Catching up with Issue 15 guest editor Maja Daniels

Maja Daniels, “On the Silence of Myth” at Galleri Format in Malmö by Maja Daniels, courtesy of the artist.

We’re featuring what our Issue 15 guest editors have been up to since the issue was released at Paris Photo in November 2022. Each of our 50 guest editors on the issue selected an image by an artist from our international open call to feature in a spread next to an image of their own in Issue 15. To see their work in the issue order your copy. Our guest editor Maja Daniels’ work stems from a commitment to the present, as well as an interest in how the image affects us as individuals and society. Her solo show “On the Silence of Myth” at Galleri Format in Malmö, Sweden will be on view as part of the Copenhagen Photo Festival 2023 until June 11th.

Der Greif: Could you tell us about the inspiration behind your exhibition “On the Silence of Myth” and how it connects to the story of Gertrud Svensdotter and the Swedish witch trials?

Maja Daniels: The inspiration behind this exhibition (and my work in general) stems from my interest in how the photographic image – still and moving - can be used to highlight and evoke the strong but mainly invisible ties between history and the present. The way a historic event is represented shapes how we read and understand contemporary life so when I engage with the connection between photography and myth, my aim is to challenge and reconfigure the boundaries of the world as we traditionally know it. The series uses the history and myth surrounding the 12-year-old girl Gertrud Svensdotter from Älvdalen as a starting point. In 1668 she was accused of having walked on water. This event became the ignition of the Swedish witch-hunts; a period of mass hysteria and horror in Älvdalen and its neighbouring regions. Today, it is both fascinating and difficult to understand how a 12-year-old girl could come to play such a central role in one of Sweden's most macabre historical events. Her fate raises many questions.

Der Greif: How do you see the relationship between myths and photographs, particularly in terms of their ability to convey unseen or silent associations?

Maja Daniels: A myth can be used to make sense of the world and oral traditions are often based on myths and folklore as a way of learning and sharing, but these myths exist within the boundaries of the unspoken. They are open to interpretations but refuse to be fully locked down or understood. In some ways, they are resisting. Photographs function in a similar way. The core of what is expressed in an image lies somewhere in the unseen or in its silent associations. Therefore, the myth and the photograph have a powerful, but also dangerous potential in their trickster way of silently stating something. What I try to do in this series is to play with these notions by allowing them to join forces; I use photography and moving images as tools for mythmaking.

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Maja Daniels, “On the Silence of Myth” at Galleri Format in Malmö by Maja Daniels, courtesy of the artist.

Der Greif: In your exhibition, you mention creating new myths that draw on elements of existing ones. Can you elaborate on this approach and how it expands and challenges historical constructs?

Maja Daniels: My aim when using photography to create these historically inspired, contemporary myths is to embrace the surrealist desire to ‘reenchant the world’ and by doing so, to highlight how deeply engrained and dependent we are on finding new ways beyond the dominant (capitalist) worldview (and means of production) to envision new ways of being in this world. For example, our way of understanding what we might lose when speaking about climate change and threats to the environment is broader than its environmental impact; the forest is also a holder of memory, language, history, mysticism and imagination. I want to use photography as a space that opens up for other readings and worldviews. To me, photography is a magical space that can challenge established knowledge and make time collapse.

Der Greif: Could you discuss the significance of resurrecting the world in which Gertrud lived on new terms? What do you hope to achieve by revisiting this historical period?

Maja Daniels: I do not wish to revisit the historical period; I wish to allow for Gertrud’s destiny to haunt our present as a way of pointing out that time and history tend to have a cyclical way of repeating itself and that many of the underlying conflicts that ended up causing the witch hunts in the 17th century are equally prevalent in today’s society. By engaging with the myths related to the ignition of the witch-hunts and creating a personal response to them in a contemporary setting, I construct an alternative world that, I hope, can provoke thoughts about how the dominant narrative (religion and ideology) has shaped our understanding of history and thus, also of the present. I see this work as a story of resistance that connects the past with the future and opens a door (of many) to another world (of many).

Der Greif: Your artistic practice incorporates various mediums such as photography, sound, moving image, and archive materials. How do you navigate and combine these different elements to create a multi-layered narrative in your work?

Maja Daniels: I see each element as a different tool that I can employ in different ways depending on the space I present it within. Making a book or an exhibition require different ways of treating my source materials.

Der Greif: Can you talk about the role of sociological methodology in your artistic practice? How does it inform and shape the way you approach and explore your subjects?

Maja Daniels: The sociological methodology consists of doing research, engaging in participant observation etc. but my aim is never to mimic the creation of some sort of ‘science’; it is just naturally my starting point that I tend to deviate from when I begin to produce work. The most important sociological aspect to my work, in my opinion, is that I want to use it as a basis upon which we can have conversations about contemporary life and how images are used to navigate and understand it.

Der Greif: As an artist, what is the importance of narrative and performance in your work? How do these elements contribute to the overall experience for the viewers of your exhibition?

Maja Daniels: Contrary to a film that has a beginning and an end, the photograph exists within a space that is difficult to define. Photographic expressions are not all about truth, indexicality, documentation or representation but also about that instinctive moment that draws us in, that makes us start pulling images together, where we begin to feel a story emerge. When we know little about what is going on in a photograph we start filling the gaps using our own experiences, memories and fantasies and this – I believe - is the key to understand the power of photography and what it can do to us. I am interested in the world-building that happens in those between spaces. There is a narrative and performative potential there that suggests things whilst also resisting transparency and clarity. I set my intentions and framework for the work to be laid out within, but at the same time, it remains fully open for interpretation. In the exhibition space, I extend the gaps further by combining a photographic series with a sculptural installation piece and two short films.

Der Greif: Being part of the Copenhagen Photo Festival 2023, what do you think this exhibition contributes to the larger dialogue in contemporary photography? How does it fit into the broader context of your artistic career?

Maja Daniels: Photography and film seem to affect me the most when the balance between revealing and concealing are really pushed and experimented with. For me, it is not just about what a photograph shows or represents but what it does. Instead of just thinking of photography in relation to representation and to the passage of time and death, it can also be seen as a vital process of life-making. In this exhibition, I have taken an inscription found in a forest pasture (Svartbodarna) in Älvdalen from the time of the witch-hunts and made coins with the symbol. Visitors are invited to discover the coins in the black box standing next to the exhibition’s centrepiece: a large water well. With its blank surface, it refers to the myth about Gertrud but it can also become a wishing well if the visitors choose to offer the coin into it. In this process, we create a new way of relating to a historically loaded symbol. This time we charge it with wishes and hope and that, I believe, is a positive, slightly surreal, performative action.