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TH3MAX, on the aestheticisation of pain

Interview by Živa Brglez

Mask series
Mask series, M1N0TAUR&TH3MAX

In the world of all kinds of alienations, in the world of spectacles, where everything that was directly lived is now merely represented in the distance as once put by Guy Debord, few people and not many artists among them are struggling for the authentic, for the Real. Surely, one of them is Siberian-born and Tel Aviv-Yafo-based artist Th3Max.

Th3Max is an independent artist who focuses on various kinds of materiality. Using several techniques, media and artists’ strategies, she engages in curiosity-based artistic and cultural research. She materialises her work in various art forms – documentation, performance, photography and live art.

Her work’s two most visible characteristics are the use of unusual materials and derivation from her innate world and memories. Personal experience is a vantage point for all of her works. No wonder she has been through a lot. Really – a lot. From caring for her dying single-parent mother and then her abusive aunt to multiple cases of psychological, physical and sexual violence. At 21, she escaped and moved to Israel, where she later started to reflect on childhood, on self, on pain, and on life in general, and she did in through art. For Th3Max, art is therapeutic. It is something that is her strength, an act of collecting herself in a ‘uni-form’.

She is traversing the painful and beautiful by yielding her personal poetics in her work. Or, death and beauty, as is the case with her Medusa projects, where with the use of technology and light, she wanted to give jellyfish beauty, present in their death, as it was never present in life.

It was all about making them human-accessible, almost human-like, as was especially evident with Bloody/Bleedingnature, a work where she painted jellyfish carcasses bloody-red. It’s all about blurring the lines: between life and death, gruesome and beautiful, animal and human. Sometimes she even identifies as a jellyfish herself: boneless, limbless, brainless, as Oded Levy wrote about her work Reflections/NotMyOwn.

The rest of her work is even more entangled with autopoietic. Pain map is a very striking example of it. The idea for the work was born from the artist’s long history of self-harm and her wish to end it – but first, to transfer it.

She photographed her body, especially the scars, and grew artificial skin. On it, she reconstructed the scars and finally reconstructed the cuts – using her own blood, as she wanted the reconstruction to look real, to reflect the actual pain level. Pain maps thus became a story about the aestheticisation of pain and its artistic purpose, a therapeutic one.

Another interesting thing about Pain Map is its mode of production. She grew the skin out of fungi, the same ones found in Kombucha tea, a healthy beverage made out of sweetened green or black tea combined with proper bacteria and yeast.

Kombucha was also used to produce Masks with thorns, blood and flowers. Th3Max made bloody skulls with those materials, firstly a double, then two single portraits. Again, the initial thrust for the work came from the artist’s intimate sphere. It’s about a relationship between her and her loved one. Firstly, expressed as an endless dualism, where each skull-faced an opposite direction but stayed connected and then, secondly, they became separated, each of its own kind, each with its own autonomy. Moreover, Masks are not only a break-up song but also tells a story of metamorphosis.

Th3Max’s practice is thus extreme in various ways. Not despite it – but because of it – her work produces various surplus values, which are feeding off tensions between gruesome and alluring, between pain and beauty.

(Element/17, series PA1N MAP/TOTAL R3CALL)
Element/17 series, PA1N MAP/TOTAL R3CALL

You are an artist focusing on materiality (i.e., you use unusual materials such as blood or jellyfish carcases) who uses multiple art forms, including documentation, performance, photography and live art. For those unfamiliar with your background, could you tell us a bit about you and how and when the interest in these materials came out?

I am not really focused on the materials. I chose Organic ‘living’ materials which are due to a process of transformation, materials that keep on changing while I’m using them for my art, and forever on. I’m constantly searching (maybe not even knowingly) for such materials. It’s not just to find it. It is to get to know it, understand its life circle, and maybe even fill it with its existence.

Sometimes it takes some years to appreciate how I should use those kinds of Organic ‘living’ materials for my art. I studied jellyfish for 5 years, experimenting with their reaction to light, temperature, paints and human blood (not live jellyfish). During those years, I became so close to jellyfish as if I had become a jellyfish myself, which makes me able to use it for my art. Working with Kombucha is the same. 

You have to get to know it before using it. I spent 3 years just growing it, over and over again and tasting its reaction to other materials such as paint (food paint), organic ink, and blood. I also induce the Kombucha in several pattern-container to realise how to handle it. Kombucha – if you know her and have worked with her, you will fall in love with her. It is an internal and intimate process of nurturing and growing her, exploring her growth and purity.

