Cauchi's presence found in absence

16:00, Jan 15 2013
Ben Cauchi photographu
Ben Cauchi's Self Portrait with Lamp, part of his exhibition The Sophist's Mirror at Wellington City Gallery.

It begins well. Approaching City Gallery's survey of 10 years of Ben Cauchi's photography you are greeted by a line of nine small, framed photographs of spot-lit white gloves. They are empty of hands yet bear the marks of use, like spent balloons or prophylactics.  At a distance they seem to be waving hello: A series of frames from some old stop-motion animation. I am reminded of the way many cultures, Maori included, that marked their presence with a painted hand on the entrance to a cave. 

Photography has always been about the capture of presence. In Cauchi's case it is the presence to be found in absence. Take the gloves, for example. A room Cauchi shows us is never empty. It is a place of light, dust and the past's residue, which the camera, containing time, captures. In this survey we are presented with many worn rooms, in which wrinkled backdrop sheets are sometimes hung. They are like memento mori, remembrances of mortality, spaces and props with which we might meditate on our existence. Photography as metaphysics, if you like. 

Each image is also about the very fabric of the photograph itself, its worn, warm edges and marks. Cauchi is refreshing not because he uses antique photographic technologies - processes you need to look up, ambrotypes, tintypes and wet collodion on acrylic sheets - but because he actively explores photography itself. He engages with its magic, revelling in its mysteries and teasingly revealing the props behind the illusions. In theatrical vignettes he is a scientist cum magician with light, dazzling us with something as simple as a floating cloud of smoke one moment, then the next a failed experiment where all that remains is a graveyard of spent matches. 

The exhibition is titled The Sophist's Mirror. A sophist is someone who deals in clever but false arguments - someone who deceives through philosophy. The mirror here looks back at Cauchi and us, sometimes laughing, asking us to question what we see. You could say it speaks to a contemporary lack of faith, yet the way we still look for things to believe in. 

The work recalls early photography as a time of magic, when people looked for what mysteries might be caught in the camera's chamber. It is a mystery lacking from most image-making today. 

The gloves are covered in the stains of the fluids Cauchi uses. In ways like this the artist is the presence in the photographs - something we never doubt in a painting. The exhibition is full of self-portraits of one kind and another, Cauchi's own meditation on his space and place in the world - earnest yet playful. In its soft sombre hues, self-expressionistic solemnity, dramatic use of light and flickering wit I am reminded of the painter Tony Fomison. Certainly, more than any contemporary photographer. 

Cauchi subverts a whole modern history of photography as recording landscape and incident. It as subversion full of poetry, humour and, sometimes, conceptual moves as smart as any other contemporary installation artist.

You can tell I am a fan. Which is why it is all the more worrying that I did not enjoy this exhibition. 

A strong Cauchi show would not leave me dulled by earnestness and austerity, longing for a comfortable seat. It is three rooms where one would have sufficed. It feels over-stretched, the works too paced out and overstocked, full of repetitions. For every great work there as a minor one. There is a lack of the intimacy these works warrant. A recent excursion into large lightjet prints feels like early experimentation rather than notable. As a relatively young artist, Cauchi perhaps is not ready for a show of this size, with little journey to be shown. This is an occasional City Gallery fault - stretching out big to fill large spaces, leaving artist and viewer stranded.


Don Driver, Mahara Gallery, until January 27. A beautiful selection of large wallworks by the late great Don Driver, just a summer's train or car ride away in Waikanae.


The Dominion Post