„Photography is visual science-fiction, intuition, dream, frozen time and space.“
(Ikko Narahara in catalogue Contemporary Photography, New York, 1982)
Staged photography in Slovakia was century represented since the mid-80s of the 20th by photographers of the so-called “Slovak new wave”. The authors relatives as a generation gathered coincidentally at theFAMU (Film and TV School of Academy Performing Arts) in Prague, working at that time with the innovative practices in photography, using theatre, scenic or luminographic effects, in-painting of positives, etc. The new generation of Slovak photographers enters in the second half of the 90s of the 20th century after its studies at the Academy of Fine Arts – from the studio of Ľubo Stacho and Milota Havránková enters the scene Robo Kočan, Martin Tiso, Jana Hojstričová, Jaro Žiak, Filip Vančo, Tibor Takáč and Ingrid Patočková. These photographers took interest with a multimedia approach to photography, or with new staged procedures. An example of both these positions of creation are the works of Robo Kočan, whose multimedia production has been developed in parallel with the staged colour and black-white photography for almost three decades.
PORTRAITS – PLAYING WITH IDENTITY
Kočan´s portrait photography is based on the principles of the fine-art postmodernism:
he plays with an identity, manipulates the contents with the form of interactive spatial installations, collages, assemblages and overlapping negatives. In some portrait series, many photos are installed by the author into the environs namely in the form of a playful puzzles, dice, installations – he enjoys to provoke the viewer for him to enter directly into the exposed works: he can so compose and mix the faces, rotate the horoscopes, or enter in the projections. The face becomes the primary subject of the photographer´s creation: he mixes races (Black & White Benetton, 1993; Love, Faith, Hope, 1995), people and dogs (Like master, like a dog; like dog, like master, 1995), faces of close relatives and acquaintances (Robino, 1992; Family crossword puzzle, 1992-2002; False signs, 1994; Search (33), 1997-1999; Friends, 1993), as well as some portraits of historical personalities (Under the sign of Sagittarius (Me and Stalin), 1996). In principle, he is looking for similarities and individual peculiarities; he creates with “the game” some new identities. With manipulation of reality, “by tricking” about himself he provokes some questions about the meaning of objectivity, that in this case is not a criterion of knowledge. “There is no more truth about self – it is only imaginary. Anyone who looks in the mirror appears firstly his permanent picture, even when he wants to discover his true identity. Every self-portrait is inherently inevitably a duplicate; the image of the faith in the truth of himself and faith in the objectivity of the photographic record disappeared at the same time. Each self-portrait, even the simplest and the least staged one, is a portrait of someone else.” (Staggingof self, an essay by Jean-Francois Chevrie, London, 1986).
In the monumental figural compositions, Kočan concentrates on self: he multiplies himself in various theatrical productions at long-lasting exposures. So there are originated the night city vistas with some metaphors of own image – styled illusion about himself and about the world (a cycle of black&white photos Dialogues, 1989 – 1993).
Since the beginning Kočan has been fascinated by the work with the basic principle of medium: the light. At long exposures he draws into darkness, takes records of his own phantasies in the open countryside. He reconstructs the reality, he stages: creation is an interactive happening in which the artist has a control over means of drawing – the light sources. The final picture is a result of this interaction.
The landscape visions have following chronology: the black-and-white nocturnes of the town arouse at the end of the 80-ties of 20th century. Colour and a new genre – imaginary landscape – came later (series Drawing with Lights, 1993 – 1997). The artist describes the roots of this new „game“ with light as follows: „I have started to look for a new, inspiring environments – I have replaced the town by the mountains and a free nature. I draw a fictional dreamland, where imaginary fauna and flora revive, with long exposures and colorful lights. My world is linked with the world of children’s dreams – all strokes with the light, with which I depict the images, are naïve, childish, unrealistic. They are actually some symbols of animals and flowers. Slowly I began to work with the models that give to the shapes much real form – there still dominates the world of children’s imagination. They are the inspirations of childhood, from fairy tales – many times the game of the good and the evil. In the real world yet this evil somehow wins, in fairy tales it is contrary.”
Imaginary worlds, however, are not left only in the colour position – Kočan returns back to the black and white material, with the possibility of creating some monumental enlargements. In 1998 there are formed the cycles of Shadows and ghostsand Gardens of Eden, that are an expression of a search for different paths of drawing with the light. As the author notes, the other side of light is the darkness – “light casts a shadow, black like darkness”. He comes back to archival pictures, that he completes with the in-painting on negatives. He reconstructs the landscape, in which there dominate the “shadows of ghosts”: imaginary figures inspired by the interpretation of personal feelings, sensations, or knowledge from literature, film and music. Against these manipulations there is different Garden of Eden– large format records of night flora. The beetle´s perspective, that emerges with in-setting the camera between the flora and vegetation, monumentalizes also small vegetation and creates an unknown world: there is optically taking shape a forest, jungle, some fictional plantations.
Since 1999 there has been created a new cycle of The Guarded Angel, inspired by Kočan´s fatherhood: by combining of landscape, urban, or industrial environments with a figure of a small child there were formed some pictorial, dark landscapes with almost graphic drawing: dominated by the more or less ” guarded” Angel – the author’s daughter Laura. White figure creates a surreal mood – it is not clear cut, only anticipated. The depictions are linked to the old myth of the guardian angels: “I take pictures of an angel, who is the angel with his innocence…”
The landscape metamorphoses are dominating in the photo cycle from 2004 titled Fairy-Beings of Old Glamorgan, where the artist follows the imaginative artworks of his previous creation − these are fantasies from childhood dreams as well as newly created legends about the hidden lives of creatures from an unseen world of trees, plants and stones. The black-and-white images come to life through bizarre shapes, that grow with the Welsh countryside in the background. This message highlights the chosen way of creation − these are photos without any intervention or staging: “I photographed the invisible in a real world, being inspired by “pure” nature and landscape.”