When working with her, I am always surprised her behaviour is unexpected (a little like mine), and you cannot predict how she will respond or look. I love that feeling where materials are not slaves to the art. Rather, they are a part of the process, and they give art life. Everything around me is art, and art and life are inseparable. 

I also think using certain materials is guided by my need to stay authentic. Maybe that is why I don’t feel a connection to digital media (even though I used to practice hacking, I stopped over time as I’m not interested in it anymore). I have a passion for life, I want to touch everything and feel everything, but on the other hand, I find myself, sometimes, full, stuffed or overwhelmed.

The use of blood in my art comes from the need to be able to do whatever I want with myself without limitations. Art is the only platform where I can let my demons and disturbances come out and be expressed and exposed. This form of expression is one where they don’t bother me and one that does not hurt others. This manifestation is one of control. Using blood may appear chaotic, but it’s not. It’s very calculated. The use of blood was a temporary exploration.

I already feel the end of that era. I have explored my ability and control over the decision to draw with it. I think that behind the use of blood are the ideas that no one can stop me and no one can decide for me. Furthermore, blood also triggers and ignites me, which is true. It is a fire-like substance that symbolises Pain, Life and Death.

I could never do just one thing. To focus, I need to be spread and engage with a few different projects. That is the only way I can concentrate on them without feeling suffocated. I grew up without a routine and boundaries. In life, this type of upbringing is an obstacle, but when it comes to art, it has made me open to everything, ‘hungry’ for everything and comfortable without the need for definition.

As a child, I always knew what I had could easily disappear. I was part of the education system for a very short time and never In a regular and orderly fashion. I never felt like someone was responsible for me, and sometimes I had to be responsible for others. I have seen a lot of pain and death. Being able to create something beautiful out of that pain is something I have been doing all my life and something that has developed with my life experience.

In MINOTAUR&MAX PORTRAITS-MASKS, you use biomaterials like kombucha, fluids like true blood and gypsum, Ceiba speciosa Thorns and Ceiba speciosa Flowers. What is the intellectual process behind this project?

The intellectual process behind using Kombucha, thorns, blood, and flowers in this project was driven by the need to express the sharpness of a relationship between me and a loved one. I had the idea of a double portrait representing the endless dualism between us while expressing our desire to stay connected. I wanted to attach two skulls, each turning in a different direction (symbolising duality). 

At one point, it became clear and unequivocal that the skulls must be separated, each with its own autonomy, and so the project changed. I accepted the reality of our relationship (very, very not a simple process), and once I did that, the creation process was complete. These materials symbolise the effort I made in life, efforts of understanding and acceptance. Metamorphosis is the basic law of life. All things must always be in transformation as a moral way of living. Reincarnation, Resurrection. Accept that we (humans) are nothing but a small part of a greater food chain hierarchy. 

What do you want to bring to the audience that interacts with your work? 

Courage…No fear… Acceptance… Change… It depends on the project. I don’t have a uniform message for the viewer. I look at the ‘PAIN MAP’ project. It is a very clear message. It’s a story of growing out of trauma, the need to share, help others, and rise out of and deal with pain. I wanted to give a personal example of someone who came out of hell. It means a lot to me. 

As I said before, I tell a love story with the MASKS’ project. I speak of a process I’m still going through. I like to allow the viewer to take whatever she wants from all of that and maybe even give something back to me, share a new perspective. Who knows…?

What directions do you see taking your work into?

I never know where I’m going next with my art. I don’t plan, things happen naturally, and I always surprise myself (and others) with my work. Even when I try to plan, things never fall into place accordingly. When the process is so tightly connected to my soul and actual living experiences, the future cannot be predicted. I can’t tell the future. Therefore, I can’t tell what I will be doing next. Planning feels like faking sometimes, so I try to avoid it in life and art. Truth is my solid ground. Perhaps it’s the thing I was missing growing up.

How do you cope with creative desperation?

I don’t have a problem with creative desperation. Truly, I struggle more with creativity. But even if it happens, I wait until it passes. I let it run free for a while.

One for the road… What aren’t you afraid of?

I’m not afraid of the truth. I’m not afraid to love.

(Images courtesy of the artist)
On Key

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