In the Perceptible Field

By Catherine Elwes

memory-of-francoise-robert-cahen.jpgMemory of Françoise

A Robert Cahen retrospective shows the journeys video can make

A contemporary audience encountering Robert Cahen’s work for the first time might struggle to imagine the impact of his experimentations in video art in the late 1970s. Our knowledge of video at that time was limited to television, which for most of us was still drab black & white, and dominated by a seamless realism. When I first saw Cahen’s Juste le Temps (1983) I was mesmerised by his alchemical melting of a French landscape into a liquid stream passing through the frame of a train window. Although Steina and Woody Vasulka had already discovered how to generate successive undulations in concrete objects with an oscilloscope, it was Cahen who used the effect to enact a poetic disorientation of reality, a denaturing of the landscape that turned fields and trees into manifestations of thought, half-glimpsed dwellings into settings for dreams and sensual reveries.

Schooled in the concrete music tradition of Pierre Schaeffer in the 1970s, Cahen often combined these smoky, improbable landscapes with dislocated soundscapes composed by Michel Chion. Where Cahen’s imagery oscillated between representation and abstraction, movement and stillness, Chion used found and electronically processed sounds to echo a world that was ‘sinking towards silence or struggling out of it.’ [1] This coming and going of reality, experienced by the viewer as a kind of drifting in and out of consciousness also has a cyclical character, a rhythm or ‘breath’ as Cahen would say. With no moment of departure or point of arrival, a temporal circularity is suggested in the ceaseless view from a train that plays across the 13-monitor installation entitled Paysages-Passage (1997). [2]

An inveterate traveller, Cahen sees the end of a journey as simply the beginning of the next passage or crossing and in the course of his long career he has gathered images of landscapes from Chile to China by way of the Easter Islands and the frozen plains of the Arctic. At the Harris, the two-screen projection Paysages d’Hiver (2005) plays on the estrangement of the land in the white-on-white of the Antarctic. The distinction between ground and sky is confused by the transposition of one into the other – the sky flows with Cahen’s signature undulations or sighs of nature and the ground glows with an unearthly sheen interrupted by the sudden appearance of two figures walking uncertainly across the snow.

paysage-dhiver-robert-cahen.jpgPaysage d’Hiver

Cahen’s landscape works bring to light the invisible labour of nature and the travails of the human imagination in the perceptible field, processing primary reality. This project is shared by artists in Australia such as John Conomos, whose slow-scan rendition of the Australian outback evokes the oceanic fusions of colour in Rothko. In the UK, Cahen’s notion of Le Souffle du Temps: the breath of time (and of nature) is to be found in Emily Richardson’s time-lapse studies of a forest, itself an echo of time-lapse landscape works by William Raban and Chris Welsby in the 1970s.

Today, younger British artists like Semiconductor ‘go beyond the visible into the imperceptible’ [3] and visualise seismic activity in the earth by means of electronic manipulations of the image. What Cahen brings to this process is a painterly eye of great acuity and an understanding of the capacity of the moving image to engage the viewer’s feelings, both physical and psychological. As he says himself, ‘what really counts for me is translating emotions into images and meanings.’ [4]

The Harris retrospective includes two works that exploit the power of the human face to elicit feeling in another human soul. At one end of the gallery In Memory of Françoise (2007) consists of a large suspended screen on which an old woman’s face calmly confronts the world. Cahen has slightly slowed down the footage so that we may freely explore the landscape of Françoise’s face. This gentle visage produces the curious sensation of both familiarity and inscrutability, something along the lines of Deleuze’s characterisation of the cinematic close up:

‘…le gros plan-visage est à la fois la face et son effacement.’

The close up creates a face and simultaneously effaces it. (my translation) [5]

Françoise hardly ever blinks and her occasional smile spreads slowly recalling the enigmatic message of the Mona Lisa’s enticements in an earlier age of both art and womanhood. Below the image, Cahen has projected individual words, gliding across the floor: respirer (breathe), le vent (the wind), silence… These are words Cahen associates with Françoise, but they are also signs adrift, broken free from their syntactical moorings. They are linguistic devices but also the words that, one by one, old age gradually extinguishes from memory.

paysage-dhiver-robert-cahen-2.jpgPaysage d’Hiver

If Rudolf Freiling is correct and the implication of Cahen’s peripatetic video art is that ‘the end of all journeying is death’ [6] then the work facing Françoise across the gallery is both a portent of death and a memorial. In Suaire (1997), a diaphanous white cloth hangs above a circular arrangement of white gravel across which the viewer is encouraged to tread, breaking the silence that envelops the work. Onto the cloth a succession of ghostly young faces struggle to cohere only to be obliterated by cascades of water. The references here are to the traditional gravel paths in Mediterranean graveyards and the Sainte-Suaire, the holy veil with which Veronica is said to have wiped Jesus’s face on the road to Calvary and which miraculously retained the imprint of his features. This reference to what could be regarded as the first photograph and the hauntedness of the photographic media that have been developed in modern times returns Cahen to his experimental roots, in which a self-reflexive investigation of the medium itself is part of the artistic enterprise. Perhaps in the context of this rather funereal work, he views the ephemeral nature of the electronic signal as an appropriate travelling companion on the many passages he has undertaken, of which only vague shadows remain.


However, the mood of this exhibition is by no means macabre. Downstairs at the Harris, Cahen’s witty video postcards briefly come to life to deliver the telling moments of familiar tourist attractions across the globe. Take Care, It Turns (2008, with Guido Nussbaum) is a rotating screen on which all the colours of a Chinese street scene have melted into one another. Cahen’s continuing delight in the poetry of the moving image is everywhere in evidence and his irrepressible enthusiasm for the transformative power of digital effects remains as infectious as ever. ‘I can make the colour run as though there were a breeze rippling the landscape’, he confides to Sandra Lischi ‘… I provide the image with a sort of inner life’. [7] The end of the voyage is perhaps not death, but the beginning of the life of the imagination.


[1] Michel Chion quoted by Sandra Lischi in, The Sight of Time; Films & Videos by Robert Cahen’, Edizioni ETS, 1997.
[2] Paysages-Passage and Suaire were shown courtesy of FRAC Alsace.
[3] Ruth Jarman of Semiconductor speaking at the Figuring Landscapes panel discussion, Tate Modern, February 2009.
[4] Robert Cahen talking to Sandra Lischi, op.cit.
[5] Deleuze quoted by Didier Coureau in his essay ‘Vidéo-Haïku’ in the catalogue Robert Cahen s’installe, FRAC Alsace,1997.
[6] Rudolf Freiling, ‘Les dernières images’ in Robert Cahen s’installe, ibid.
[7] Quoted in Sandra Lischi op.cit 

Passage, a Robert Cahen retrospective, was at Harris Museum, Preston (17th January to 14th March 2009).

Catherine Elwes is Professor of Moving Image Art at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London.