The Curious Case of Ben Cauchi

Fishhead Magazine, December 2012


It’s evening. A veil of mist has shrouded the sea. Outside, rain is falling so faintly it is almost invisible, almost but not quite. I can see the strings. A fantail alights on the black licorice telegraph wires outside my window and spreads its unwelcome wings. Is it a sign? An omen? Or am I just setting the scene for a meditation on the dubious pleasures of Ben Cauchi’s pseudo-Victorian photography?

Cauchi is a curious case. He’s a contemporary photographer renowned for working solely with nineteenth-century techniques. Cauchi’s stock in trade: the ambrotype and tintype. He uses a wet-collodion process that dates back to the birth of photography itself. At City Gallery, The Sophist’s Mirror is the largest public exhibition of his work and spans ten years of his career. But who or what pray tell, is the sophist?

Once the sophists were a class of ancient Greek teachers of rhetoric and philosophy. However, the term is used quite commonly now to refer to one skilled in elaborate and devious argumentation. The Sophist’s Mirror is a small portrait of a white mirror resting on bare wooden floorboards, facing upwards, it holds no reflection: at least not one the audience can see.

Cauchi’s work is a potent meditation on photography itself, it’s ability to fool us and we are ready to believe. His love of spiritualist trickery is obvious and many of his exquisitely crafted works suggest apparitions and sights unseen. Pseudo levitation is a bound book, rising to meet a man’s outstretched palm: strings still attached. Say Nothing is a crumpled pale skin of paper. Beyond This There is Nothing an empty room in a decaying house, the doorway a black hole.

For an artist so interested in absence this exhibition is rich in narrative possibility. Turn the corner and you will startle upon a nest of burnt out matches left to smolder through the ages. Who was the arsonist behind A Failed Experiment? Mrs Peacock or Professor Plum? Browsing this exhibition is akin to playing a good game of Cluedo. Cauchi is an expert scene setter and works like Dead Arm and A Dark Solution draw the viewer into violent and malevolent tangents all the more evocative for remaining invisible.

In Cauchi’s world the room is always empty, the note crumpled and illegible. His photographs are of course enigmatic and rich in symbolism, but are they also faintly funny? Cauchi’s mix of the queer and the quaint reminds me of the work of the eccentric American illustrator Edward Gorey. Gorey’s cult cartoons often depicted fey British Aristocrats in situations of existential and physical peril. Gorey never went to England and the Victorian world he conjured was purely of his own deft and devious imagination. It’s the same with Cauchi. Much has been made of the contemporary concerns that underpin Cauchi’s practice, yet it’s the past that is persuasive here. Style and substance are fused in nineteenth-century technique.

Cauchi sits primly for a series of pioneering self-portraits. His face is interesting, bird-like, his features slender and slightly suave. He is always self consciously posed. He offers a vision of the photographer as both magician and charlatan. But here he is also dabbling equally in the Joycean narrative of himself as a young artist, and this story of the photographer is at once a self-conscious conceit and also wholly true.

Cauchi’s aristocratic self-portraits are backed up by an illustrious career: in the past two years he has been the recipient of a New Generation Award from the Arts Foundation and he is currently based in Berlin on a Creative New Zealand Residency. The Sophist’s Mirror rewards the faith that has been placed in his mysterious photographic practice.

Suspend all disbelief.