However, seemingly banal landscapes have much deeper contents – they report about return to the nature and natural sources. They are a vision about mutation of civilized world and the result of manipulation of reality – undermining objectivity – like in his portrait work.
FROM ABSTRACTION AND MAGICAL REALISM TO THE SYNTHESIS OF MEDIA
In the year 2000 Kočan returns to the older negatives from the music photography in the year 1987 – there is arisen a cycle of White Night Music, inspired by the author´s playing the saxophone. The photos are luminographic record of music that is later commented by the author: “Through musical instrument I wanted to express the music visually. The music becomes an image, the heard becomes the seen…” Light traces that evoke the music, have their own rhythm – a precisely fixed rhythm creates some abstract compositions. The whole cycle is an attempt to depict a seemingly non-displayable, it is the visual record of the heard. That arises without any physical analyses, it is a purely emotional depiction of the music. The object of the depiction is a saxophone, which is reflected into the light images during a long exposure.
From exteriors Kočan introvertelly returns to interiors: during the art residency in a project SPACES in Cleveland (USA) there arose a quite new, with its darkness a surprisingly “Gothic” cycle of Stories of a Night Lamp(2002 – 2003): shadows of desktop lamp draw some staged stories, suave by the author´s combined technique, namely with manual in-painting and the overlapping of images. The magic realism of such art-works has its continuation: in the year 2008, in cooperation with the Polish sculptor Marcin Rząsa, he creates a mysterious shadow-plays – photos of a cycle Stories from the Other Side. These are the works on the boundary of studio still-lives composed from small, but in their form of monumental wooden sculptures and imaginary landscapes from the “other side” of the Tatra Mountains. The dialogue behind the borders continues also in a unique series of manipulated landscapes and vistas Images of Memories (2011), that converge to the painting with multi-exposures and computer processing: with a strong visual accent they show some dreamy landscapes and interiors in neighbouring Poland. As in the whole creation, also there are blurred the boundaries of the genius loci – Kočan´s feéries are a universal story.
In the year 2004 by experimenting with digital photography, that the author combines with in-painting of details: so there is arisen a chamber, subtle cycle in monochrome scale Strange Creatures, where the black and white mirror linked fragments of a body complete some imaginary faces of mysterious creatures. From the small format of these vintages, Kočan is attracted with a next experiment: a monumental connection of intimate parts of the human body into the colour “mandalas”, where the body landscape is converted to large abstract wallpaper. The cycle of Mysterious Spaceshas harmony in geometry and perfect colouring: as an alternative of “mandalas”, that also appear in a later creation (the cycle From the Darkness to Light, 2016, where domes of temples and monasteries become inspiration), the author works with combining of circles, squares or other shapes, connected mostly with the central point, that may symbolize “the beginning and the end, linking of human and Earth”.
The tireless search for innovative means of expression leads the author beyond the borders of classic media: continuous combination of traditional and new techniques makes an “alchemic” synthesis of media – installation, music, or experiment with the visual language of painting and photography. Its result there is collaborating with musicians and artists: together with Zbyněk Prokop he creates multi-media installation about parallel worlds From the Other Side(2010) and with Maroš Čižmárik he revives shamanic underworld of Siberian Tunguzians in a painters-photo story Chergu Buga(2018). Overlaps are not new for Kočan – even in his portrait creation he is constantly experimenting and discovering new interpretative options.
Kočan´s “photogames” across the three decades of his creation have also a parallel development with the author´s predilection in expedition travelling and an intense experience of “parallel” worlds in other cultures and habits. Significantly, it is also transformed into his author´s manuscript, where he folds several seemingly incompatible cultural symbols in visual images. And since the “a thousand miles long journey begins with a single step” (Lao-c ‘), the author becomes an art missionary, linking reality with his vision: the cycle of Roads(2018) is the result of many years of traveling, where with no time-limit, step by step, there are formed some layered symbolic images. It is the visual poetry of memories, where the “thousands miles” are recast into a particular author´s message. Imagination has no boundaries here; sign language is associated with the experience, resulting in a picture. Even when the photo is often mistakenly associated with a “snapshot”, in the postmodern era it is changed to the “image that forms a film strip with lots of tension, which is condensed with psychological explosions on motionless area that moves thanks to the phantasies of audience…” (Vladimír Boudník).
We can find storytelling also in a seemingly static photos from the series of Stories in Deposits(2013 –2015), where the author goes back to the classical black and white photography with a perfect drawing: photographing in the deposits of Slovak galleries opened for him the thirteenth chamber of bizarre world of deposed works. Meditative, peaceful atmosphere have also manually in-painted portraits of the saints from the series Tribute to the Dishonoured(2016 –2018), which the author has shot of the frescoes during his travels. Square format and gilding are reminiscent of icons, the mere creation of a spiritual process, responding the world both above ground and on earth, pointing to a symbolic shaping of the world.
Kočan´s path for searching creative means of expression is not simple: it is a hard, honest work, in which it is necessary to listen also to the inner voice and constant search for inspiration in a seemingly unseen. The author´s fifty is equal to almost three decades of intensive and productively extraordinary rich artistic work. Jubilee catalogue is an intertrack, behind which, I assume, there will be other surprising dialogues with Muses. It is another endurance run in infinitely creative artist´s universe, because, as photographer Jindřich Štreit said – “the art of photography is similar to the playing the violin. You need to hit the gym daily to achieve virtuosity and if your tool is stored and you are returning to it only sometimes, there is lost the spark…”