Hortensia Mi Kafchin explains how most of her paintings can be read like a journal. The information she absorbs from art history, philosophy, science fiction, conspiracy theories, and popular culture, mixes with with her dreams, fears and her childhood memories from her birth-place, Romania. She talks about how a near-death experience shifted her entire worldview, and how her recent transition from male to female inspires her to explore internalized issues related to her gender, and her relationships to God, time, and death. She describes these experiences to elucidate some of the meanings behind the reoccurring elements in her paintings.
Hortensia Mi Kafchin was born in 1986, Galati, Romania, and she currently lives and works in Berlin.
AB: We’ve known each other for quite a long time: we went to the same high school in Galati, Romania, and granted you were almost finishing with school when I started, we had a lot of friends and teachers in common. Looking back now, what would you say were some of the most important milestones of your career?
HMK: One of the first milestones, in a very simple way, would have to be the encouragement from my parents. Even before starting my first year of school they took me to a kids club for extracurricular activities where I remember taking all kinds of classes, including drawing classes. So I was enabled and encouraged to pursue this path. My second milestone was working for my sculpture teacher in high school. When I was a teenager I was obsessively looking at Renaissance and Ancient art and I was reading a lot of art books and art biographies, which made me develop a kind of fetish for becoming an apprentice. When I started high school, the first thing I did was to ask my sculpture teacher if I could work for him in his studio. He said yes, and he became my mentor in a way. I worked with him outside of school on different commissions and welding orders that he was getting, and in school - where I was drawing, painting and sculpting. A year later, I had my first solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in Galati. That was a huge dose of self-esteem because I was only 17 at the time. Then came all these national art competitions that we would get nominated for. Through this I got the first prize in the Arts Olympiad, which further assured me a free spot at any University of Arts in Romania. So I chose the University of Arts in Cluj, where I was part of the Ceramic and Glass department. I had some intense years of practical training both in Romania and abroad, and in 2008, when I came back from an Erasmus exchange in Poland, the Brush Factory was just opening in Cluj. And I would say that that was another important milestone: the Brush Factory and everyone there. I felt so inspired by what was happening in Cluj at the time: it made me want to become a real artist rather than a technician.
AB: There are a lot of elements in your paintings that keep reappearing throughout the years in quite a consistent way. For instance, you’ve been using a lot of imagery related to memes and to certain specific conspiracy theories. Can you tell me more about the role that these references play in your work, and where your fascination with them comes from?
HMK: I wouldn’t say it's a fascination, but it's more of a representation of the polluted landscape between the outside world and my inner world. All these references - like conspiracy theories, science fiction, magic, and even art history - are things outside of myself that somehow represent the language through which I can explain myself to myself. I isolate the information that I absorb, and then I reframe it through my own personal experience and existence. With that being said, I don't necessarily have a passion for any underground culture. It only interests me in terms of how I interact with it, and, to that extent, my general subjects are more or less personal. My latest show, at Nicodim Gallery in L.A., was more or less like an exorcism for me. I always look forward to “releasing” some of these subjects into the world because my works are like pages from a journal, they represent my transition through life, my dreams, my déjà vu-s, my memories, and what I'm afraid of…
AB: Another reoccurring object that I was curious about is the electronic board, which seems to occupy an important place in your paintings. Oftentimes it either alludes to architecture or it becomes a supporting architectural structure of some kind within the work.
HMK: My father is an electronic engineer, so I grew up surrounded by electronics, open machines, and projects that he had going on. So these objects really had a huge influence on me. This is why I'm very attached to this second nature of human technology and this is also why I try to represent it as sincerely as possible.
AB: What about the characters inhabiting your compositions? I recognized that some of them, like the philosopher, the cyborg, the reptilian, or the welder - keep reappearing. Can you tell me more about this? Are they your alter egos?
HMK: Depends. I would say that the philosopher in my work is a symbol of good sense or a symbol for reason in a very non-functional Cosmos. The welder does represent an alter ego, from when I was working for my teacher in high school. There’s also this other character: the builder, who I also consider an alter ego because I always see myself as a builder. No matter how little testosterone I have in me now, I’m still a very skilled builder. At the same time, I see God as a builder as well.
AB: What about the Reptilian? How did this character come about? It’s quite a striking presence in your work...
HMK: This started from thinking about how our brain is made from these different parts: the reptilian brain, which is the most ancient part, responsible for things like balance, heartbeat, hunger, thirst, desire, the fight or flight response, and so on, and then, there is our mammalian brain, which tames our impulses, is responsible for controlling our emotions, and which basically led to our ethics and civilization as it is today. So I was reading a lot about this, and, in parallel, I was also seeing all this mumbo jumbo on the internet regarding reptilians who run the world and who are hiding in different layers of our society. So it became this inside joke that I’m an old reptilian woman.
