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An art performance prompts a frank conversation about mums, gods & nihilism

Daniela Lalita and Hayett Belarbi McCarthy let us sit in on a fascinating conversation that occurred due to a one-off ‘disruptive’ performance in New York

Late last year, New York-based, Peru-born artist, musician, and model, Daniela Lalita, draped nine artists, actors, and models in sculptural costumes that she created and asked them to perform a series of archetypes inspired by the work of Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung. It was titled Madre: A Disruptive Environment, billed as a disruption of “the conventional relationship between musician and audience”, and choreographed by Remy Maelen. Model Hayett Belarbi McCarthy was there, watching on in awe as a film played before the archetypes smashed through a screen and set about moving around the space and eventually circling the audience. Belarbi McCarthy left New York’s The Aula with “all of my senses twitching”, and after running into Lalita the following week, the pair organised to sit down and talk about the performance... but ended up riffing on everything from mums to magic, nihilism, and the afterlife.

Hayett Belarbi McCarthy: Will the performance be recreated or was it a once-off?

Daniela Lalita: It would be hard to say because what I want to privilege is the experience itself – not prostitute it. Time and space are only meant to exist within a specific moment. The reason why the performance will not be repeated is that it imitates life: nothing repeats itself twice. It was something that was planned so intricately. It wasn’t just an immersive bubble, people were detaching themselves and were given a sense of how division means union.

Hayett Belarbi McCarthy: Agreed, we can tailor every moment, be everywhere, follow and watch people’s story on Instagram in order to cure our FOMO, but the truth is; whoever was at the show was, and whoever wasn’t, wasn’t – and that is that.

Hayett Belarbi McCarthy: The White Monster (character), I heard that was your mother in the performance.

Daniela Lalita: In the video that played, I impersonated this ‘creature’’, but my mum took its place or “wore its skin” the day of the performance. The first time I became the monster, I had a little bit of wine to let loose. I think intoxicating yourself gets you deeper into the unconscious, closer to the ‘evil that resides within you’.

We are so caught up with immediate experience that we are unable to recognise what is truly within us, or beyond us. There’s a lot in this project that has to do with psychology. For instance, these archetypes I created are characters that I think anyone can easily associate themselves with.

I was highly influenced by Carl Jung’s book Four Archetypes, specifically the mother archetype. For instance, when you take Polytheist religions or Greek mythology, each god resides in a specific place and has a specific goal within that specific mythology and one way or another we all seem to feel identified with them since they all have human characteristics about themselves. I was also very interested in Jung’s take on the human’s need for mythology.

“People say God is Love. God, a bit like the Great Mother, gives you life, but also tortures you while experiencing it” – Daniela Lalita

Hayett Belarbi McCarthy: The performance starts with a film on a screen that gets ripped by your characters who come out and stand and interact with the audience, in a way, is this not breaking the myth by personifying them?

Daniela Lalita: It’s more like opening this other world, another dimension, where these otherworldly beings reside.

These characters all come out of the screen from another dimension, from a greater mother’s womb, sort of like opening the pouch in which they all experience life. I was thinking a lot about “La Pachamama”, a goddess from Incan mythology. “La Pachamama” is the earth/time mother. She is the force that creates and destroys.

The world needs this cycle to function, it depends on this dynamic of give and take, push and pull, of opposites residing in the same place. So the mother is that.

There’s also this overarching thing. People say God is Love. God, a bit like the Great Mother, gives you life, but also tortures you while experiencing it. Creating and destroying the experience at the same time. My take on it is that I see this “motor” or force that is pushing people. Its dynamic is similar to the nature of motherhood.

Hayett Belarbi McCarthy: You’ve got a very specific way of seeing motherhood, don't you?

Daniela Lalita: I’m so interested in anthropology, maybe because I still don’t understand myself or my mother. Why do we procreate? Why do we have sex? There’s a contradiction, I feel, some things are going outwards and others inwards. If you demoralise the term ‘narcissism’, you realise that being a mother is probably the most narcissistic thing one can do: you replicate yourself, you’re extending your cycle in someone else’s. Humans are inherently selfish. What is altruism or selflessness? If not one acting upon one’s understanding of the welfare of others and how one is participating in that.

Hayett Belarbi McCarthy: Speaking of altruism, I sometimes struggle to understand why some artists or musicians feel the need to show others their work since it makes sense to them, and they are content with it. Why do you do it? Do you seek validation?

Daniela Lalita: I seek validation as a form of affirming myself, affirming what I do. I think we all seek validation while experiencing human interaction – it’s inevitable. But I also show my work to share and to feel. For myself to feel and for others to feel; to enhance the experience. I also share to understand. Validation is simply what is obvious to the eye – what is behind it can be incredibly powerful.  

Hayett Belarbi McCarthy: We all like, in some ways, to be nurtured and looked after. I’m very divided. Sometimes I enjoy someone else’s compliment or validation of my work: they have elements of comparisons by having seen other things leading them to conclude that what I am delivering is objectively good. But there’s no such as ‘objectively good’, in art at least.

Daniela Lalita: That’s linked to something I’m deeply interested in: “good” and “evil”. They’re just terms.

