The ease with which it is possible to skim through seemingly limitless photographic imagery daily makes it equally easy to forget the profoundly analogue, experimental, and physical nature of the medium’s origins. The type of viewing experience that Ben Cauchi’s photographic work commands is remarkably different to the way most photography is viewed in 2014. Using an adapted 19th Century wet-plate technique, Cauchi makes unique photographs on black Perspex or glass (an approach more akin to displaying an original negative than a print). The resulting works take absence as their subject, leading the viewer down hallways and into corners, asking many questions and suggesting few answers. In But only disaster lay ahead (2013), one’s gaze is directed down an empty passage, possibly that of an apartment building. The relatively clinical appearance of the interior belies the drama of the work’s title. The hall retreats into murky shadow, however beyond it a rectangle of light waits expectantly to be occupied, perhaps by a figure or other figment of the viewer’s imagination.
The rounded and shadowy corners of these compositions create a central viewpoint akin to that of the human eye. Even the occasional chemical mark appears, like dust floating on a cornea. Rarely do we consciously acknowledge our viewpoint to be this soft-edged; in Cauchi’s work the effect is to insidiously draw the viewer into the scene, and consequently into the plate it is embedded within. In The portal (2013) a room is lit by sunshine streaming through a tall window above a radiator. A rectangular form, possibly a door, stands in the centre of the space. It is blacker than black, to the point of confusing the viewer’s depth perception. Physical and psychological spaces converge as substance becomes void, or vice versa.
Of all the works in the exhibition, That which can be seen is not all there is (2013) makes the most direct reference to early photographic culture’s preoccupation with illusion, and experimentation with the strange alchemy of the medium. A square support is covered in a decorative brocade cloth, upon which a white handkerchief can be seen, standing to attention, defying gravity. Wisps of light cross the centre of the composition, and seem to animate the cloth, so it appears like a flickering flame atop a candle.
Cauchi’s photographs are objects. Sure, they portray images (you can probably see one or two near these words), but those images are contained within and inextricably linked to the physical properties of an object. It’s possible to imagine, when peering into the velvety layers revealed through these inky, reflective surfaces, how magical photography must have seemed to its early creators and viewers – the wonder, danger and seeming impossibility of having captured part of the world in a two-dimensional object. They are pixels’ polar opposite, a reminder that entering a gallery space and taking the time to experience that tug-of-war between yourself and an artwork is as vital and rewarding as ever.
One’s Own Grey, Tues to Sat 11am-6pm, until 17 April 2014; Darren Knight Gallery, 840 Elizabeth Street, Waterloo NSW 2017; (02) 9699 5353, darrenknightgallery.com