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SPBH Confidential

Maya Rochat

by Joanna Cresswell

I grew up in a very specific atmosphere. When I was 1 and a half, my father, my pregnant mother and I left our home in Switzerland to embark upon the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage. For 6 months we travelled with a horse and wagon through France to Spain. My little sister was born when we arrived. My parents aren’t that religious but I guess at the time it seemed like the right adventure for them. Since then we have always been a bit nomadic. We lived on bio-farms and later on, in an old mill in the forest. We lived in the depths of nature for many years, with just two other families.


As I got older I started to feel suffocated. We moved to a small city as I was becoming a teenager and it was this really strange thing for me as we were quite wild. When I arrived at school I didn’t have the same behaviours as the other kids, we didn’t have a TV and I had to socialise to understand what other people were doing with their lives. Suddenly, everything rushed in at once and I saw social violence, war and climate change, having never experienced anything beyond my own idea of life in the bubble I’d lived in.

When I was a child my mother would paint but she was always kept it to herself. She was discrete with what she was working on. The first real artistic impulses I had came from her. She studied Interior Architecture. I learnt this idea that being creative is a thing you can have just for you.

When I studied at ECAL it wasn’t as progressive and experimental as it is now. Visually, in my eyes, it was more restrained. The director at the time saw the school first and foremost as a business and the experimental element really took a back seat. If you weren’t making the kind of clean, fashion-y images that defined the aesthetic of the school at the time then things got awkward. They didn’t feel comfortable with this loud, dark work I was making and I wasn’t going to change it. I used that friction though: it was constructive for me to evolve and learn to defend what I believe. In the end though, I respect this school because I got the enormous chance to learn how to work efficiently and professionally.

I learnt to love video from Pipilotti Rist. In my second year at ECAL, Stephanie Moisdon (one of the few female tutors) showed us Pipilotti’s work and as soon as I saw it I felt like saying “FUCK YEAH! Girl power.” Her all-encompassing installations are amazing. It felt really good to be aware of this visually empowering woman, from the same country that I am, making the kind of work that I aspire to. The images got out of their frames and there the art game started.

My conversation with music started with video. After my bachelor studies, I dedicated myself to organising shows and performances. I entered into close contact with experimental musicians and felt super inspired. That was the moment I started working with video, to document but also create my own pieces. I started making video and digital collages listening to friends’ music. I was drawn to musicians who were experimenting with making collages with sound in the way that I was with images. In a live context, the performance activates the space. Sounds by musicians I’ve worked with such as Buvette or Bermudaa create the immersive atmosphere I’m looking for.

I envy musicians because it feels all so immediate – you have sounds and voices right there. For visual artists, it feels more complicated to have that immediate impact because it’s all physical.

The first time I worked with Buvette (see video below) was 5 years ago. I was doing a residency at the time with a collective called RATS in Vevey, where Buvette was living. Very late one night – the night before an opening in fact – he came by as I was playing with projecting a video piece into the space. I told him how I was anxious because I didn’t have the proper music for it. I’d been searching for days and nothing was right. Right then he left for ten minutes or so and when he returned he put on a song of his called Foam Canyon and it was just perfect. That was the beginning of our collaboration – he shares his sounds and I react to them.

Foam Canyon was filmed during this residency but it’s a parody of myself during this residency. I don’t always want to make art that is too serious or take myself too seriously either. It frees me a bit from my own head.

I work with disgusting stuff and I get dirty and I like it. In every studio I’ve ever had it’s been super messy. I need the mess. I need to see everything that I have and then I like to move around and I like to step on things and break stuff and make mistakes and be wild. I like to lose control and not be too clear about what’s going to happen. At the moment I’m working with painting a lot, and it’s giving me the same sensation of anticipation I used to get when waiting for a film to develop – I love seeing what’s going to emerge in the painting process.

The last two really good hours I had making work were from 2 – 4 am in the morning a few nights ago. I couldn’t sleep so I got up and began to paint. I had a projector in my bedroom and so I switched it on and projected the paintings on shapes and volumes around the room. It was a very precious moment. That time of night, when everyone is resting, gives you space that you can’t find at any other time of day.