For instance, in the show at Nicodim in L.A., I have two works with reptilians: one is Pepe the Frog, who I tried to exorcize from his current associations with the right-wing by making him left again. He's depicted in the painting as being “blue-pilled,” but the blue pill in the transgender community is also associated in with Androcur - a feminizing hormone. So, the association is that as he starts to become more effeminate, he also becomes more left. The other painting, which references the inside joke that I was just mentioning, is about this reptilian woman taking a relaxing bubble bath in her catacomb.
AB: I often see representations of or allusions to religion in your work. For instance The Woman's Exorcism, from the same exhibition you’re mentioning, depicts a woman being exorcised by a group of orthodox priests in quite a violent manner. Meanwhile, in works like God Choosing the Shape of Earth, 2019, or Yachts and My Religion, 2018, the allusions to religion are made in a much subtler way, but they still complicate any attempt to elucidate what its role might be in your practice.
HMK : They’re different perspectives. In Yachts and My Religion I was trying to depict this clash between our way of thinking in the East (where orthodox religion has been playing a huge part for centuries) and our desire to embrace the openness of the West. Imagine taking a leap from the Black Sea straight to Ibiza. Of course, we would want to adapt to this culture, but it’s tricky: we come from a spiritually closed-off place which has us deeply imbued with shame and guilt.
I would mention here that although I do make some references to religion in my work, I’m more interested in the idea of addressing God. In a way, I try to reach God with many of the works that I make by trying to emphasize both eternity and the limitations of humanity at the same time. I strive for each work that I make to become a psalm in that way. I know that a lot of things in this life will presumably try to prove to me that God doesn't exist, but at the same time, everything is an indication that God does exist. I cannot imagine a life without talking to God. Otherwise, I would feel really alone.
AB: So, do you imagine God as you depicted him in your painting: as an old man, a builder of universes?
HMK: It varies, but I think that God is the consciousness of the unknown. Also, it doesn’t actually have a gender because it doesn't need one. I mean, I hope that I live in a universe where at least God doesn't have a sex, you know?
HMK: But I know nothing about nothing. I just think about these questions all the time and they keep reflecting in my work.
I feel guilty every day that I am a transgender person. I feel guilty because I modify my body through hormones, operations and so on - and sometimes, if we are to see it from a religious point of view - it feels as if I want to modify God's “machine.” Because of this guilt and shame, I am trying to find ways in which I can “apologize.”
AB: But why would this God care so much if you were to modify "its machine?”
HMK: Maybe it's all about this software that has been embedded in my head. Religion is a software. Take for instance this work that we just talked about: “Yachts and My Religion”. I really tried to be "that bitch in Ibiza" but I will always have this huge lingering representation of an Orthodox God in my head, and because of this, I will always feel guilty. So, I’m afraid that I’ll never be able to be that total bitch…
AB: (Laughs) That’s not good! Isn’t that what’s holding us back? … it’s very interesting to me how open and self-aware you are when discussing this. Are you fighting this feeling of guilt?
HMK: It’s not even about fighting it, it’s more about finding a good place in my mental space, and about organizing my thoughts internally. In a strange way, to transition is almost like a gesture of humility.
AB: Interesting. What do you mean by that?
HMK: I feel that without testosterone one could learn to be more humble, to respect and care for more people, and not to minimize anyone's problems. And, I think that, in a strange way, women have always been closer to God. Biblically, women are always the pious ones, always in temples, or always mourning during crucifixions. As a woman, you don’t want to doubt everything anymore. You don't want to kill the Messiah, you want to receive him. Whatever that might mean…. (laughs)
AB: Now we’re definitely all going to hell.
AB: Your transition happened at a key moment in your career, right?
HMK: Yes, but it wasn't necessarily a very good moment in my career… it was a rather strange moment in my life. I never really thought seriously about wanting to transition until I had a huge health scare. I thought I was going to die at one point, and that was what forced me to admit it and to go forward with it. I basically forced myself to do this so I wouldn't die with too many regrets (not that I will never have regrets…).
Everything was good in 2015, when I did a brain scan and the doctors discovered some big cysts just above my mouth, in the back of my nose, and that led to a very complicated operation. After I woke up from the anesthesia, I came out with the fact that I'm a woman and that I want to start this transition because I was born like this. Then, in 2016, I moved to Berlin and I started this hormonal treatment. I just said, “Fuck it! I will spend my life in the studio anyway, so why not start this transition?” And it’s been a waiting game ever since: waiting on doctors, operations, medicines, you name it, you have to wait months and months, and sometimes years. But everything in life is like this. In this case though, it's a bit weirder because sometimes I go out feeling and looking strange. My whole existence has a big percentage of weirdness that I don't necessarily want or that I'm not a big fan of. I just hope that in some time, let’s say, ten or twelve years, I will be where I want to be.
AB: Of course! Medicine and science are moving so fast that hopefully, it will not even take that long! But, while waiting, tell me: what are you excited about in the near future?
HMK: I'm excited that I have a full summer ahead where I can just work. I have a lot of cool projects with cool people, all happening in parallel. I work a lot with curators from Romania, and recently there has been some great writing on my practice contextualized in the field of queer theory. So I’m very happy about that. And I am also really looking forward to my solo show next year in Berlin, at Judin Gallery.