Dafna Maimon

Indigestibles: There’s Today, 2021, video still

Dafna Maimon works with performance, sculpture and film to address questions of bodily knowledge, prehistoric forms of consciousness and togetherness as well as contemporary manifestations of indoctrinated fears. Through participatory performances and expanded cinema she immerses her audience in worlds that are as absurd as they are uncanny.

Using humor and fearless experimentation in her undertaking of tackling society’s glaring cognitive dissonances, Maimon has created a body of work brimming with new ways of reconnecting with lost wisdom and communing with our deep selves as individual organisms, as a species, and as part of collective life on a dying planet.

Dafna Maimon (FI/IL b.1982 Porvoo) is an artist based in Berlin. She has shown her work in institutions and art spaces such as Helsinki Biennial (Helsinki), Kunst-Werke (Berlin), PS1 Moma (New York), Mahj Jewish Museum (Paris), Kim Center Contemporary Art (Riga), SPACE Gallery (Portland Maine), and Gallery Wedding (Berlin), amongst others. Maimon holds a BFA from the Gerrit Rietveld Academy and an MFA from the Sandberg Institute Amsterdam.

October 18, 2021
Issue №:

Moira Barrett: Your new work Leaky Teeth was showed at the Institut Finlandais in Paris and at Kunsthalle Helsinki this past summer. It’s about a contemporary woman with a debilitating toothache and the parallel storyline playing out inside her wisdom tooth, which is home to a group of cave people. You've said that they represent a subconscious memory of an ancient time when we were more in touch with our bodies and the earth. How did you arrive at the idea of having cave people, in all their animalistic grotesquery, represent this modern woman’s suppressed desire or lack?

Dafna Maimon: I’ve been thinking a lot about body intelligence over the last couple of years. I've always been curious about somatic work and I’ve done various kinds of therapy like psychoanalysis, psychodynamic therapy or family constellation work, but I've also worked with dance and the body in parallel. Three or four years ago I discovered body-mind centering (BMC): a complete experiential form of study developed by Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen in the 1970s. It examines anatomy, and looks at the connection between mind and body through experiential exploration. So while you read anatomy and look at pictures, the essence of the practice is moving and touching one’s own body and other bodies and working with visualizations. After that experience, my whole image of how the world comes together started to make more sense, and not through a rational perspective but through embodiment. This change was so huge for me that it almost felt like discovering that the world wasn't flat. And while learning this practice I would feel as if I could almost recall some kind of ancient knowledge through movement. I would be squatting over the ground and have this feeling that once I was a cave woman and I used to eat like this. 

I've also always had an interest in cave people and what they were like. I think there's something inherently wrong with how people who lived in the paleolithic era, humans or human-neanderthal hybrids, are depicted as crude and insensitive in popular culture and even science. I just have a hard time believing that about anyone who was capable of making the paintings and artefacts they made, or surviving in nature in such symbiosis and collectivity. It’s known that people only survived because they started collaborating. I'm interested in primates and apes in the same way, as sort of historical mirrors of ourselves. It comes up in my work a lot: this boundary between being human and animal. 

While I was busy with the body and this idea of bodily intelligence, a pun about the wisdom tooth came to me – why is it even called that? From there I made up this absurd fantasy: what if the wisdom is inside the tooth? On some genetic level, a phantom of knowledge might still exist there that's actually still working in our bodies. So the pain, the toothache, which today is just seen as something that needs to be removed or quieted, could actually be a valuable message. That’s how I imagined these cave people living inside the tooth and being really prolific.

Leaky Teeth, 2021, video still

MB: Now that you mention it, I see that in the film. The theme of knowledge in a format that has to be uncovered or decoded... 

DM: Something else I learned from BMC is that when you study anatomy, you see it mirrored everywhere in our environment. When you look at human compact bone tissue under a microscope, it has these rings that look like the rings of a tree trunk when you cut it open. You start to feel majorly connected to your environment. I think we've lost this knowledge and awareness somehow, we're only in our heads. We don't respect our bodies at all. We don't listen to them, we don't consider them. We don't even know that the body has its own intelligence.

MB: A lot of your performance work involves cathartic group activities that try to rekindle this connection. Were you always into this participatory approach or did it take time for you to get comfortable, particularly in the role of guiding these experiences?

