Way back in 2018, when the world wasn’t turned upside down with a pandemic and we could go and see the wonders of life, I managed to catch an exhibition by Mothmeister held in London. Excitedly I rushed home and wrote about them, as I was so in awe and inspired by their work. I had been lucky enough to have a chat and share a few drinkies with them. So when I saw they had a new book coming out, I dropped them a message asking if I could write about it when it was available – they in return asked if I would like an interview! Well, I was absolutely honoured that two people whose work I adore would take the time out of their hectic schedule to let me ask them a few questions as well as write about their extraordinary new book.
If you haven’t heard of, or seen the work of Mothmeister before, they have been described as
” two artistic soulmates based in Belgium…”
That doesn’t really cover it. They have created a dark illusion of a world, where characters from dreams/nightmares interject into the vast and bleak surroundings of some of the most hostile and beautiful environments. There is an amazing juxtaposition between the modern world and their homage to the Victorian tropes of post-mortem photography, obsession with taxidermy, costumes and masks. There is also an insatiable wanderlust that drives their work to new levels, utlisiting locations from Scotland to New Zealand, Iceland to Chernobyl.
Their first book, is one that I have pawed over in the comfort of Curiosities from the Fifth Corner (as this book is now super hard to get a hold of) where you can also see some of the amazing taxidermy pieces that have been used. “Weird and Wonderful Post-Mortem Fairytales” gives an intriguing glance into the dark world where life and death crosses paths, and ever the ever evolving Mothmeister looks at modern thoughts on taxidermy and the journey it has taken from being idolised, to something that became damned through trophy hunters, and now is becoming more popular again as taxidermists choose to work with animals which have died rather than been hunted. They look at the controversy around masks and they instill a fear into our culture now rather than being the performance pieces that they were. They revel in the evolution of the clown, from the fun entertainer to the nightmare fuel that so many see them as today. There are some amazing collaborations and a photographic journal of their roadshow, which not only shows their beautifully grotesque characters, but also amazing photography of the landscapes which have inspired them.
There are very obvious themes that run through the two books, and “Dark and Dystopian Post-Mortem Fairytales” perhaps embraces them on a different level. Masks are so important to their work, as they discuss in their first book as they are the basis of anonymity in a world which is now watched over by CCTV and social media. Taking this to higher levels, they use a number of items that are made from human flesh, almost as the ultimate in character creation and trying on someone else’s skin.
The second book also pushes the limits with the surroundings in which their stories are created. Desolate shots of Chernobyl and The Salton Sea. Abandoned buildings and disused items from life accent the backdrop.
Before I get into more detail about the second book, let’s hear from Mothmeister themselves…About their new book, where their name came from and much, much more.
First things first, your new book is out… What was the most exciting part of putting together this new book?
When our first book was released we decided it wouldn’t be our last one. Fairly soon we knew which direction we would go. More authentic. Darker. More intense. We started to collaborate more and more with other artists from all over the world which is not only very inspiring, but also makes our Post-Mortem Fairy Tale Universe more authentic. Cause every single piece we borrow or buy from other artists is a ‘pièce unique’. There’s only one whereas for our first book we created a lot of characters with stuff we shopped online.
Narrowing down our selection of images and doing the research for our second book took quite some time. The most exciting part is the actual putting together of the book. But as we work pretty organically and intuitively we wanted our book to evoke the same approach. It jump from one thing into another instead of having real chapters. We approached it very associatively. Every image responds to the previous one in some kind of way.
The writing of the book also was a time consuming process but we wanted to do it all ourselves. DIY Punk attitude you know. Writing, art direction, photography….
As religion and death are two main themes that intrigue us and influenced Mothmeister a lot, we wanted our second book to look a bit like a bible. Hence the golden pages and reading ribbon.
In the meanwhile our generous friends of the Portland based industrial collective Dead Animal Assembly Plant (DAAP) reached out to us. As they created a soundscape for our previous book they wanted to write soundtracks that made our book even more immersive. So we shared a couple of pictures to brief them. And took it from there. They did an amazing job. These sonar landscapes definitely lift the book to another level. There are many underlying layers in each track that refer to pictures/places in our book. From the actual evacuation message from Chernobyl to the letter that cannibal Albert Fish wrote to the mother of one of his victims Grace Budd. DAAP did a stellar job. We love them. And are eternally grateful.
How did you come up with the name Mothmeister?
