Disgusting Fascination: An Interview with Maija Tammi



8 minutes reading

Maija Tammi (b. 1985) is a Finnish artist whose research and photographic practice deals with the issues of decay, sickness and time, approached through a cool, scientific view. Her latest series, White Rabbit Fever, proposes an imaginary disease, the threat of which creates the tension of a ticking clock before death arrives. Pitting images of a decaying rabbit against images of immortal cancer cells, Tammi asks us to consider our own relationship with death. Her series premiered with East Wing gallery at the Unseen Photo Festival in Amsterdam (Sept 23-25, 2016), and we met to speak more with her. In this interview, Tammi tells us about the intersection of disgust and fascination, one of the main focuses in her work.

Your work takes its inspiration from biological material, and our relationship with our own biology. Where does this interest come from?

I actually studied biology for a year before journalism and art. It interests me especially with this new project, White Rabbit Fever, for its relation to time. Mortality is the key to understanding our perspective on time: the fact that we die is what gives time its value.

I think, at first, I was just curious, but now I can’t help being utterly fascinated especially by the mortal aspect of time. This fact, that we live and die, is biology.

What things are we allowed to consider ‘beautiful’? Why not all life?

It’s also related to disgust however. For example, you’re showing a series of images with the slow decomposition of a dead rabbit. Why do you juxtapose these two things, biology and disgust?

Actually, I am not juxtaposing biology and disgust, but I am asking where the limits of beauty are. True, some can see the decomposition as a disgusting thing, but I deliberately tried to photograph the rabbit in a way that is not gritty (which would’ve been a different approach) but instead something that can maybe even be seen as beautiful. Fairytale-like.

In my works in general, I pose the question: What things are we allowed to consider ‘beautiful’? Why not all life? Why does beauty stop at the level of the skin? Can human cells which have mutated (as in the case of cancer cells) be considered beautiful, although they might not be good for the individual? Mutations are the raw material of evolution and cancer cells are just mutated human cells. Biology has no disgust in it, but comes about when we take a human-centric view of it. And, to feel that, one does not even necessarily need to look at a picture, the idea can be enough to cause disgust.

It's very interesting the way you chose to represent this cycle: even though the rabbit series shows the process through which nature re-absorbs what has ceased to live, which might be somehow disgusting, your series shows this in a natural way, with really lush colours, making decay look beautiful.

Yes, and I find the cycle beautiful as well. Everything that was inside the rabbit has been used by nature – it goes back into the cycle. Actually only the maggot phase was a little bit disgusting, but it just smelled like dog food. Anyway, I had this obsessive determination to carry on with the project, and to photograph the rabbit until it was gone. There was actually no reason why I should photograph it for 100 days, it was pretty much done after 3-4 weeks, but I didn't know how to stop, either. I felt kind of familiar with it after a while, like with anything else that one does on a daily basis.

Where did you find the rabbit, and the other animals that you photographed? Was it a controlled environment to make sure that nothing interfered with the process?

I bought the rabbit (actually two rabbits, the other one is a video piece) from a high-end Parisian restaurant. I protected the rabbits by covering them with a rabbit net and heavy weights, which I would remove when taking the photo and placed it back after.

In Italy, where I photographed the smaller animals decomposing, the cats of the town provided me with a steady supply of rodents. With them, I took more of a risk and did not use a heavy net but lighter protection, which was not sufficient – half of the animals got eaten or taken by something before they fully decomposed.

Your previous works Milky Way, Leftovers and Removals also dealt with biological matters and the disgust that we feel about it. Were these works somehow a prelude to White Rabbit Fever?

They're definitely related and they have to do with almost the same themes, disgust and fascination. My work relates to Julia Kristeva's concept of the ‘Abject’, something that questions the limits of your own body and your own identity in a way. Take for example hair: it's really nice to touch when it's attached to someone's head, but the moment it's off, it becomes garbage and suddenly it's disgusting. So, where are the boundaries? Kids for example are not disgusted by faeces, parents have to teach them not to play with it, and surgeons are not disgusted by the insides of a human being, either because they just never were disgusted or because they learned how to not be disgusted. We learn and unlearn disgust.

