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C Type, Acid, Silver Nitrate, 2014, 215 mm x 148 mm

Lunar Caustic: elements of the moon

Neglected negatives destined for ruin find new life in a new collaboration by Melinda Gibson and Thomas Sauvin

Archival photographers Melinda Gibson and Thomas Sauvin salvaged thousands of neglected negatives bound for inescapable destruction for their latest collaboration, Lunar Caustic, a collection of quietly decaying images of China's yesteryear. Gibson, an award-winning British photographer based in London, began working with Sauvin, a French photography collector and editor residing in Beijing, following Sauvin's Beijing Silvermine Project, a vast archive of over half a million recovered negatives he amassed & edited between 2009 and 2014.

Lunar Caustic is less concerned with anthropological notions of salvaged memory or preservation, but rather, with the creation of new imagery through neglect, fate and decay by the chemical compounds used in their original formation. Gibson and Sauvin's recovered images organically transform themselves through time beneath rich clouds of discolouration, corrosion and recontextualisation. Lunar Caustic, a two-year endeavour, will be exhibited for the first time at Brussels’ Paris Beijing Gallery in September.

How did the Beijing Silvermine Project first come about?

Melinda Gibson and Thomas Sauvin: The Beijing Silvermine project started in May 2009, out of a meeting with a man named Xiaoma, who works in a recycling plant on the edge of Beijing filtering x-rays, CDs and 35mm negatives for their silver nitrate content. Seeing for the first time thousands of discarded rolls of negatives floating in a pool of acid was rather painful for any photography collector, and Thomas soon found an agreement whereby he would purchase by weight as many negatives as Xiaoma could source. This is how the project started and five years later, the archive counts more than half a million images. 

Tell us about Lunar Caustic.

Melinda Gibson and Thomas Sauvin: It’s a tale of rescue and destruction. Images ultimately destined for ruin are now taken to the very threshold of disappearance, frozen between stages, part rescued and part destroyed by the very compounds used in their creation, that of silver nitrate. This binding of the two processes, physically reworked handprints with acid and nitrate, creates a new space for interpretation, elevating the simplicity of the process and the final product, but furthermore echoing the spontaneous, uncontrollable nature of the damaged negatives, where gradual organic matter grows over the imagery.

“The work itself is named Lunar Caustic, a term used by the ancient alchemists to describe the material, as they believed silver possessed elements of the moon” – Melinda Gibson and Thomas Sauvin

Encompassing two decades, from the mid-1980s until the early 2000s, what recurrent themes, images & ideologies have you observed from the images you've salvaged?

Melinda Gibson and Thomas Sauvin: Our collaboration hasn’t specifically focused on the anthropological, sociological or historical; these have all been digested previously. Rather, we’ve aided these with a conceptual approach about the lifespan of these images and of the medium at large. When applying acid and nitrate to an existing image, we focused less upon the salvaged image, and more upon those millions of images that suffered another fate. We’re examining their organic disappearance. 

What are your intentions behind salvaging these abandoned negatives?

Melinda Gibson and Thomas Sauvin: A very interesting and unusual aspect of this archive is the crucial place occupied by the compound silver nitrate. The work itself is named Lunar Caustic, a term used by the ancient alchemists to describe the material, as they believed that silver possessed elements of the moon. A rich photographic history centres around this also, resulting in the recyclers’ collection of the negatives and ultimately to the acquisition of the archive. Silver nitrate allowed for both the creation of these images, and, somewhat paradoxically, also led to their destruction. 

China's modernisation is occuring at a truly extraordinary rate. Is the discarding of the images of China's past symptomatic of larger national aspirations to modernise?

Melinda Gibson and Thomas Sauvin: It’s a delicate matter and we should be cautious with generalities. Let’s remember that we’re talking about negatives, which are considered by many here and in the west as intermediary objects between the camera and the print. This being said, it is true that the country is very busy looking into the future rather than cherishing the past. This led to the neglect of personal records that have so much to say about life in China’s previous decades. It was so important when working on this series that we acknowledged China’s past and future, but made work that both allied these differences, bringing forth old material into a new, contemporary context. 

“There is something honest, truthful and grounding about working with material that has been sitting in a dusty room, beneath an elder’s bed, rescued from boiling acid” – Melinda Gibson and Thomas Sauvin

What compels you both to continue excavating and archiving the memories of unknown strangers?

Melinda Gibson and Thomas Sauvin: We live an existence shaped through imagery, multiple selves within multiple realities, the era of the image, and instant gratification. There are 880 billion images created every year but millions left unfound, waiting to be salvaged. There is something honest, truthful and grounding about working with material that has been sitting in a dusty room, beneath an elder’s bed, rescued from boiling acid, a patience you have to learn, a time you know little of and an object ingrained with the traces of the past once lived. It’s about finally pausing and enjoying the joys of a past that might’ve been forgotten.