypes, made in the darkroom with the historic wet-plate collodion process before being scanned and re-presented as digital prints. The metal plates are never seen as physical objects. Yet ghostly traces of the old-world process that gave rise to them remain visible, glimpsed in the black voids at the corners of the prints where the plates were held during developing, or in the streaks and blemishes produced by the uneven distribution of chemicals on the surface.

The use of antiquated processes has long been central to Cauchi’s disruption of perceptual modes. He places in front of the contemporary viewer photographs that seem to belong to another time and place. The photographic object and image are dislocated from the present, compelling a different way of looking, and calling into question the idea that the camera reflects the surrounding world. A decade ago, he came to prominence with two bodies of work that explicitly forged these connections. The Building The Empire series, and what has become its key work, Loaded Palm (2002), explicitly connect the birth of the medium—with its claims to truth and scientific progress—to the colonial project in Aotearoa. Another strain of work turned from photography’s control of the material world to the belief that it could reach into the realm of the spirit. Cauchi’s faking of spiritualist photographs and acts of darkroom trickery turn against any lingering faith in the camera’s claim to objectivity and truth.

Over subsequent bodies of work, these concerns have been teased out less directly, through the setting up and photographing of staged tableaux featuring more ambiguous objects and scenes that seem to exist outside of real space and time. These photographs are marked by the recurrence of objects that purport to represent the world—paintings, books or mirrors—upended, broken or turned away from the viewer.

If earlier photographs expose the conditions and lies of the medium, this more recent work seeks to conceal or elide its claims to make sense of the world. Here Cauchi takes on another photographic ‘truth’, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s faith in ‘the decisive moment’, the celebration of photography as ‘simultaneously and instaneously the recognition of a fact and a rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that express and signify that fact’.1 Cauchi’s photographs move in the opposite direction. They refuse to utter or utterly deny the existence of any truths, stress the subjective basis of perception, and photograph what Cartier-Bresson would consider nothing or absence: moments before or after action, the indecisive moment which relies not on the recognition of a fact but the feeling of disappearance or loss.

The removal of the glass or metal plate in Borderland compounds these shifts, and is paralleled by the gradual disappearance of the photographer as the centre or decisive creator inside the work. Cauchi has performed in various guises within his photographs: as the alchemist mixing solutions, the studio photographer offering his left hand, or the charlatan fooling his audience. The photographer now rarely appears as a subject in Cauchi’s work, but remains a presence felt through the dislocations and disruptions his photographs offer into ‘real world’ experience. Recent work has shifted to emphasise the power of the photographed object, rather than strictly the photographic process, to confound and deceive.

The sixth image of Borderland offers another indication that Cauchi’s interests lie beyond the decisive moment. An out-of-focus photograph of Edgar Allan Poe’s text ‘The Veil of the Soul’ carries the Gothic writer’s insistence that ‘the mere imitation, however accurate, of what is in Nature, entitles no man to the sacred name of “Artist”.’2 Poe’s belief that art must extend beyond the replication of the physical world to capture ‘what the senses perceive in nature’ challenges realist modes of representation, and anticipates Cauchi’s ongoing exploration into the subjective basis of photography.

Borderland finds an echo in Poe’s literary creation The Fall of the House of Usher (1839). Both artists create menacing interior settings, spaces and objects that refuse to be passive subjects and are always in the process of becoming, in Poe’s words, ‘sentient’. Where earlier photographs work to destabilise photography’s historical ideological function of ‘making’ the world and offering reassurances about that world, Borderland, and Cauchi’s recent work more generally, strives to unmake or unravel this world, to make it feel and operate on less familiar and reassuring terms.

In removing the parent tintype, the Borderland photographs offer a different form of dislocation, subverting that movement back through time normally cued by Cauchi’s practice. Movement is instead encouraged across multiple photographic prints in an episodic manner. The hallucinatory flow of fleeting and fragmentary images orientates itself around the hypnagogic state between sleep and consciousness. This condition, known as ‘the borderland state’, also underpins Poe’s investment in the phenomenological experience of art and its connected desire to disrupt reason, and subvert logic’s control over how we perceive the world. Like his earlier interest in spiritualism and magic, the hypnagogic provides another space for Cauchi to push his investigations into photography’s ability to shift sensory perception, to exist between the empirical and the incorporeal, seeing and believing.