DM: I think I'm just really curious and my curiosity triumphs over any kind of inhibitions. This [stands tall with arms fully outstretched] is my comfort zone, which is very porous. I try to immerse myself in things or embody them. I have to try things, talk to people and touch them. And maybe because I've always had this slightly self-deprecating sense of humor, I'm not really afraid of being embarrassed. I have no stage fear. When I was in my friend’s dance company, her slogan about me was, "She’s got no talents, but no fear either! She'll do anything!" So I love opportunities, not in an opportunistic sense, but I just always look at where the cracks are in the world – could I get in there? Could I look at that? Could I try this? Could I try that? I always feel like you gain more from trying or doing something than from not doing it because you're embarrassed.

MB: I also want to ask about Indigestibles, the installation and film you just presented at the Helsinki Biennial. The installation is a huge intestinal tract installed in an old ammunition cellar on Vallisaari Island. People are invited to walk through it. Many of us have an initial association of disgust with the intestine as a slimy, fecal place, but you built your intestine using super soft, velvety materials. What was the intention behind your choice to make the intestine such a warm, inviting environment?

DM: Anatomically, the intestine is actually often described as having a velvety surface because it’s covered in thousands and thousands of little microvilli, which are almost like mini-antennae. So it's not just a tunnel, it has a massive undulating surface. The villi make the intestine's walls very velvety and beautiful. That's the whole thing with most of our bodies, which you realize when you start to do movement work and see how they connect and how much work they do and what they're capable of. It's amazing! It's really touching. So I wanted the intestine to be this beautiful, almost sacred place. Imagine, the intestine is the pathway between you and the outside world. It determines what [matter] from the outside becomes you and what gets released, it connects the mouth all the way to the anus. So you could also ask if it’s actually the outside world inside us? In a way, we are actually hollow, and the intestine is the connecting space between us and the universe. It's a profoundly philosophical place.

And now it's become clear that there are billions of these microbial bacteria and organisms that make up our microbiome, which starts developing as soon as we're born and stays with us for life, almost like a fingerprint. The gut also has its own kind of independent nervous system, which can operate without the brain, but they’re connected through the vagus nerve, which is the only place in the body where there's this direct connection. A lot of the time, we feel first with our gut, then we rationalize it. A lot of my more recent works are also tributes to the body and its intelligence. 

I also love thinking about how random it is, what we consider abject and what we don't. These tendencies go back to a very conservative form of body control that descends from patriarchy. One thing I want to do in my work is to get people to think about why they feel a certain way about their bodies or where they draw this line. I think there needs to be some kind of freeing of the body. And of course some of that is happening through a lot of conversations around gender and sexuality, but in that context it can become so politicized, and is focused so much on sexuality that it can almost become fascist. I think the issue is actually much deeper. It goes back to the mind-body dichotomy, where the body was always considered [lower in ideological hierarchies]. Animals are not considered rational, so we can eat them and do medical experiments on them. The more animal or body you are considered, the less power you have in this world. So thinking about [this return to the body's intelligence] ties all of those issues together.

Indigestibles: There’s Today, 2021, video

MB: A lot of your more recent work has taken the form of expanded cinema. For example, you built the tooth-cave for the set of Leaky Teeth yourself out of papier-mâché. Can you talk a bit about how you arrived at this format and how you make the physical and the digital work together?

DM: In the very beginning, I started with sculpture, but for a long time I felt like I couldn't create enough presence with sculptures. I always kept wanting them to move or speak or have a live audience, so I stepped into video and then into performance, but making spaces and objects comes very naturally to me. I love sculpture and I love strange, huge blobs. I am a blob and I live in a world of blobs: we're all more or less blobs or sponges in some kind of identity crisis. I also see the giant intestine as a sculpture even though it's 22 meters long. You could go in there with 30 people, but you can't see it from the outside – you can only be inside of it. It immerses and swallows you. I like to create these really intense experiences, which you can also do with film.

MB: You also have a long-term collaboration with Ethan Hayes-Chute called Camp Solong, a three-day camp where the two of you build collective cabin structures in a remote locations and invite participants to performative summer camps there. What happens at the camp and how does this long-term collaboration with another artist work?

