Maija Tammi questions what it means to be human

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Employing an AI robot and a tiny freshwater animal as her subjects, Tammi investigates the liminal space between life and death

Finnish photographer Maija Tammi is obsessed with mortality. Not her own, necessarily, but the idea of it. “Sometimes I think I have picked up a new theme, but then look back at the work and find that I have returned to life, death and its boundaries,” she says. “It must be a subconscious thing because I don’t intend to tackle it with every project I do.”

Try as she might, Tammi’s most recent projects, One of Them Is A Human and Immortal’s Birthday, do just that. The first, which is showing at Belfast Photo Festival this summer, is a set of photos of geminoids: hyper-lifelike robots created by Japanese inventor Hiroshi Ishiguro.

The series was made in 2016 while on a residency in Osaka, Japan. The following year, Tammi entered one of the images, a photo of a robot named Erica, into the Taylor Wessing portrait competition at the National Portrait Gallery. To her surprise, the mischievous, speculative entry was eventually shortlisted, sparking a flurry of debate around the definition of “a living sitter”: one of its key criteria.

“The androids do not pass as humans on video or face-to-face, but photography as a medium has the power to make us doubt,” she says. “One could ask if the photographs are portraits or still life – nature morte in French. It goes to show that ‘alive’ and ‘dead’ are slippery definitions when you start looking into them.”

Maija Tammi: Party Animal, 2020. (Archival pigment print, framed,130 × 119 cm)

The more recent Immortal’s Birthday, meanwhile, features a tiny freshwater animal called the hydra, which first exhibited in Helsinki last year. The creature, identified in the 18th century, is named after the serpent monster from Greek mythology which regrows two heads each time one is cut off.

But the real-life hydra’s regenerative ability is even more impressive: cut off a small piece of tissue and an entire creature can regrow from it in just a few days. In recent years, the hydra has again caught the attention of scientists because it does not appear to age. In theory, it could be immortal.

The works – slow moving videos and often beautiful, still renderings of the polyp taken under the microscope – are coupled with images of floating human hands and feet adopting similar poses. “Spending enough time with the subjects makes one develop a relationship with them,” Tammi says. “What very quickly follows is anthropomorphising.”

“If a limb is amputated what is it?” she continues. “When something is attached to the body, such as hair, nails or a limb, it is a beautiful living thing. But as soon as it separates it is disgusting. With the hydra you don’t have that – it regenerates when part is cut off.”

Maija Tammi: Example 1 of a very quickly aging species. 2017–2020. (Diasec, light box, 62 × 82 × 45 cm)
Maija Tammi: Example 1 of moderately quickly aging species. 2017–2020. (Diasec, light box, 62 × 82 × 45 cm)

And yet, the works in Immortal’s Birthday are not without an element of light relief. One piece, called Party Animal, plays on the organism’s spindly, tentacular form, showing scores of hydra throwing dance-like shapes against a black background. 

“I like the idea that a viewer might first be intrigued by the playfulness, then realise that they are pondering the much heavier theme of life and death,” Tammi says. “And although I find it fascinating, it is challenging to make other people interested in a tiny water animal; it is a jellyfish that looks like a fork and moves very slowly. But combined with a human element, it comes alive.”

Ostensibly, Tammi’s two subjects could scarcely be more different. One is an inanimate machine, the other a tiny organism whose defining characteristic is its ability to stay alive. But the common ground between them – the grey area between life, death, and what it is to be human – is what Tammi seems compelled to explore.

One of Them Is A Human by Maija Tammi is on show at Belfast Photo Festival until 30 June 2021.