In Absentia: the work of Ben Cauchi


We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep

Shakespeare, The Tempest

A photo is more than a trace of light, a once-only print of what was in front of the lens. Each shot, taken out of the continuum of time and space, is also a phantom, the residue of what no longer exists. It is this transience, this ‘spiritualist’ dimension, that the New Zealander Ben Cauchi explores in his work. In contrast with the common conception, that of the instant shot and the framed reality, he stretches time, usually by means of sober still lifes at whose core lies the time that has passed, fleetingly. Empty interiors characterised by the incident light, isolated and abandoned objects, cloths and draped fabric, these are the main motifs. Cauchi uses 19th century cameras, or faithful replicas. No other mortal appears in front of the lens apart from the artist himself – in desubjectified self-portraits or in the guise of an illusionist or magician. Shots of his upper arms or hands – as disjecta membra – also exist. The viewer experiences the contortion they express or the stigmata they allude to as a convulsion of the mind.

This artist works in a studio using the antiquated collodion or wet plate method, in which glass or metal plates are made light-sensitive with collodion and are then immersed in a silver nitrate solution. The plate of glass is put into the camera and exposed while it is still wet. After exposure it is immediately developed. He also uses such variants as Ambrotype and Tintype, and also salted paper photographic processes. Shots taken using these manual processes, all of which date from the mid-19th century, are characterised by a very sharp focus and a striking patina. The fact that artifacts of the process remain visible lends an alchemical visual effect in several photos.

Apart from miscellaneous individual pieces, the images that Cauchi has so far created are grouped into several dozen series with such appropriate titles as Scenes from the Quiet Room, Hypnagogia, The Sophist’s Mirror, Epilogue and Ghosting. However simple the intention, what they all have in common is their staging. They range from slightly parodic references to the traditions of ghost photography and the studio portrait, through object photography, to ascetic records of incident light and opacity. You do not experience Cauchi’s images as cut-outs of reality. The outer frame, that which is outside the image frame, plays no part. It’s all immanent.

Cauchi’s work, which can be seen as a meta-photographic study – explores fleeting time, the way life is constantly withdrawing from things. He compresses this in his images, in which light and shade, and material and immaterial, are made to enter into dialogue. This approach appeals to infra-visibility, that which cannot be perceived but can be made tangible and experienceable.  Not so much depiction as emanation.

Cauchi’s photos repeatedly elevate ‘absence’ to their primary concern. There are numerous visual motifs. Residues, for instance, such as burnt paper on the studio floor (Untitled (Ashes)) or a faded, deflated balloon hanging from a string on the wall (The Doppler Effect #6). Nor is there any lack of empty frames, with a canvas of virginal white on an easel (The Doppler Effect #3) or a painting placed upside down against a dark backcloth (The Picture, Reversed). Then there are mirrors that do not reflect anything, such as Sophist’s Mirror or Untitled (Mirror).

There are two ways of looking at his bare interiors of entrance halls and doors. Either one or more doors are seen open from diagonally across the room, as in And So It Goes and one of the photos in the Untitled (Borderland) series. Or else closed doors are shown frontally. Like Cauchi’s shots of light entering through windows, you inevitably associate the pictures of the open doors with the notion of passage, the symbolism of life and death.

This transitive aspect is characterised not only by an ominous undertone but also by a potential transformative power. In a recent publication Aaron Lister pertinently makes a link with the world of Edgar Allan Poe: “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’.”1

A frontal shot of the closed door of the artist’s studio in Borderland in its turn reminds us of the coda to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s film Gertrud (1964), where a life that was coming to a close was condensed into one single image.2 Apart from the visualisation of the way the residue of a time-span can be contained by an object, the closed door, as a motif, essentially stands for what is not (or no longer) accessible. Seen the other way round, there is no suggestion of entry. Cauchi’s objects are like empty shells from which the anima has departed and which a ghost inhabits. They are without substance. This is most tellingly illustrated in Guardian (After Sassoferrato) and Guardian (Black), both showing hoods under which hides only darkness, no face. The set of images showing draped cloth and curtains relates to this. It is hard not to associate it with the Byzantine pictorial tradition of the Mandylion, the image of Christ on a cloth that was not made by human hands, picturing the mystery of the incarnation whereby God’s son became human. In Cauchi’s work there is of course no hint of a face, only an existential void, where, being the interplay of light and shade, photography is given the task of evoking the mystery of reality in the same way as one calls up spirits.


Paul Willemsen, 2013

Translated from Dutch by Gregory Ball