The hypnagogic is called on to break down the coherence and autonomy of individual forms and objects. By operating in this way, Borderland shifts the object-making and image-making dimensions of Cauchi’s practice. Cauchi’s ambrotypes and tintypes are by the very nature of their process singular, autonomous objects. The containment of the image within the frame is always emphasised by the undeniable physical presence of the glass or metal plate cradled within the actual frame. The photographs also offer complete and autonomous visual statements. Operating within the conventions of the staged tableau with its highly controlled sense of design, gesture and lighting, each photograph presents a moment in time frozen on the plate.

Or, at least, this is how things may appear on the surface. Cauchi constantly expands these practices and conventions from within, calling attention to and unsettling this sense of the contained and the controlled. The wet-plate process itself is here turned against these expectations of the medium. Cauchi’s photographs draw attention to their own making, the almost performative act that takes place inside the darkroom as the plate is held and the chemicals poured. Photographs that may appear frozen in time always carry traces and marks from the labour-intensive and chance process of making they are subject to. Cauchi’s photographs twist recent debates around the ontological relationship between performance and document in performance art, about where performance ends and its documentation begins.3

Cauchi’s photographs also carry the sense of undisclosed narratives hovering at the edges or just beyond the plate and the frame that contains it. Outside of Borderland, Cauchi uses other strategies to extend seemingly stilled, contained photographs beyond the plate. The use of repeated subjects, objects and symbols across multiple works expands the way in which his photographs read and function independently, in relation to one another, and to the histories and issues they explore. Visitors to Borderland may recognise the open door in the first photograph from the tintype A Sign of Things to Come (2008), where the same door is closed, approached directly and brightly lit. Studio: A Reverse View (2010) reveals that this door belongs to Cauchi’s studio, a space which also contains the hanging light cord from the second of the Borderland photographs.

The recurrence of stock scenes and props is a convention of studio-based photography, and in this case is largely determined by the wet-plate process which restricts Cauchi to the studio. Yet practical concerns do not explain Cauchi’s diverse ways of marshalling these objects and scenes. The reverse studio view features the closed door and the hanging cord as part of a behind-the-scenes reveal of the photographic act, the studio exposed in its inactive state. It sits alongside a large group of works featuring gloves stained black from developing plates, lamps with bright lights, measuring scales and bottles of chemicals— the tools and equipment that conventionally live outside the frame and create the conditions for the photograph to exist. In Borderland that same doorway is transformed into something else, a metaphorical threshold that transports the viewer into another realm of experience—one well beyond but subject to the real-life existence of the photographer’s studio and the actions that take place there.

Cauchi’s re-presentation and reworking of objects and concerns is a parallel act to his constant trawling-through of broader photographic histories. Stepping into and unsettling the archive becomes another way to overcome the frozen nature of still photography, reactivating the photographed object as it sits within or moves through his own body of work and the passage of time. It also supports a central assertion of Cauchi’s practice and especially of Borderland—that narrative and meaning are never just found but always constructed. Despite the obsessive attention to the objects he photographs, Cauchi’s practice ultimately asserts that it’s not the objects themselves that count, but rather the associations and meanings they carry, all of which exist outside the frame.

Cauchi has continually sought ways of extending his practice beyond the physical frame. A Means by Which One May Rise (2002) pushes the possibility of the stereoscopic image to show the artist climbing a ladder to literally disappear out of the plate, breaking the self-containment imposed by the process. He has experimented with alternative materials such as perspex substrates instead of the glass or metal plates that both physically and symbolically represent this condition. During a period as Frances Hodgkins Fellow in Dunedin in 2007, Cauchi converted a van into a portable darkroom that allowed for the making of landscape photographs. While ostensibly a project based on establishing connection with colonial photographer Alfred Burton, this crossing of the threshold between studio and physical world represents another attempt to move beyond or at least across the plate, the frame and the studio that define his practice.

The removal of the metal plate as the primary site of encounter takes Cauchi’s work a further step beyond the frame and all that it signifies. Borderland orients itself elsewhere. The larger scale of its digital prints, and their extended narrative played out across a body of photographs, signal a move from photographic to cinematic modes or, more precisely, between the different temporalities embedded in each medium. This shift facilitates another break from Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’, a concept itself developed in response to the rise of popular cinema and its challenge to the authority of the photograph.