In addition to the decomposing rabbit, the series also has microscopic images of cancer cells, which you emphasise are immortal. Tell us more about those.

Yes, the series features photographs of immortal cancer cells. Most human cells can divide up to 40 to 60 times, because every time a cell divides, part of the genetic material gets shorter, and when it becomes too short the cell cannot divide anymore. But in cancer cells, there is an active enzyme that re-builds the shortened part every time, so there's no limit – cancer cells can divide forever (provided they have the nutrients and the living space).

And in another part of the project, a sequence of bottles shows the growth of some specific cancer cell lines. These cells originated from humans, right?

Right. In particular, they come from an American woman named Henrietta Lacks, who died in 1951, but her cells are still alive and continuously grown in laboratories worldwide, cell division after cell division, decade after decade. Her cells – named HeLa cells – have been grown extensively and even sent into space. The scientists call HeLa cells “the weed of laboratories”, because it very easily contaminates and takes over other cell lines.

I also photographed the Pa-Ju cell line, which is from a Finnish teenager who died in 1983. This cell line I have maybe documented the most as it originates from the neural crest which makes it especially interesting looking. And another cell line I photographed is the Us-Ki, which originates from a Finnish patient who died in 2009.

What is it that we see happening in the sequence of bottles?

The sequence shows 10 days of HeLa cells growing in a laboratory, fed by nutrient fluid. This fluid is pH sensitive, which gives it the bright pink color. The more the cells grow and divide, the more they produce cell waste, which makes the liquid more acidic, changing the pH and therefore also the color from pinkish to yellowish. The blue circle on the bottle is a mark I made, to find the same cells that I was following with a microscope.

How do these two ideas work together, the decomposition and the immortality?

Time is what combines all these elements. With the rabbit we can see decay, we see that parts of it stop being rabbit and kind of melt into nature. Simply put, this series asks at what exact point does the life of a creature end? At what point in time does the rabbit body cease to be a rabbit body – or we can no longer observe that it exists – or it can be considered that it has become something else.

Meanwhile, with the immortal cells, we have to consider the question: if part of Henrietta Lacks is still alive, eternally growing, what is immortality and what does it mean? Where do we draw the line between alive and dead? They are both entwined in the same question.

How did you handle the issue of disgust yourself, as you were working on the series, both photographically and as an individual?

A strange thing happens: when there's the camera in between, I feel no disgust, because I'm focused on the visuals, how it looks. Even when I was taking the pictures of the Removals series, which showed cut-out cancers and amputations, the camera was a filter for me, and my whole attention was dedicated to the visuals and the images I wanted to achieve.

Disgust is such an interesting issue to me, it says something about who we are, and where are our limits. It also has to do with relationships: we seem to be disgusted by semen or other bodily fluids but in an intimate relationship, we're definitely not. The boundaries are not clear, the same as with life and death, and that's what interests me: the boundaries seem so strong but they reveal their ambiguity if you start analysing certain instances.

Like the instance of Henrietta Lacks and her HeLa cells?

Exactly. Is she still ‘alive’? Because her DNA (although mutated) is still in every HeLa cell.

At which exact point does a human die? There is not just one definition of death, but many: biological death, clinical death, brain death... The borders are ambiguous and they can be moved and they have been moved. The definition is only found in lines that we as people draw on a timeline, but in reality that timeline possibly connects all life.

And if there are many definitions for what is meant by ‘death’, there are also many for life, too. The dictionary says it’s “the period of time when a person is alive.” If we look at HeLa cells, they are still alive, still endlessly replicating, and will surpass all life expectancies. So... is Henrietta Lacks alive?

White Rabbit Fever will be exhibited at Matèria Gallery in Rome from Jan 14 - Feb 23, 2017, and at Photographic Centre Peri in Turku, Finland from June 16 - July 9, 2017. Maija Tammi is represented by East Wing Gallery.