DM: We started Camp Solong at a time when I felt like the process of all this performance and video work wasn't so forgiving for the maker; in the sense that you do it, you show it, and then it's over. I wanted to create a work where the process of making and living in that world was the actual work, where the actual relationality and the being together is the work. Since I was a kid I've always loved summer camp because it's this new world where nobody knows you and it's this totally communal and relational situation. And then it ends! The potentials of what you can do or experience or feel there, become amplified because there's this end in sight. I had known Ethan's work for a long time and I always found it super touching. Every time I saw one of his cabins, I thought it would be amazing to make a film or do a performance there. So I asked him if he wanted to collaborate on making a summer camp with me. 

The central idea of the camp became a training to say goodbye. Why are summer camps so potent? It's because they end. So what if we immediately put the end in the foreground? Everybody experiences loss, and if you put six strangers together to deal with one loss or another, there's an immediate empathetic connection. 

The very first thing we do at camp is a performative exercise called Goodbye Hour, where everybody just practices saying goodbye to each other, all before we even introduce ourselves. The program is made up of various exercises that all focus on this idea of ending. Even when you apply to participate, you have to explain what it is that you want to give up and let go of. We've had people who applied because of Brexit or because a family member just died, or someone's partner changing their sex and letting go of their old gender. 

Camp Solong, mini-institution, 2016 – ongoing

People also get camp names, so they have to say goodbye to their old name. We don't talk about the outside world when we're there. You're constantly in this other identity, you're not allowed any screens or phones, and there's no electricity. Everybody sleeps outdoors next to each other, everybody wears the same clothes. So much of that project is, on the one hand, the things we do there and how we set up that social environment, but so much of it is also what comes from Ethan's background, this detailed [sculpture, design and architecture work] with so much care for every object, every piece of every costume and every juice box with the same color theme. This way, people get very immersed in this world and get really touched quite quickly, so they just go with it because it's so elaborate. The activities are also tailored to a specific language, so we never say hello at camp, we just say goodbye. Every camp ends with "Emotional Trashbinning," where we let go of an object we brought with us for that purpose, which usually unfolds to symbolize a whole world, or something you do to yourself. A lot of times it's not actually that things happen to us only from the outside, it's all about how we relate to them. So it's about coming to this place of agency where you can ask what you want to let go of and how you can use it as something transformative.

MB: What are some new projects you are excited about?

DM: I most recently did a fun collaboration with Liz Magic Laser in Hamburg. It was a participatory performance called Hush: The Reassurer (Hush: Die Rückversicherer) where we set up a pop-up insurance agency where people were offered a new kind of insurance policy after a diagnostic interview. It's about the irrational ways in which we mitigate fears, like by buying insurance.

I'm also really excited about this group that I'm part of now called The Association for the Palliative Turn; we have a show up currently at Brandenburg Kunstverein. It was started by Olav Westphalen, who had to reconsider death after going through cancer treatment recently. He always had this cynical and humorous approach to the art world, but after that experience, he was tired of how it always has this exploitative side, particularly when it comes to the trend of art presenting solutions or healing, when in fact this world is dying. We are not going to be here much longer, so what would it look like to make art if you start thinking about things with this in mind? In this group we have meetings with people like palliative healthcare workers and death doulas, and lectures by climate scientists. There is no going back, and we're already seeing it everywhere. This death denial is part of capitalism, the obsession with growth and not being weak is just creating more of the same mayhem. So there needs to be a really, really deep shift in thinking. The Indigestibles film-loop is also about this apathy, where the character is watching a news story about the last orangutan having died and just continuously eating and eating and eating, not feeling. She's watching this doom and all she can do is consume. The only way she's in contact with the animal world is by eating them. After watching the video for a bit, I invite people to go into their bodies by entering the intestinal tunnel installation. Listening to your body and doing some movement doesn't cost anything. We need to turn towards the inside, and accept what is there, as opposed to trying to consume our way out of the situation.

Interview by

Moira Barrett

Moira Barrett is a writer and translator. Her work has appeared in the online magazine Wepsert and in Ex Nunc Journal. She lives and works in Berlin.