At times it is a lonely business. Mostly it’s fun, but the reality is, you travel a lot, you’re in and out of places, and after years of moving around Europe, I don’t have the feeling that I really belong anywhere. I don’t feel fixated. I would love to have a steadier life, but maybe it’s also just the way it has to be for me for now.

The first step for me when I start thinking about a show is always to consider the feeling of a space. What’s the floor like? Is it wood? Concrete? Are there windows? Then I can think about what images would be right for the space and begin to make them. I like the idea that something is made specifically for a certain space and time – something experiential happens when it’s thought about in the way.

People have this romantic idea of “the artist” as this spontaneous figure that does whatever they want, which I feel I can be to a certain extent, but you still have to take in the points of view of, say, gallerists who tell you that your show is missing a smaller piece that they can sell. I’m not afraid of being commercial, though, because it supports what I do. It’s interesting to learn the way it works as a business.

I’m afraid of the “magic formula”. We see artists all the time have a “big moment” and then afterwards there’s this very flat prediction for them – people know what to expect and they see it again and again and again because it works. For that reason, I never show the same installation twice. I don’t want to get comfortable.

There’s a priceless value to photography being fun. It’s the whole objective, really. 

Recently I’ve been working with a cleaning product called Cillit Bang.
I submerge negatives into the liquid for two weeks until they begin to corrode and change colour. Then on the paper prints, depending on what kind of ink you use, you can draw with bleach and create chromatic alterations. Spray paint and Cillit Bang don’t like each other and it’s fascinating to watch their material characters clashing. Also, I like the collective reference of Cillit Bang. Thanks to TV, you see the shiny clean commercials for the product in your head as you look at these seemingly dirty images, but when you are in front of the print, it smells clean! I look for tools and materials that have their own pre-existing stories and narratives before they become a new layer in the work.

I worked on a series of black and white lithographies for a show at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris last year, at the famous lithography studio Idem. I asked if I could paint on the paper before printing and they were so open to it, not precious at all. “Just put your wet painting in the printing machine!” they said. It was the best moment ever! The movement of the machine changed the drawings when the paint was still wet. You could never get this with the digital process. When I walked into the studio, there was this big test print hanging on the wall, a black and white litho drawing by David Lynch. La Classe! The biggest stone paintings in the studio were his. He had painted some stones and then made these huge series of lithographies, and they are just very beautiful things. I felt jealous – I wanted a big stone too. I looked at how he used engravings, he was very sensitive about the techniques, and drew out all the possibilities in terms of greys and the real depths that images and engravings by hand can have.

Destruction is beautiful. 


Destroying a photograph is a violent act, but I don’t destroy images. I don’t see them as images until they are finished. I treat them as canvases that just so happen to be full already. I interrogate what happens when you douse an image with chemicals and paint. I like to change and deepen, and create new visual experiences from the modification of the content as well as of their surfaces. Each time, new iterations of the image emerge and it’s meant to make you come closer and ask: what is this? What am I looking at?
I like working with the physicality of printing because it forces you to remember the difference between good and bad printing. In every day life at some point we stopped being so precise about the quality of things. Music for example: ten years ago nobody would listen to music on their computers, but now everybody does. Of course computers got better but still… we lost something in the physicality of music. It’s the same with images. I like to remember to take moments to enjoy good music and good images. We should expect more.

I like to see my work as a big soup or stock that I’ll add to and take from as time goes on. There were things that I thought were done but now I take them back and re-work them. Maybe a few years from now I will get bored and go back to something I am doing now, and why not? Why not change? Why should finished pieces be stuck in a basement somewhere when I could repaint on them? Who cares? I try not to be too precious with the works.


At some point photography became too flat for me. I needed more surprise from an image. It stopped being about the images themselves and it started being more about the experience you can have with the visuals and what positive impulses it can give you.


I was never sure I wanted to be this “anti-photo” artist some might see me as, though. I like to have white wall space, different framed moments, a narrative, and to think of spaces almost in terms of the structure of a book. In that sense I am so much more a photographer than a painter or a sculptor or anything else.

I have times I cannot work at all. 

