Mariah Robertson

In October 2011, Baltic presented the Turner Prize 2011 marking the first time the exhibition had been held outside of a Tate venue. In the run-up to this major show, Baltic hosted American artist Mariah Robertson’s first solo exhibition. The show continued until 30 October 2011.

Your images recall a slower, pre-digital era – would you say there is an aspect of nostalgia in your investigation of analogue techniques?
There are definitely elements of nostalgia. However, when I began my photographic training, the methods of production were incredibly expensive and digital technologies weren’t readily available, and it took me four years to get my darkroom the way I wanted it. Over the past few years, with image saturation and digital enhancements, I do feel that digital has taken over from archiving and documentation, which has liberated artists working in traditional media to play around with materiality. In this sense, I have made a conscious decision to focus on obsolete technologies, simply because that’s how I work best.

As an artist who is fascinated by the manipulation of the photographic process, often bypassing the camera lens entirely, how do you view the effect of these processes on the viewer?
This component of my work isn’t that considered. To be honest, I know that I’m breaking a lot of rules, and perhaps only other photographers can understand my motivations. It would be nice if people could just accept that I’m not following the rules and laugh at it, rather than trying to wrestle out the meaning.

The feminist narrative regarding your use of motifs, such as male nudes, is apparent – what do these symbols represent for you?
It’s interesting actually. I was at an art supply store in Paris, looking at learn-to-paint paperbacks and fantasising about living in Paris just painting watercolours of birds, when I noticed that the volumes on nudes were all female. Initially, my thought process was an intellectual one – exploring the irony of an abstract and formally beautiful image punctuated with an image of penis. I think it’s significant that the majority of us don’t want a picture of a penis adorning our walls, when we all owe our existence to one.

Could you talk us through the importance of the process of making in your work?
Well, all my work is hand processed in a tray with colour chemistry and colour chemic sensitive paper. If you can visualise a black and white darkroom set-up, that’s basically how I work.

The importance of the physical and tangible is apparent throughout this show. What draws you to such a sculptural mode of display?
My work bears the imprint of its making, like little moons from creases and curves and all kinds of things that cause glare when you’re trying to take a documentary image. Perhaps they don’t fit in the frames right, ripple, curl and get caught between the side and the backboard, but I see this as the image interacting with the frame. Really, do we need to see one more perfectly centred photo? What I’m aiming for is a succinct harmony of form and function, of the vessel and its content. Don’t get me wrong, fine art photography is a beautiful medium, but when it’s displayed in a gallery or museum, in those little glass coffins, it makes me want to smash it all with a hammer.

Where did your interest in these modes of production originate?
It all started out of necessity. In 2009, the gallery I was working with, Guild + Greyshkul in New York, was closing and having a farewell show. I had no money for frames, but I knew I had some large ones left over from another exhibition. They were 1.25 x 1.75m and I only had the capacity to make smaller prints at the time, so I crammed little images into big frames. It became an ongoing game of chess with the materials and their limitations. The show at Baltic is particularly exciting, as the space allows me the opportunity to explore both the romantic and lyrical connotations of the work being draped and folded across the gallery.
In addition to this, the show addresses drier, conceptual questions relating to the fundamental idea that I didn’t want to cut down the photographs.

What projects are you currently working on?
After the show at Baltic, I’m going to be working on an experimental narrative, which involves applying darkroom techniques to a film about Paris, New York and Harbin Hot Springs.