As our characters are morphing non-stop we wanted our alter ego to embody this endless metamorphosis. When it comes to animals, moths undergo drastic changes throughout their life-cycle so we thought that would fit our creative dna like a glove. Moths are also the unloved night version of butterflies.
We’ve always been fascinated by folklore urban myths. Stories like the Mothman certainly inspired us and partly gave Mothmeister its name. We love these kind of half human, half animal creatures. They’ve been around since the beginning of times. It is quite striking that the Mothman is seen all around the world, just before a major disaster strikes, like he’s some kind of
the messenger or omen.
We decided to give it a little twist by adding ‘Meister’. It all just sounds great. And as ‘meister’ meets ‘master’ we’re the master of moths. Masters of the metamorphosis.
I am aware that you travel to some extreme locations for shoots – where has been your favourite and why? What has been the most terrifying experience while you were traveling?
The thanatourist (tourism involving travel to sites associated with death and suffering) travel bug definitely bit us many times. Exploring places that are associated with death (cemeteries, cryptes), tragedy (war memorials, abandoned prisons, hospitals, etc.) or disasters (Chernobyl, Aral Sea) is very intoxicating. It triggers a bunch of things. Our adrenaline rush. Our inspiration. Our lust for life.
We usually don’t shoot MM characters at these thanatos locations, because it’s too dangerous or disrespectful, but we absorb the atmosphere and the soul of the place and it might inspire us to some characters later on. For example: we didn’t shoot a character in the radioactive ghost town of Chernobyl, which was quite surreal and haunting, but there were defo some characters born there.
Our travel lust often takes us to places where (natural) danger is around the corner. Whether it’s an active volcano, a vast desolate desert in the scorching sun, a toxic wasteland or a flooded ghost town. This adrenaline you get is simply addictive. These kind of backdrops also add so much drama to the shot and makes every image much more intense. In these places we do on-the-spot character shoots, no matter what the physical or environmental challenges.
We love to shoot in Iceland, but it’s always a battle against mother nature, who always seems to be in a frenzy over there. We’ve escaped a few terrifying moments on the road, while driving through blinding blizzard whiteouts, into the eerie void or being blasted off the road by hurricane force winds that made waterfalls even go upwards!…
We once did a shoot at Reynisfjara, the black lava beach on the South Coast of Iceland during another storm. We were sandblasted, could barely stand up straight in the torturing wind and it was freezing cold. And then suddenly out of nowhere came this killer wave…
Each year people drown or are smashed to pieces on the sharp rocks. One of those monstrous sneaker waves of ice cold water suddenly hit the beach like a freight train. One of us was dressed in a l4 meter long dress and masked and we had to run for our lives. Our backpack with camera gear got sucked into the ocean. Game over for that photoshoot.
It seems like we love to challenge our fate. A couple of weeks after we crossed Mount Tongariro in New Zealand the big volcano erupted. Same for the White Island Volcano. That one also erupted killing 21 people shortly after we visited.
You use some amazing pieces of taxidermy and costuming for your shoots. Are these all your own? Where do you find such interesting stuff?
Our vast taxidermy collection grew over the years. We have a weak spot for the misfits. The shabby ones. Because they add so much more soul than perfect, gracious looking critters. Most of them we find at flea markets, antique shops or second hand online stores. Throughout the years we do have a network of taxidermists we collaborate with. If we can afford it, we buy
the pieces but if not, we simply borrow them.
Same goes for our costumes. We are first class hoarders. Our place is piled up with all kinds of curiosities, costumes, masks and what not. Like a Kienholz-cave crammed with all kinds of so-called junk and oddities. As most of the costumes date back from the Victorian era or kinda,
they smell like even more pungent than a bloated dead whale. But hey, they look great. That said, of course we also collaborate with other artists from all over the world and borrow pieces. Whether it’s a headpiece, mask, costume, …. So we don’t own them all. Unfortunately not.
Some people just ship stuff and tell us to keep it. One day we got a dried pig head with Russian Prison Tattoos all over its face, shipped from Canada. Pretty awesome piece.
Where do you draw your influences and inspiration from?
There’s a whole line-up of artists that have had an impact on what Mothmeister is today.
First up, obviously Walter Potter has influenced our work as he started dressing up animals for his mindblowing and storytelling dioramas. All of a sudden the animals were given this fairy tale like role. These dead critters seemed to come alive again. Potter has definitely inspired that part of Mothmeister.
