Why did you decide to become an artist? Do you remember that moment?
I never ‘decided’ to become an artist, it happened gradually. My mother and biological father were both artists, so maybe it is in the genes, but I never wanted to become an artist. I wanted to become a professional ballet dancer, but, unfortunately, I had one knee surgery after another. I studied interior architecture at Sint-Lucas, because it was the perfect balance between creativity and directness. Quite soon teachers noticed that I was more interested in the conceptual idea of how to use a given space rather than in constructing and drawing one mathematically. One of the teachers told me I would make a better artist than an architect, which made a lot of sense to me, so I changed after I finished the year. At that time I changed to multimedia design, which was interesting, but still felt too restrictive (I ended up learning computer languages which was not what I enrolled for) to end up eventually in what then was called the “Experimental Atelier’ where every student could choose their own medium. In the first year I worked voluntarily at an experimental cinema called ‘offOFF’, which directly led me to my interest in video. I had just seen an exhibition by Pipilotti Rist in the Netherlands and in the same time got to know the work of Maya Deren. I became addicted to the emotional state that would arise when watching their work, and I wanted to be able to recreate this unworldly, odd state of mind on my own. So that I could watch it all over again and come back to this state — something I did not immediately find elsewhere in life.
You have the Russian-sounding name and surname, yet you do not speak Russian. What is your story?
It has been a question I’ve been asked repeatedly throughout my entire life. When my sister, mother and I came to Belgium, I only spoke Russian and I could only say ‘ja’ (meaning ‘yes’) in Dutch. People were asking my name and many other questions and I just said ‘ja’ to everything. That changed very quickly because I went to school in Belgium and my mother did not want to speak Russian anymore. She went through a hard time because her Master of Arts degree was not recognized in Belgium for a long time. Plus she had to do an exam every year for the Flemish government to prove that her Dutch was good enough to teach art. It took her a long time.
She took all possible classes, even went to a high school to learn Dutch. I grew up teaching her Dutch, correcting her constantly, listening to her telling stories in Dutch every night. She was obsessed! I was in service of her and there was no room anymore for me to speak Russian. Because the tongue is so different, she would switch back to a strong Russian accent and she hated it. She just wanted to succeed so badly because people were mocking her strong Russian accent, it was sad. I certainly feel Belgian, but I also feel Russian. Though I feel that Russians do not always take me seriously, I have so much love for the Russian culture. Of course, I am less engaged than the people who lived there for a longer time, but I have strong memories of it. Yet I had many situations where people wanted me to prove it. They would say things like: ‘so, you are basically Belgian’. When I tell people my story there is always the need to categorize myself. I do not understand why it is so important to people. I have been living in Germany for three years now and consider myself German, because you become part of the politics, the language, the culture — one cannot just exclude or include themself because they have a different nationality on paper. People need to hold on to something, it is safer for them to know exactly who you are and what they can expect — I think it is some kind of nationalism, which I am not a fan of. My official surname now is actually Belgian, because my stepfather adopted me, but it was strange erasing my heritage so I decided to go on with my birth name.
When I was young my mother was scared I would not find any decent job with my surname because she was afraid I would be discriminated against based on my name. But, ironically, I ended up being an artist, where your name plays an important role, and people find my name exotic and remember it, even though Maximova is one of the most common surnames in Russia.
What is the main topic or embarrassing thing that push you to create an artwork? What is the purpose?
What I produce is the extension of what I experience in daily life. There is no distinction between the two. Making art for me has the same importance as cooking food, having social relations, etc. I do not want to put an artwork on a piedestal and I won’t die for it. My work reflects upon several events and the situation I am in at that time. Events that cause frustration or something I struggle with emotionally or physically. Until now it has touched upon such subjects as conspiracy theories, dealing with language in the internet era, family, not knowing my biological father, communication between animals…
I am ever aware I am not unique, nor is what I feel unique. This is the generality of my interest in life: to communicate with the people whom I will never meet and to know they felt acknowledged in some way. I am too empathetic and think about everyone constantly. Which I do not necessarily find to be a good thing. I make an artwork until I do not recognize myself anymore; otherwise I find it embarrassing. One of the most frustrating things in life for me is to always end up in a certain, same manner of thinking and acting upon that. I wished many times I could just reset myself. For me it is as well about erasing myself and transforming into something other people could enter. The work does not exist until it is viewed by others, and this resonance is the work itself. I do not want the work to be too abstract or too conceptual. Stepfather who adopted me is always afraid to comment on my work, because throughout his entire life he worked (and is still working) at a steel factory. He was in an environment far from the art world and never got in touch with it until my mother came along, so he was often scared to say what he felt, because he thought it would be the wrong thing. That is really sad. If the environment makes you think that what you feel might be wrong, there must be something really wrong with the world itself.
