Close your eyes and think of a falafel shop. What do you see? Dafna Maimon’s staging of one such business, the focal point of her solo exhibition at Kim? in Riga, would most likely tick many of your boxes. A name that brings to mind exciting, far-flung locations: check; plastic furniture: check; an earthy, Mediterranean colour scheme and handwritten pricelists on neon paper: check and check. But this installation – Family Business: Orient Express (2018) – wasn’t created from an amalgamation of clichés about Middle-Eastern dining; it’s actually a faithful replica of Helsinki’s first kebab and falafel restaurant, opened in 1985 by Maimon’s Israel-born father.
Whether this makes either the installation or the restaurant more ‘authentic’ is debatable. In Orient Express (2014), showing in the adjoining room, Maimon presents a looped 1986 video advertisement for the eponymous restaurant, to which she has added English-language subtitles that change with each viewing. From the featured music to the restaurant’s interior design, it becomes clear that the artist’s father utilized his own perceived exoticism in order to market kebabs to Finland. But when it comes to food, what is authenticity, anyway? What we think of as ‘traditional Middle-Eastern cuisine’ varies from nation to nation and region to region. As migrant communities fit the food of their birthplace to the palates of their new customers, provenance becomes tricky to ascertain.
This was evident at the opening, during which four employees activated the installation by carrying out a series of scripted actions for over two and a half hours (Power Failure, 2018). In previous iterations of this performance (at Galerie Wedding, Berlin, and Lilith Performance Studio, Malmö), audience members could trade memories for falafel, circumnavigating the capitalist intention of the original Orient Express. At Kim?, there was no such exchange. Instead, employees did as little as possible: they filled in crosswords, fell asleep, very occasionally chopped vegetables and answered the phone. As a former waitress, these petty attempts at reclaiming time were entertainingly familiar, but other details were baffling. A Latvian acquaintance explained to me that the performers were drinking Tarhun, a tarragon-flavoured soda popular with Russians (the largest ethnic minority in Latvia) and therefore available in every kebab shop in the city. The performers’ compulsive habit of eating sunflower seeds and spitting the shells onto the floor is, apparently, also a common sight in Russian-frequented fast food joints. Through the inclusion of what the exhibition material calls ‘local stories and characters’, the artist’s replication of a family memory becomes mixed with experiences specific to the Baltic states, conflating the microhistory of her father’s migration and subsequent influence upon Finland with the macrohistory of Russian influence upon post-Soviet countries such as Latvia.
A press release suggests that Power Failure is intended as a ‘re-imagining’ of its characters’ pasts, but the cyclical nature of the performance – in which the workers eventually begin to repeat their actions – suggests that these figures are unable to break away from the Western stereotype of the dour, put upon post-Soviet citizen. But there are small moments of rebellion, as when, in response to a lone male performer complaining that he’s hungry, the female performers each reply with a curt: ‘ask her.’ The journalist Agata Pyzik has written extensively on the sexism aimed at Eastern European women who, she argues, are ‘forced to act out the supposed inferiority of socialist society – silent, meek and feeble-minded’. This is one stereotype from which Maimon’s strong-willed characters are spared.
Dafna Maimon's Family Business: Power Failure runs at Kim?, Riga until 20 May.
Main image: Dafna Maimon, Family Business: Orient Express, 2018, installation view, Kim?, Riga. Courtesy: the artist and Kim?, Riga; photograph: Ansis Starks
First published in Issue 196