We probably inherited our often eclectic styling from Edward Kienholz, the American installation artist and assemblage sculptor. Like no other he brought things together that aren’t meant to be together, creating this alienating universe of recycled objects, all kinds of junk, figures cast from life and taxidermy. His visual imagery is not only very intriguing. But it
was a huge inspiration for us when we decorated our home.
That said, of course there are many artists we collaborate with over the past years. People from all over the world: taxidermists, headpiece designers, mask sculptors, costume designers,… their magic has contributed so much to what Mothmeister is today. It’s a huge compliment if artists reach out and ask to collaborate, but it also goes the other way around. When we come across a piece and have this coup de foudre we ask whether the artists wants to collaborate. It’s like oxygen to a fire.
Finally, what is coming up on the horizon for you? Are there places that you would love to shoot in, but haven’t made it there yet?
Mars is still on our bucket list. As well as Kazachstan. Kamchatka. The more remote, the more eerie. The more uncomfortable. The more we love it. It’s as simple as that. But as we are facing this travel ban, we’ll have to hold our horses. Time will tell when the sky will clear up again.
Before Corona put the world upside down our plan was to go on tour with our book and have another immersive show in LA, Portland, London and maybe Berlin. But with these pandemic numbers going up and down like a rollercoaster going berserk that plan turned out to be wishful thinking.
Luckily we are both doers. Eager beavers. Always enough on our plate. Pretty ambitious plans but as they are still confidential, we can’t share it yet. We’re also collaborating with quite a few music bands. Some of them are big, epic names. But you guys will need to wait for the summer before we share what this chemistry brought alive.
The book is available here if you want to purchase yourself a copy, and I can say that it is a purchase that you will not regret. From the moment I got my copy I was mesmerised with it. This is a large, coffee table artbook and you are met with the skeletal faced white figure holding a dove, the ultimate image of death in peace. It is stood in front of a body of water, reminding me of the river styx. This is just the start of something so overwhelmingly beautiful. The gold edged pages made me feel like I was entering a religious text, and as I flick through the pages I am astounded by the photographs in front of me.
What I don’t want to do is ruin the book for anyone who is about to buy it, but I do was to talk about this picture, as it is one of my favourites in the book.
This is a collaboration piece with Agathe Dupire, who created the mask. Accompanying this photo is a written piece:-
“Somewhere, in a big, dark, deep cave. They are the ones unfit for society, the twisted, sadistic minds who perpetrated horrible crimes. That’s why they are far from the real world, in a place where no grass grows, no bird sings, and no sky is seen.
That’s why they can’t speak, but have to see, listen and feel. They don’t that the right to express themselves, they are only tools dealing with human trash; condemned to haunt this dead, cold place. All dancing together, entering a state of trance for a silent ballet. Sometimes, the degenerates come from above, hanging from chains. They slowly descend, until their feet touch the triangle heads of the Shamans, who obsessively continue to dance.
Then the silence is broken by the suffering humans rejected by society. Those who didn’t die and are able to stand, become shamans who will die of hunger, and will be replace, and so on, and so on…until the end of time.“
The story is so vivid in imagery that you can almost feel the dance of the creature in the picture. Its eyes held open by the wire and nails on the triangular structure on its head; its mouth stitched shut, this is something that will now witness suffering from now until its death. Holding a head of a hyena, symbolic of stupidity and treachery, the indication of why this being has met this fate. It is adorned with the pelts and tails of other creatures who have also died, while all it can do is follow its ritual and await its own demise.
The background is stark, nothing to see or feel, and the piece highly sells the feeling that the rituals of this being is to deliver the outcasts from one spiritual plane to another. This creature strikes an element of fear into me as I look at it.
This almost juxtaposes what I imagine a shamen to be, as I consider it to be a healer, rather than a bringer of death, but this could be my consideration of what it means to heal. In the text we can see that the beast is there only to move those outcast to the next world if they haven’t died through the hanging chained punishment. I image many are trampled to death while the shamans are in their trance like dance. Those who are able to stand becoming the unfeeling deliverers to the other side, until they finally die of hungar.
The mask looks haggard with eyes that have not seen anything human in a long time. It is so dramatic and essential to the telling of this story.
Before I read the text, I was so drawn to this piece, presenting an image of what I would consider to be a mystical being, from the garland of bog wood around its next, to the accessories of animals which can assist in the spiritual transition, the composition is perfection in its execution.
If you would like to follow Mothmeister, you can find them on instagram @mothmeister.
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