Brooklyn based Mavi Phillips, 28, is a multidisciplinary artist and storyteller working in photography, film, and performance. She seamlessly weaves themes of sexuality, transcendence, the female gaze, and spirituality through documentations of herself and her surroundings, creating ethnographic and visually striking works. Her recent films Pluck and the Mirror that Fell to Earth, as well as ongoing text and photography projects, are a visceral collection of images and narrative. 
You just released a trailer for Pluck. What is the film about?
Pluck is the prelude to the feature Echo, which is about a girl traveling through Europe searching for answers to spirituality and sexuality. In Pluck the characters find that sex doesn’t have to be a sort of big thing, and they find comfort in the people they meet along the way. My films are very symbolic and have referential labyrinths. All my work is looking at relationships of sex, spirituality and transcendence, and how they interrelate. Our cultural obsession with sex and spirituality is us looking to transcend ourselves. Often we go on these journeys to discover who we are, and when we get confused we look in the realms of sex and spirituality, whether it is romantic or having a higher meaning to life.
Your films feature a lot of juxtaposition of the intimate versus the physical, the personal versus the carnal.
A lot of my work is about what makes us so-called “civilized and modern” and living correctly within the boundaries of society versus being primal and natural. Julie Kristeva writes a lot about this matter in her book The Power of Horror. When a body is alive it is subject, it is a part of life, it is fine; but when it is dead it is something that is abject. Abject is death and piss and shit. It’s a thin line.
An obsession of mine is meat and how we are so disconnected from our primal selves. It reflects in female sexuality, which I think is still taboo in our society. It is not really allowed to exist. Same for sex: it is something that we do, it is something that we need; but we put it in this box, and if we see it, it is not ok.
What is the line between primal sex and intimacy for you?
I think often in our society we lose base on eroticism in terms of sex. It becomes something very formulaic rather than something that is very sensual and a part of life. I don’t think that it necessarily has to be hungry, carnage sex, but more of that concept of our primal natural selves and listening to them. Society has developed these rules about controlling our primal instincts and making them not ok, and I feel like that is where our anxiety comes from.
I am really into the sacredness of sex. It is a spiritual place and we are searching for this transcendental, existential void within ourselves that we try to fill. We don’t know what this yearning is for, and our western society tells us to deny it. I feel like this is something that is not talked about for women, and that is why I make films – I want to tell stories about women.
What does sex and eroticism mean to you?
I feel like I am not supposed to have those sexual desires. I have always felt that in our society if you have sexual desires and you fulfill those, then you are considered a slut; or if you are someone who is the opposite, then you are judged for being a prude.
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What reactions have you received to your work?
I hate when people say my films are sexploitations, because for me sex is a part of life. It’s living and breathing, it’s 90% of what we think about, how we dress, what we watch, how we interact with other people, whether we are looking for a mate and dressing attractively. It’s such a part of ourselves, for the majority in our advertisements, it’s what sells us products and saturates our lives. But then you make a movie about sex and it becomes this outlandish thing, which I don’t understand because we were made from sex – it is a quintessential thing of who we are!
How do you feel about women’s portrayal in media?
My body and me as a woman are used to sell these products and to capitalize on things. In films we are sexual objects and we are on billboards, but if we ever advertise our own sexuality then we have fallen from grace. In television you are allowed to show a woman cut from her upper arm to her diaphragm, so you can basically cut out a woman’s vagina from her body and you can show that on screen, but you can’t show the real thing. It’s crazy how much violence we can show on screen, but god forbid we show a love scene. What would the world be like if we weren’t showing violence but people loving each other instead?
In your series of photographing male nudes, are you trying to counteract all of the focus of the female nude in history?
Basically, yes, and trying to create the female gaze that I feel like has not been developed in our society. Also to create the erotic female gaze, and to see what that would look like.
“Sex is something that we do, it is something that we need; but we put it in a box and if we see it, it is not ok.”
Would you say your other recent film, The Mirror that Fell to Earth, filmed during the Busójárás Festival in Mohacs (Hungary), is more of an ethnographic work?
I look at all of my work as ethnographic. When I was a little girl I wanted to be an archaeologist so I have always been reading about other cultures and far off places. My films get really heavy and really theoretical. I have a unique way of looking at things because I want to find universal traits and to overcome this idea of otherness, so that’s why I’m interested in making more documentary films and finding places where we can relate to each other.
This film started as being part of my feature film Echo. The story is based on Pan and his nymphs and is filmed during a fertility festival. People have been very angry watching this film saying it was a man’s ritual and asking what’s my part being there. But being with those people wasn’t about men or women, it was about being free and open. There was just this openness about sex. Hungary is a religious country, so everyone is going to church and mass, but then debauchery is happening outside.
What are your two new photo and text pieces Argh. You have a vagina like your mom! Sorry and Did you leave the oven on? an exploration of?
These pieces allow me to engage with the world, that’s why I consider all of my work ethnographic. I am always studying what’s around me and trying to find a way to depict that. A lot of my text is based on conversations with my family, conversations that I have, people overheard on the street, and also dreams.
The texts in these works span from sounding like conversations to memories.
I want to show the multi faceted layers by which we live, that there is no sort of reality. When we are siting here talking we are also having dialogues in our heads, and something we’ll say will make us think of a memory of this weekend, or this time when I was younger, or what I have to do tomorrow, and it’s this factor of these two selves that exist simultaneously that interests me.
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How do the dreams come in? Dreams are just a parallel universe with another set of rules, right?
I am interested in our dream life not being real, what makes that not our reality. It’s this idea that our dream life is as much of a reality as our waking life: it shapes us dealing with issues, and sometimes our dreams escape into our waking life and affect how we react in the real world. So I try to question this notion that there are these boundaries of what is real and what is not.
Do you see a difference between your fine art and fashion work?
I try not to define myself in any realm because my work is about challenging storytelling, so I look at it as live action portraits and try to find honest ways of exploring people, ideas, subject matters, clothes, etc. I feel like there have been times when fashion felt like selling out, but then I realized that clothes are not the enemy; clothes are what we need as part of our society and they are something that help us express ourselves.
Who are your inspirations?
One of my biggest inspirations is Luis Buñuel, he was a surrealist Spanish filmmaker who made a lot of films in France, and he did these psychological journeys that shift between dream and waking life. I’m also really inspired by Alejandro Jodorwosky and magical realism. So Pluck is an exploration of female sexuality. You have the older female with the gigolo, and the woman guarding the forest is a real prostitute who ended up being the best actress in the film. I wanted to beautify her and give her strength. I took her and she became this magical creature, this opening gate, this shamanist character who opened this world. I hope people look at her and ask a lot of questions.
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