Don’t you think that thoughts such as ‘I wished many times I could reset myself’ signify how deep-rooted online has become in our lives? Unlike our life circumstances, we can simply delete our accounts if our self-story becomes too irritating for us.
But, on the other hand, the new era, the “Industry 4.0”, as they call it, provides the art and artists with new media, new opportunities for creating and showing…
About ‘resetting myself’: it has a lot to do with the endless inner strive for perfection. A perfection which I know is impossible to achieve. The wish to break out of the behavioral patterns and to avoid repetition in life turned out to be more difficult than I ever thought it would be. Jung believes it comes from deep roots of Christianity, this aspiration to become without sin and repress dark thoughts until we become ‘whole’. But how can we protect ourselves if we are not complete? It reminds me of a conversation I had with my mother some weeks ago. She is retiring in two years and says that only now she has overcome her biggest insecurities, finally coming fully in touch with herself. “But now I am old, more lonely and physically deteriorating, so what good is it for me now?”. She said it partly as a joke, but it may mean we can only find completion at the very last stage of our journey — death. I am looking forward to that (laughing).
About the online world slipping in our lives, and being able to delete our accounts: there we find many opportunities, yet in return for being surveilled en masse.
Secondly, online is a logical extension of how we act offline: displaying a perfectly curated version of ourself would also mean erasing who we really are on a superlative degree, because in real life we cannot blur out the flaws. In this era of information every insignificant or unskilled person posting content online has become of value, because digital content is valuable, but to what extent does it make us feel valuable as a person?
What one work of yours has emotionally bonded with you more than the others? Why?
The development of “Memorial” was an interesting turning point for me, since it became very clear to me how my work comes to realization. There is no linearity in the process yet it follows some kind of poetic logic that makes sense to me, a simplified version of a more complex reality where I connect several circumstances.
One being that I had just moved to Berlin and was impressed by its rich history and statues, the second — that my mother called me, saying she had reasons to believe my biological father had died. Ironically, she had based her reasoning on his online behaviour rather than factual information. Even though I know I will most likely never meet him, the possibility of it still sparked my imagination. The idea of him dying would put an end to that prospect, so it definitely stirred something up in me. Up until then I only had a collection of biased fragments of my father described to me by my mother and a friend of hers who lived with us in Russia. I asked her for a full physical description, in an attempt for it to remain in my mind as a vivid memory.
For the video I left out all emotional references, and what remained was a general description of a middle-aged white man. At the same time I had a job where I biked past this anonymous, nude male sculpture every day (anonymous in the sense that unlike many other statues, the statue carried no objects referencing to a certain profession or achievement) with a clenched fist towards the ground while looking down humbled. I went to film and photograph it with at first no further intention than just registering it. Later the simple idea popped into my head of subtitling this man’s imagery with the description of my father. The statue was as an empty canvas. The anonymous soldier was rendered with a face, and simultaneously I created a tangible memorial for my father in the form of a video. I would have never been able to reconstruct him truthfully any other way. The statue was a symbol of the fallen soldiers of WWI. There is an anecdote in the video describing my father’s growing gray hair at a young age in the army, as he feared one of the ‘Katyusha’ missiles he had to carry every day would suddenly explode. These are the kind of descriptive examples that allow us visualise more vividly what the soldiers had to go through.
Your story reminds that history is built up by circumstances and emotional anchors, that totally frame you perception of the reality. And also about intuition – hidden law of this knowledge. What place does intuition take in your life or in your process of creating artworks?
I think intuition is endemic to art and to every artist, so it does play an important role. I use it mostly to determine the rhythm of a video. The pace of the work is very important, because it can change the experience of the viewer entirely. For me the audience should be as a witness, with an opening to participate. I would not know how else to decide on the editing choices if it weren’t for intuition.
Can we say that your art is about the remedy from reality’s anguish?