Cauchi’s slide toward the cinematic offers a counter-response to the slowing down or pausing of motion by contemporary filmmakers and moving-image artists intent on disrupting the sense of movement or progress that cinema brings. He may also seem to move in the opposite direction to Gregory Crewdson, whose epically scaled and elaborately choreographed photographs freeze the movements of cinema into a single, stilled frame. Where Crewdson comes to the photographic image and object through the cinematic, Cauchi pushes towards the cinematic through the photographic. But both artists explore shared possibilities around the narrative potential of the still or stilled image by teasing out this relationship between stasis and non-stasis carried by photography and film respectively.

Cauchi and Crewdson share a broad approach to photography captured in the term ‘the Directorial Mode’ coined by critic A. D. Coleman in 1976.4 Staging scenes and fabricating realities with constructed narratives, artists working in this mode regularly move across photographic and cinematic conventions to refute ‘photography’s traditional assignment of finding meaning in the look of the world’.5 Cauchi’s turn to the cinematic in Borderland is primarily concerned with breaking the stasis of the stilled photographic image, but it also signals the directorial as a mode of operation that runs throughout his entire practice and sits behind the roles he has more overtly performed inside his photographs.

Yet Cauchi’s embrace of the cinematic remains partial. He does not make moving images, or use cinematic conventions to deliver those scenes of action and movement absent from his photographs. Borderland’s narrative is non-linear, fragmentary and abstract; it lives outside and between the frames, in the building of mood and atmosphere. Narrative potential is invoked in order to be frustrated and denied, as part of Cauchi’s larger courting of absence as a subject. If the cinematic opens a different sense of the passage of time in Cauchi’s work, this remains or becomes the ‘dead time’ that his work always aspires to, a condition that belongs to photography. Borderland may turn towards the cinematic, but it refuses to abandon those elements of the photographic that come with time stilled. Cauchi makes a virtue of the stilled image by constantly questioning and challenging its assumptions.

The compulsion to release narrative and movement from the still photograph is not just a contemporary one, and has its roots in the Victorian practices that Cauchi’s work is closely bound to. His earlier array of parlour tricks and mock spiritualism explored the Victorian faith in the power of photography to extend beyond the tangible. His recent shifts towards the cinematic echo various Victorian efforts to extend the photograph beyond the frame.

Cauchi’s earlier work regularly features the stereoscope, the viewing device developed in response to the emergence of cinema that allowed Victorian photography to ‘move’. Double Crossed (2004) shows the hand of the photographer holding a stereoscope viewer loaded with stereographic cards featuring Cauchi’s own work. The photograph merges two recurrent and connected concerns—the use of the hand of the artist as a sign of the trickery inherent in the medium, and the desire to force still images to operate in other ways. The mesmeric device directed straight at the camera and the viewer in the related work The Lies We Tell Ourselves (2004) is offered as another viewing device, holding the ability to upset sensory perception and shape consciousness through the power to double cross, even when its movement is stilled by the photograph.

Cauchi’s insistence that his photographs hold transformative qualities and move beyond the single stilled image is found in a number of stereographic photographs of this time featuring doubled ghosted objects and floating chairs. The stereoscope serves in Cauchi’s work both as a piece of photographic equipment and as a symbol of the condition of the medium, a role assumed in later work like False Light (2010) by the studio lamp. A. D. Coleman has a similar investment in the stereoscope, pinpointing the origins of the directorial mode to the invention of this device and its challenge to the still photograph.6

Post-Borderland photographs regularly extend these possibilities through the use of sequencing and framing devices. The Death of the Artist (2009) is one of a number of recent diptychs or triptychs which bring together multiple plates into a single viewing experience. Mortality or the passing of the time is often built into this sequencing and, in turn, into the act of viewing. The Death of the Artist combines three of Cauchi’s recurrent subjects related to mortality. The first plate contains a table full of darkroom equipment in a tableau arrangement suggestive of the nature morte of Dutch still-life painting. The third plate contains a shrouded object, the life of which has been at least temporarily extinguished under its dark cover.

The central image is a self-portrait. The artist’s strained expression is the result of physically holding still over a lengthy exposure time, an effort that has long been observed as making living portrait subjects resemble corpses.7 Here Cauchi returns to a performative mode, subjecting himself to this life-taking process to play on photography’s long association with mortality and the commemoration of things passed. He enacts Roland Barthes’ observation that posing for a photograph is like experiencing a ‘micro-version of death’ where ‘I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object’.8 This transitory or borderland space between states of being and conditions of existence is exactly where Cauchi sets all of his photographs, and more broadly locates the power of the medium.