You know the cliché of artists saying, “I cannot work when I’m happy”, or “I cannot work when I’m rich, I need to be poor to be working”? Well for me, it doesn’t really change in that way, but I do have times I cannot work at all. I find I need any strong emotion to make my best work – when I’m very calm, or particularly annoyed, for instance. I need energy, in any sense, to make work.

Normally you only get asked about the shininess of what you do, but being an artist can be tortuous. It’s isolating because you don’t have the same every day life as other people. You have relationships and it’s more complicated. It’s tiring and there are a lot of emotions and sometimes you wonder why you feel so much all of the time. But I do also think its part of the gift that you have to endure this excess of information. It’s a hard job but it’s also a very beautiful one.

I think about love when I’m making work. Oh boys! And I think about music too, and things that I’ve seen and heard. Making art is very much a digestion process for me. I take these meditative moments to pass by all of the emotions that I had in a week. It’s about just being there and being instinctive.

I am a super fan of any sci-fi, supernatural, magical film I can find – you name it, I’ve probably seen it. I like the visuals of magic, and thinking about how magic can be materialised. Marvel films, X-Men, Pacific Rim…the trashier the better actually. I love the sets and the decors. Sometimes I just have a film on in the background while I’m doing something else and let the images of space and the cosmos filter in.

There is a Thai artist called Korakrit Arunanondchai who makes these complete multi media installations that just make me say YES. You enter a space and there are moving things, sounds, lights, objects, paintings and TV screens. You can always go deeper, into more detail. When I see an installation like that, and then compare it to a photo show with 60×80 frames hanging on a wall I feel like its rarely as strong.

The titles of my works almost always have a story behind them. I like playing with the visuals a title can conjure up. Normally, the titles come to me during these periods of digestion I have – I read, I underline things and write passages out in my notebooks, I listen and I watch stuff, and words and phrases filter in from the outside. It’s like I have a vague feeling about what a title could be and then it just seems to find me.

There’s a particularly good story behind the title for my series, TOO MUCH METAL FOR ONE HAND. During my ABA residency in Berlin, a curator friend Sebastien Peter invited me to go to a metal concert with him. When we arrived, he turned to me and said “when we go inside, when it’s super good and super loud, do this with your hands”, and he gestured with a devil horns sign using both hands. Why? “Because it’s too much metal for one hand”. It fell into place perfectly right then because at the time I was becoming really curious about silver, and chrome and everything shiny and metallic that you just cannot photograph them properly. How enjoyable that there are materials that are photography resistant! Each time you make an image it changes. It flattens. That’s something I like to carry through all of my work – you have to see it in person to experience the layers and the depth.

Would you be interested in painting a car? That was a question I had never been asked before. I was working on a collective show of artist working with artisans called Double Je at the Palais de Tokyo, and I the chance to work with Erwan Robert, an artist-aerographer. The car was beautiful – an old Ford Capri. A total luxury. When I arrived Erwan gave me the painting pistols and we just began instinctively. We worked together on the car for many days, speaking about how we feel about the paint effects. It was the first time I painted on that sort of volume too and it became a real inspiration for what came after in terms of techniques. I would love to do more with volumes like that. Sometimes I feel I’m still a bit too stuck on the wall.

I think people’s reaction to my work has changed over the years because my work changed. I changed too. I think for some people in the beginning what I created was too dark, too dirty, too direct, too “Guerrilla Girls”, too full frontal and maybe even too pathetic. I was making a lot of pictures with friends, my family and myself and using it all as my own digesting process too – finding ways to show beautiful, humanistic images of suffering situations, I guess.  Five years ago or more I felt that you had to scream to be heard. But now I think that if you scream, you’re just one of the screamers. And that is not the way you’re going to make powerful art. These days I think the big change is that I try to create experiences for the viewer that are more nuanced and softer. I like a calmer, meditative atmosphere – something that tells the viewer, “In this space you are safe”. It encourages people be open and to have their own moment with the images.

Its the job of the artist not only to be obsessed with your own career and what you do, but also to figure out what art can do in a social context and how we can get most people to have access to it. If someone visits my show and leaves feeling encouraged to go home and start something, to do something for their self or someone else, and becomes aware of the preciousness of being creative, then I’ve done what I came to do.

Check out Maya’s new book ‘A Rock is a River

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