I would not call it a remedy for reality’s anguish, because there is much more needed to cope with certain aspects of life than making art. But it does help. It is more about trying to answer the questions you cannot really provide a truthful answer to — it is an everlasting attempt to grasp things I do not understand or cannot handle emotionally. What pushes me to create are the situations that frustrate me so badly, I am literally out of words, so I need to find another way to channel them.
Who is your favourite contemporary artists? What are your favourite artworks? Why?
There are many many artists I like, but some of my favourite works are ‘Savage/Love’ and ‘Tongues’ from Shirley Clarke, from 1982. These are two one-act monologues brought by Joseph Chaikin. He narrates one situation after another in a stream of consciousness, every time portraying a different character, but always with a somewhat dramatic emotional load. In ‘Tongues’ he portrays a dying man delivering his last rites, reflecting on his life. To me it is exemplary for the strength of video art: the editing, the sound, the screenplay and the single actor are so well choreographed. There are no little details to distract you, you can only focus on the performance and what is said; it forces us to use our imagination for the situations he is describing, making the spectator work. Clarke is not so well known and she died in 1997, but she was acknowledged by filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman and Godard. In her own words, she felt she didn’t break through because ‘women aren’t running things’.
I already mentioned Maya Deren. It was ‘Meshes Of The Afternoon’ that left a big impact on me and was such a turning point when I saw it ten years ago. I remember that I was so scared, yet so intrigued when watching it, — I did not know anything like experimental film even existed! Deren always tapped into her own fear and feelings. This film reminds me of many dreams you have that try to warn you about something that is happening in real life, but you are not exactly sure what that might be. As if your subconscious sends you a quest to find out what troubles you. When I was a child, my mother and I would tell each other our dreams after waking up in the morning, going through all our ‘dream books’. Up until today, the first thing I do is analyze my own dreams because they present me with insights on what I repress on a daily basis. Merely knowing that we are repressing something already tells us a lot about ourselves. I use my dreams to decide on many things in life. I think Deren’s films are her own search of her identity. In ‘Meshes Of The Afternoon’ the same scenes just repeat and repeat allowing the spectator not to be entirely lost in translation — something that is easily overstepped in experimental cinema, yet the rhythm and editing is just perfect.
While not having seen it live, I read about a certain work of Jef Geys made for a biennale. He always manages to convey ideas with such seemingly effortless poetic simplicity. For the biennale he worked around the term ‘Terroir’ that refers to our biotope rather than the idea of territory. He asked acquaintances to each pluck twelve wild plants that grow in the streets, “in order to explore the basic components of their immediate surroundings” which seems like an exercise we should all try out.
I also like Finnish artist Pilvi Takala a lot. In her work she is disobeying certain codes we have to respect in life, researching the mechanisms of human behavior within all kinds of different situations. In one of her videos she dresses up as Snow White and tries to enter the Disney World. Of course she is refused, because she is not the ‘Real Snow White’. While all the children are flocking towards her, she causes big distress to the company, because if she were to make a wrong move that would immediately jeopardize the image of the ‘real’ Snow White.
Are you totally engaged in art? Does it allow you to live and work properly? I mean, is art your only occupation, or are you also involved in anything else?
These last two years I was able to get funding from the Flemish Government and did only the shows I got paid for. It is exceptional. Before that I did a variety of jobs. I just finished a course in front end web development. I needed to find a long term plan to rely on because I get quite anxious thinking about the future and coping with financial stress.
Are you working on a new artwork now? What is it?
This summer I will be mainly coding and reading, which will gradually guide me back into the creative process.
Do you have any further plans or dreams for the future?
Many, but I’m mostly excited about going back to Russia for the first time next year with my sister, who is, luckily, still fluent in Russian.
Could you give some advice or say something to the young people who are either already artists or aspire to become such?
One of my tutors would always tell me, “Do not make art!”. Not in the meaning that I should not become an artist, but in the sense that one should not think of a work as an art piece while making it, because the aspiration of it being art will ruin it. I was just reading a beautiful interview with Rirkrit Tiravanija, who did his famous cooking sessions in the early 1990s. He did not know what the show he had at that time would be about, so he decided to cook food and give it to the visitors. Critics thought it was a political comment on New York’s homelessness and economy, but when asked he just answers he was “just cooking”. His attitude seems to be one of total selflessness, and I admire that very much.