The Doppler Effect (2010), a portfolio of six salt prints, extends Borderland’s investigations into the operations of the photograph and the photographic object. Where Borderland invokes Poe to announce the perceptual shifts the photographs seek to induce, The Doppler Effect alludes to the scientific theory that explains the shifting perception of objects in time and space through the experience of sound and light waves. Cauchi’s use of a very early photographic process, described by its inventor William Henry Fox Talbot as ‘the art of fixing a shadow’, connects two loosely contemporaneous discoveries that each redefine the ability to understand and control the perception of objects moving across space and time.9

Cauchi again constructs an open-ended narrative in which meaning is unfixed and moves fluidly across a body of work, like the ambulance siren that is often used to illustrate Doppler’s theory. Cauchi’s concern with activating that borderland space and frequency between each image was openly declared in the first exhibition of The Doppler Effect.10 The boxed portfolio was displayed in one gallery as a case-bound object, with another set of prints hanging on the wall. An adjoining space held a single positive collodion plate that was changed every fortnight as part of a shifting installation.

While these investigations into the making and experience of the stilled image appear to take Cauchi’s practice ever closer to cinematic modes, other bodies of work complicate this movement. Epilogue, the follow-up exhibition to Borderland, defiantly returns to the plate and the darkroom, presenting tintypes of constructed scenes set in the studio.11 These two bodies of work have an embedded relationship, with repeated and exchanged forms and imagery. The Evening Hours (2008) replicates Borderland’s photograph of a piece of conduit piping on a wooden floor, but replaces this object with an upturned and spilled bottle of chemicals, a symbol of the photographic process. A Sign of Things to Come (2008) closes the studio door that opens Borderland’s narrative sequence. A photograph of a crumpled piece of paper echoes Borderland’s image of Poe’s text. Its title, Say Nothing (2008), asserts Cauchi’s more common mode of address, and serves as a powerful rearticulation of the photographic.

When resident at the McCahon House in 2011, Cauchi again made wet-plate photographs, constructing Borderland-like psychological narratives out of the found spaces and objects of this new environment. At the centre of this series is The Red Room (2011), an ambrotype with a large shroud-like form hovering at the centre of the plate. This shadowy form is in fact the temporary darkroom built during the residency so that Cauchi could work with the wet-plate process outside of his permanent studio environment. The picturing of the temporary studio both as the site for the making of photographs and as subject of mystery and wonder in its own right unites those two modes represented by Borderland and Epilogue that can be called the photographic and the cinematic.

The Red Room was made inside a newly sourced camera that allows for the production of large-format ambrotypes, over three times the size of Cauchi’s standard plates. These large-format ambrotypes carry a greater cinematic potential to expand if not beyond then within the frame, while reasserting and complicating the primacy of a studio-based photographic practice. It’s another sign that Cauchi’s recent moves towards the cinematic have come back to recharge both the experience of making and encountering the traditional photographic object, and the ability of this object to work in and on the contemporary world. The photographic and the cinematic have joined the endless loop between the historical and the contemporary, image making and object making, the empirical and the incorporeal, the before and after, the open passage and the closed door—those borderland spaces where Cauchi continues to locate his work.

 

Aaron Lister, 2012

 

 

1Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1952).
2Edgar Allan Poe, Marginalia, reprinted in G.R. Thompson ed., Edgar Allan Poe: Essays and Reviews (New York: Library of America, 1984), 1324.
3See Philip Auslander, ‘The performativity of performance documentation’, in Performing Arts Journal (84, 2006), 1-10.
4A. D. Coleman, ‘The Directorial Mode: Notes toward a definition’, Artforum (1976), 55, 57.
5ibid.
6ibid.
7Geoffrey Batchen, ‘Ectoplasm: Photography in the Digital Age’, in Carol Squires ed., Overexposed: Essays on Contemporary Photography (New York: New Press, 1999), 11.
8Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, 1980 (London: Vintage, 2000), 14.
9William Henry Fox Talbot, ‘Some Account of the Art of Photogenic Drawing’ (1839), in Beaumont Newhall ed. Photography: Essays and Images, (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1980), 25.
10The Doppler Effect, McNamara Gallery, Whanganui, December 2011 – January 2012.
11Epilogue, McNamara Gallery, Whanganui, March 2009.