Maya Rochat, A Rock is a River

JTF (just the facts): Published in October 2017 by Self Publish, Be Happy (here). Hardcover, 336 pages, with 166 color and black and white photographs. Includes a booklet with texts by Simon Baker, Paola Paleari, Ingrid Luquet-Gad, Markovian System (Joël Vacheron & Aris Xanthos), Viviane Morey, Ann-Christin Bertrand, and Brad Feuerhelm. In an edition of 800 copies. Design by Nicolas Polli. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: It wasn’t so long ago that if a photographer was interested in “process”, she would settle into the darkroom, learn an antique printing technique, or spend countless hours experimenting with light sources and negatives. But for a new cadre of contemporary practitioners like the Swiss artist Maya Rochat, “process” can mean everything from those old school analog photography methods and their newfangled digital counterpoints, to elements of painting, collage, sculpture, performance, site-specific installation, and even music. So while photography remains Rochat’s primary medium, her interdisciplinary practice incorporates many and at some points all of these things, bringing a broader and more layered approach to photographic experimentation.

“There are no rules in my process. I use bleach, glue, soap and paint. The use of strong colours and loud patterns is an effective way to capture the viewers’ attention and push them towards visual saturation. I find it interesting to see how the eye reacts to different techniques overlapping each other, and want to create something that is only truly readable in the physical, analogue world.” Rochat’s aggressive experiments with post-production processes bring to mind the work of Japanese photographer Daisuke Yokota, whose distinct visual language also challenges the usual limits of representative photography.

Rochat constructs and deconstructs images by constantly experimenting with her pre- and post-production methods. She produces unconventional site-specific installations, rephotographs them (creating multiple layers), uses various base materials (paper, metal, plastic, and others), and then employs a dizzying array of digital and analog printing techniques. Sometimes she paints on the paper before printing (allowing the wet inks and paint to mix), deliberately introduces (or leaves) scratches, loosely applies washes and chemicals, and even tries to print on materials that she knows will be uncooperative. Through these experiments, the textures and physicality of her photographs come to life. Rochat’s source photographs typically capture her immediate surroundings, her friends, landscapes, and occasionally incorporate found imagery, but ultimately they take their unique form during her elaborate post-production rework stage, her rich layers of processing and abstraction becoming her own unique aesthetic signature. Her exhibitions have evolved into immersive multi-media installations, where overlapping images envelop the space (they often hang from the ceiling, block the windows, and cover the floor), and projections and musical elements are added, further encouraging visitors to engage with the show.

Rochat’s work also translates well into the photobook format, and her recent publication A Rock is a River is perhaps her most ambitious effort to give her entire vision a printed form. From the beginning, she approached this series with a book in mind, actively exploring the intricate possibilities of page layout, collage, image scaling/layering, as well as various printing techniques. She intentionally revisited the images to adapt them for the publication, creating yet another “process” in her unfolding visual experiment.

The original photographs in A Rock is a River were taken in locations that Rochat has personal connections to, like the Locarno district in her native Switzerland, and Peru, the country where her father lives. The images are cropped down landscapes, highlighting up-close geological formations and organic matter. Rochat is particularly interested in the natural world and its ongoing transformations (rock erosion by water, the flow of a river, ice melting into water, etc.), and as she adds her own tints and interventions to the images, this transformation process continues. And as we examine her pictures, it is indeed the case that a rock can become a river, the waves of one mimicking the waves of the other so much that we are unable to easily differentiate between them. 

Design-wise, the cover of the photobook depicts what looks like a close up image of a rock formation; the title of the book and the artist’s name appear on the spine over the image. With just a few exceptions, the images are full bleed and there is no intrusion of any text, page numbering, or other graphic details, creating a continuous visual flow. A selection of writings are printed in a separate booklet that accompanies the book, minimizing any distractions from the image sequence.  

The sections of the book interleave shimmering color images and black and white spreads printed on silver paper. Rocks, boulders, caves, tree roots, the surface of water, ice, and the shadows that are cast across all of them form the raw material for Rochat’s expressive reworkings. Some of the black and white images seem almost straight, the wavy lines of geological time moving from the rock surfaces down into the nearby water. A full bleed spread depicts the forest with its densely growing trees and rocky ground; seen in shining silver and amid the more abstract flow, it immediately jumps out. Other images are more expressively gestural, with frenzied scratches matched by melts and drips that cascade down the page. And still others use collage techniques to pile up imagery, where hard edges separate one form from another or gather into confused batches.

In color, Rochat’s compositions turn more psychedelic, her natural formations encouraged to swirl and spill into abstraction, often making us wonder what exactly we are looking at. Some spreads offer an exciting mix of colors and transitions between them, yet with their multiple variations of stains, drips, and shapes, they rather elude direct description. Icy images seem to have been reversed into negative tonalities, and glowing light emanates from zones of ethereal blue. Color tinting and bleeding decorates other rocky formations, with oily movement giving some of the surfaces a distinctly painterly touch. And again, prints are layered into piles, where borders and frames allude to hidden pictures underneath. In both modes, she pushes her experiments in abstraction to the edge, disregarding rules and embracing happy accidents. The book has almost too many pages, as our immersion in the richly reassembled visual world starts to drag into over stimulated repetition near the end. 

As one artistic statement, it’s hard not to be seduced by Rochat’s fearless experimentation. She’s boldly trying to redefine the idea of photography as a tool for representing reality, using process-driven craftsmanship to extend its normal boundaries into more amorphous multi-media combinations. She’s actively questioning the priority of any one artistic mode or method in her picture making, effectively blurring the line between analog and digital, machined and manual, and as she moves forward with her own bold visual language, it will be exciting to see what unexpected jumps she comes up with next.

Collector’s POV: Maya Rochat is represented by Lily Robert Gallery in Paris (here). Her work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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