The Ancestral Body



Introduction and interview by Ulisses Carrilho
Photographs by Victor Nomoto
Tuesday, March 24 - 2015

Researcher of shamanism and son of orixá Oxumarê, Maikon K has in his repertoire expressions that naturally connect Vipassana meditation to a bodily spirituality. The artist merges the African religion of Candomblé and Kundalini energy in his research for performances that are deeply rooted in the body and informed by a kind of ancestral knowledge, ever-present like a genetic code. 

He came to SESC Pompeia from Curitiba, Paraná, and brought his plastic bubble – a giant structure installed in the exhibition space for his performances at Terra Comunal - MAI. He was selected by Paula Garcia, Lynsey Peisinger, and Marina Abramovic for MAI Presents, a section of the larger exhibition which includes eight individual artists and one performance collective, all of whom are Brazilian. Here, Maikon K talks about his work with writer and curator Ulisses Carrilho:

We're talking about immateriality, but primarily we’re talking about contemporary art. I always try to treat performances not as transcendental experiences, but as an opportunity to really understand the artistic process and, if possible, view the whole thing objectively.  Can you tell us what we’ll see in your performances?

The project I am presenting is called DNA of DAN. This project was born out of a name seven years ago. Within the African culture, Dan is one of the names given to the serpent. Translated from the Yoruba language, it’s the ancient snake. Part of my research is linked to shamanism. The serpent appears a few times in the path of shamanism as an animal of power and knowledge. Kundalini energy is a represented by a snake. The double-helix of DNA is shaped like a snake. "Dan" is an anagram of "DNA". I went through the initiation rituals of Candomblé, I’m a son of Oxumarê, a serpentine spirit which reflects a manifestation of the Gods. My research began at the intersection of science and ancient culture. Ancient wisdom points in the same direction as science.

I call DNA of Dan a "dance-installation.” I’m alone in a plastic structure, a bubble to be precise. This structure is transparent. It looks organic. It reminds me of a womb, a placenta, a jellyfish. At the same time, it is plastic and synthetic. I work inside it with my naked body. My process consists of going to the studio and working things out in my body, breathing. I access my ancestry using my body. It's nothing transcendental. I understand that the information is already there, as if it’s in my genetic code.

You mentioned the naked body, but there’s a very noticeable element in this work, which is the membrane over your skin. How did this skin-shedding happen?

Originally, I called an artist to help me think of an outfit for this performance, but it had to involve nudity. While researching the snake, we arrived at the shedding skin. We created a mixture of gelatin, water, and other elements that are poured and spread over my body. It’s quite simple, cooked over fire. It takes three hours for it to dry and I stand still during that time. This peel is very similar to plastic. I connect with my ancestry through movement, through this process of skin breaking down.  

Do you have certain expectations about the reactions of people watching you work? And how do you understand the public's relationship with this performance?

Imagine you’ve entered into a small room and can’t get out. Inside the room, there’s a snake. The viewers’ bodies react even though the snake doesn't move. There’s an expectation that it may move. There’s this tension of being in front of the strange. That's what interests me.

It makes me think of lurking, of waiting to strike. Those are ways of thinking about presence, something which is at the heart of all the performances here at the exhibition, and something constantly present in the work of Marina Abramovic.

What is the relationship between this performance and the idea of presence?

Marina was first introduced to my work while she was in Curitiba doing research for a film, which hasn’t been released yet. I was invited to present my work to her, which I did originally in the woods behind the Oscar Niemeyer Museum. I set up an entire structure that even had lights. I set up the plastic bubble in a clearing. After she watched me perform, she just said: the strongest thing in this work is the idea of presence.

What matters to her is that I work with energy [that flows] through the body. I stayed in my studio for a long time just thinking about my body and how others might receive this energy. My background is in theater, so I care a lot about the body. I always start from the body. A performance for me may be just a breathing body. Marina challenged me to do this performance without lights and without the sounds I used to play inside the bubble.

The foundation of this work lies in the relationship with the other. There are people who say that the strongest part of this piece is the way I look at them. I try not to imitate a snake – actually, I don't care if people don't make the connection with the animal. I usually do avoid mentioning the idea of the snake, even though it’s in the title [in Portuguese].

You start from the body and from plastic, which is a material, to talk about immateriality. Is this an artistic research process? What exactly is the process of experimenting with the body and the material?

This work is new to me. For a long time, it was just me dressed in a pair of pants without any materials. With this work, I felt the need to incorporate those elements, but they’re not conceptual; they’re always in relation to the body. That is their value. The plastic bubble becomes an environment, but it allows you to see what's inside. It’s a place that demands a certain intimacy, one that puts those who enter it directly in relation to me. I use certain materials to enhance relationships and emotions.

I'm not the artist who has a notebook full of ideas that are ready to run. I have two or three at most. I need to sweat a lot to get them running. It’s through the discipline of going to the studio everyday that I arrive at the performance itself. I set goals, like spending five hours in the studio for example, without really knowing what will happen in the research process. And it's not an easy process. There are days when I spend the whole time just breathing. There are days when I move around very, very much. And it eventually becomes a small movement in the performance.

You were first involved in theater, and then dance. When are they closely related to the work you do now and when do they drift away from the performance?

At 19, I had a spiritual awakening, a real rebirth. And that changed my work because my body had changed. It changed my way of feeling the world. I saw my hand grow. I saw my foot grow. When I talk about spirituality, I’m talking about a bodily experience. I started doing things my own way.

I have a view of the world that is very particular to me, it was always very exhausting making people believe in my ideas. I’m not a good actor, I can’t play a character very well. I always wanted to do my thing. For me, it’s difficult to work in a group, I don't always know what I want. My kind of theater has always been more performative.

Standing still is a need that came from the materials, but it’s also a decision that is fraught with meaning. What purpose does this immobility serve for you?

Exactly. It arose from the need to wait for the material to dry without moving, so this skin could form. But it created meaning. It starts off as a kind of makeup that needs time to dry, but as it dries, I have to change my breathing. There are body parts that expand when we breathe. I have to start breathing like a baby.

Immobility is something I've worked on through Vipassana meditation, but being still in front of others is different. I'm still, but I'm a body that is present. My body is already a symbol. I have to mobilize energy to change the space. Even when I’m still, I relate to the space. I open my whole body up to feel the space. I like the bizarre. I like to work with the strange. I like the grotesque. I like to create tension. Nature is bizarre. People romanticize nature, but it’s bizarre.  

Terra Comunal - MAI is free and open to the public until May 10, 2015 @SESC Pompeia, São Paulo - Brazil.