The Evening Hours: Ben Cauchi, edited by Aaron Lister (Victoria University Press, with City Gallery Wellington, 2013), 125 pp., $60.
Ben Cauchi’s images are like a series of unanswered questions. That means that this monograph The Evening Hours: Ben Cauchi is perfectly timed. The exhibition at City Gallery, and the publication that coincides with it, come in the wake of an intensive period of artistic activity for Cauchi. It follows on from the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship at the University of Otago, the Rita Angus Fellowship in Wellington and the McCahon Residency in Auckland, as well as the 2012 residency at the Künstlerhaus Bethanian in Berlin. There is precious little catalogued work, and even less written about his practice. The biography points out, ‘this is his first monograph.’
It has been worth waiting for, though. The publication is hardcover, with 128 pages, and works that date from 2003 through to 2012. There are three essays. First the scene setter, that provides vital context for Cauchi’s historically laden practice. It’s written by Professor Geoffrey Batchen, who describes Cauchi’s ‘act of resurrection’ of photography’s history with delicacy and nuance, pointing out that this resurrection relates not just to the materials, but also subject matter. Batchen brings great depth of scholarship but also perceptive insights to sit alongside the work, describing among other things, Cauchi’s orchestrated use of light to create mood and affect. He argues that Cauchi’s images telescope past and present. The smoke and mirrors techniques of yesteryear are in Cauchi’s hands like a haunting. So we have arrived at the doorway to the photographic undead.
In fact, there are several images in the catalogue and the show which depict doors, mostly closed ones. The second essay begins with a description of one such doorway: ‘that opens into deep, shadowy blackness. The mirror hanging by this door does not reflect the space but projects a blank otherness.’ Thus outlines Aaron Lister, curator of New Zealand Art at City Gallery, and curator of the exhibition, as he takes the stage next with his much longer essay entitled ‘Borderland’. His essay goes into quite a bit more detail on the historical production processes that Cauchi uses. Moreover, he discusses and identifies a number of motifs that recur in Cauchi’s images, such as the aforementioned doorways, self-portraiture, the broad theme of time, and his use of cinematic directorial modes. One of my favourite lines from Lister’s essay is about this cinematic mode:
‘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.’
I love the sound of this line, the notion of dead time chimes with my own intuitive appreciation of Cauchi’s work. I have always thought of his work as exposing the perpetual twilight of photography. By that statement, I am alluding to two things: first the notion of analogue photography as a sunset industry and second, the idea of the photographic exposure as a technique for immortalising time.
As the first substantial piece of writing on Cauchi’s work in the mainstream, the expository nature of this essay is particularly well timed. His essay is wide ranging but could have enjoyed more structural cues. Even though his essay is interspersed with images on each facing page, I was gasping for air as I came to the sublime closing paragraph where Lister blisteringly manages to bring all his threads together in a strong final sortie.
The first two essays take their titles from Cauchi’s work, using a work as a jumping off point. The third essay, by Glenn Barkley, curator at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, takes a different approach. It is Barkley that brings the historical approach vividly into a contemporary context, with his text ‘Photography Will Eat Itself: Some Thoughts on Ben Cauchi’. His essay, like Batchen’s, is not accompanied by images.
I must confess that while reviewing this book, I simultaneously asked myself so why make this book? Now, when photography is changing so rapidly, or now, when the publishing industry is groaning under the impact of digital technology that has already ravaged the music and film industries? It is Barkley that gets closest to answering those questions with a degree of self-assuredness.
Cauchi’s antique photographs are like a methodical science emerging from a fog of chemistry, but they’re also a kind of alchemy. Using precious metals, silver colloids, tin plates, or in some cases sheets of acrylic Cauchi channels his prosaic subject, like mystical palm readings, into another form. A picture frame or an open door becomes like a portal to another world, just hidden from view. Or, in works like The Doppler Effect #6 a limp, sagging balloon hangs on a string against a wall, deflated and well after the party. It’s black and white. Like any good hangover should be. The work is persistent. The deflated balloon looks like it could be grey matter after all. It leaves a kind of afterimage in your mind once you have seen it. It’s a salt print, a now antiquated method of making large format photographs. But then the idea of making photographs is fairly antiquated itself now. In a digital age, we edit photographs rather than make them, or they are produced after the fact.
So let the questions rumble forth. Where does he find these desolate interiors, with all the character of an abandoned film set? The walls have studiously Victorian wall paper, or the scenes in his images are dressed up with sagging black-out curtains. Somehow we understand completely that these images are a contrivance, we know that they are staged, but we are prepared to suspend our disbelief. Because the images are so, well, uncanny. They’re mute, beguiling and sly. The persistence of Cauchi’s images is important then, as is this publication that brings his work to a wider audience.