Hayett Belarbi McCarthy: According to social standards, there is “good” and “evil”. We are social beings. If a majority has established something is good, then it is good.

Daniela Lalita: It’s a tricky one for me; if you’re anti-social or nihilistic does it make you evil?

Hayett Belarbi McCarthy: Coming back to motherhood. Some scientists say you can’t use the term ‘instinct’ which is only for animals. A drive that cannot be altered it’s innate, deep-rooted. (Reads definition) “Instincts are inborn complex patterns of behavior that exist in most members of the species, and should be distinguished from reflexes, which are simple responses of an organism to a specific stimulus, such as the contraction of the pupil in response to bright light or the spasmodic movement of the lower leg”. Do you believe in instincts? Maternal instincts?

Daniela Lalita: Yes I do. Maybe it’s what originates feelings; the battle between rationalisation and introspective consciousness – or impulsiveness.

Hayett Belarbi McCarthy: But those ‘human instincts’ could be because of behavioral patterns linked to memory and experience. Animals have an instinctive drive that is just innate.

Daniela Lalita: We do have instincts. Some things aren’t physical or chemical. We can’t grasp them but we can acknowledge them.

Humans have more intuition than instinct. I also think humans love to see themselves as gods; omnipresent, omnipotent beings.

Hayett Belarbi McCarthy: Do you believe in holistic and/or greater beings, spirits? I’m so pragmatic yet I can feel people’s auras, colours, and energies strongly.

Daniela Lalita: Yes. I also believe in magic. There’s something divine within and around us. Jung would talk about the “Collective Unconscious”, which refers to the structures of the unconscious mind, and how we are able to access it through dreams, as portals.

“If you’re anti-social or nihilistic does it make you evil?” – Daniela Lalita

Hayett Belarbi McCarthy: Voltaire was a Deist – he didn't believe in God per se but in a supreme force. I’d say I’m that. Do you believe in luck, algorithms, randomness?

Daniela Lalita: Yeah I do. My mother said I was born with three stars on my face, lucky. I’m a soft determinist – I understand free will but sprinkled with fate.

Hayett Belarbi McCarthy: Interesting, like that game ‘connect-the-dots’, you could start anywhere really as the dots are numbered, the picture will be the same in the end. (With the performance) Did you plan for characters to push the audience out, for both to interact?

Daniela Lalita: No, it was not planned. They were pushing them out to make way for other characters to come out. We weren’t expecting that many people to come!

Hayett Belarbi McCarthy: That’s life; an improvisation.

Are you scared of death?

Daniela Lalita: Yeah, I am. It’s impossible not to be. I’m not a hero to say otherwise. What happens afterwards? Does the sun eat your soul? Does the soul recycle into another form of energy? Do we reincarnate into another body? My father has taught me so much about his view on the subject.  

Hayett Belarbi McCarthy: I think it’s better to be scared of death. One wouldn’t value life so much if one knew there’d be an afterlife as a cool squirrel in the sun or whatever. This is your one chance! Don't take your life for granted.

Daniela Lalita: I’m not sure why but I want to get so much out of life. It’s important for me to make people feel something. Sometimes experience feels so cold. Sometimes I think ‘This is not enough!’

Hayett Belarbi McCarthy: Your performance has so much mixed media, music, film, costumes, and actors. It’s confusing the audience, because in this day and age people have very linear minds, tailoring everything, singular moments, and themselves through social media.

Daniela Lalita: Morton Subotnick, my mentor and teacher, is an incredibly well recognised electronic music pioneer, he invented the Buchla (a modular synthesiser) and taught me how to use it. In order to compose with the Buchla, he told me to stop thinking about meanings in general as isolated or defined terms. Studying music technology helped me create my own environment. When you go to a concert, there’s this singular experience of devotion, such as in fashion. All these forms of expression seem exclusive. Why divide and classify? It was initially used linguistically to help us communicate with each other but now seems to have separated us from each other. Girl; boy; white; black, I want it to merge.

Hayett Belarbi McCarthy: Agreed. I detest the terms “feminist’’, ‘‘all girl’’, “all female’’.

It’s sexist and, to me, it paradoxically creates more of a gap between men and women. Being ‘strong’ or ‘independent’ should be personality traits. Same goes for the stigma around cultural appropriation. To me, it creates more of a division. I’m about cultural appreciation. Anyways, I think Plato once said ‘What I know…’ (both in unison): ‘Is that I don't know’.

It’s beautiful, it gives me hope that it’s okay to be unsure. I’m scared of ever being jaded. However, my pragmatic nihilistic side comes out sometimes muttering “Society sucks! Look at these phoneys!’’ and a second later I’m like ‘’Phwoar! Would you look at this flower, look at this light!’’ I think happiness should be cultivated, do you believe in that too?

Daniela Lalita: I’m scared of becoming jaded too. People in my life told me to always believe, to just keep believing in the magic. It never ends.

An afternote From Hayett: Cause and effect make it so that Daniela probably wouldn't have exploited some points and said such things if my intonation and body language were different. This is a conversation, an algorithm of our body languages, intonations, looks, and fragrance that resulted in this: a snippet of life that we are both sharing with you.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length