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  • Hannah Hightman


Photos via Mothmeister, Writing by Hannah Hightman

There’s a strange kind of comfort in watching your worst nightmares come to life, and nobody knows this better than Belgian art photography duo Mothmeister. Mothmeister’s photographs of masked figures in barren, unnerving landscapes often feature taxidermy creatures that look like an extension of the figure themselves. These characters have their own stories and their own mythology attached to them. As visually arresting as Mothmeister’s work is, I still take solace in it, because it displays a world of dreams, where the creatures of your subconscious come to life and welcome you into their demonic paradise. When you were a kid, didn’t you ever look under your bed secretly hoping to find a monster? We want proof that magic is real, that there is something beyond ordinary life

Whenever I look at a Mothmeister photo, I feel strangely disquieted, not just because the subject matter is intended to get under your skin, but because there is a mystifying humanness to the monsters that they create. They’re presented very matter of factly– not necessarily in a deliberately scary way. They stand in front of the viewer in a non confrontational manner, though they are not exactly welcoming either. They seem to say, “You wanted to see us, so here we are.”

Where do you find the taxidermy pieces you use in your photos? Are there any taxidermists that you regularly work with?

We've always had a weak spot for taxidermy and have been collecting stuffed animals for more than twenty years now. We source them at flea markets, antique and thrift stores, second hand shops and what not. On top of this nonstop treasure hunting we do collaborate with taxidermists from all over the world like Adele Morse, Hannah Matthews and Simon Wilson to name a few UK based taxidermists. Most of the pieces we own are not mothers finest to put things mildly but at the same that is what makes them so special. Because of their soul. Their flaws. Their quirky appearance. Their crooked legs. Their missing teeth. Or their bad hair day.

Do you have a favorite taxidermy piece in your collection? Or could you talk about a few of your favorites?

We do have a weak spot for our so-called Stoned Fox that we bought from Adele Morse. You're probably familiar with his story. If not, Google it. He's a real character to say the least. There's something human about his expression and posture that makes him so otherworldly, adorable, quirky, intriguing, .... difficult to put this into words. It was an instant crush for sure. We once went to this taxidermy studio in Dendermonde (Belgium) to check out some pieces. The taxidermist himself died and his two daughters wanted to get rid of all the pieces that were still left behind. Cause you know, they hated what pop did. In their opinion it was gross. Cruel. Hideous. Once we saw the pets he stuffed, we could understand why they were that shocked. From some animals one couldn't even tell what species it was. It was all just terrible. Imagine you have lived for years with your lovely charming cat, you decided to have it stuffed and you entered this shop to pick up your dear loved one. That must be as painful as the loss of the animal itself. This guy was definitely not the most talented taxidermist. But that's what made these animals even more photogenic. So yeah, we kinda filled the trunk of our car with some rather unusual species.

What do you see as the value in creating eerie art?

There's this saying: if you don't fit into this world, create your own. That fits our psyche like a glove. Our Dark & Dystopian Fairy Tale universe is our nirvana, our idyllic place. It's our way of escaping from reality. From mankind. Hence why it probably comes across as eerie. For us, it's our natural habitat. Our comfort zone. We don't fantasize. We just share what's inside. Because, keeping it in is not an option. As long as we evoke an emotion, whether it's love or hate or anything in between, it's ok. If people would be indifferent to our work, then it would be completely useless.

Do you have a favorite fairy tale to draw inspiration from? Are there any other literary works that influence your photographs?

Since our childhood we've always been intrigued by the macabre. The darker side of life. Here in Western Europe we grew up listening to these legendary Grimms' Fairy Tales that actually have pretty dark and murky origins. Cannibalism, torture and other heinous crimes... but we tend to keep kids in an elusive state by serving only the happy-candy-Disney tales. And take them to a land where magic tastes as sweet as candy and fairies dance with us. Apart from that.... haunting folklore stories, legends, myths and all that also spark our imagination.

How do you decide which taxidermy pieces would suit which characters/stories?

We both work very intuitively. By our instinct. Before we create, we store our gray matter in this big jar of formalin so we make sure there's no ration involved in our work. Cause if you think, you want to explain things. And that's the complete opposite of what we want. Same goes for picking our animals. There's no specific reason to hold an antique, scruffy monkey if you wear a mask made of human skin and look like a morbid monk. Or to comfort a ballerina racoon with a pink tutu if you look like you're dead. But if it feels right, then it's a no brainer. In other words, we go by our gut.

What's the most unsettling location that you've visited?

As urban explorers and thanatourists we love to explore abandoned settings and places that have gone through rough waters. These settings not only trigger our Wanderlust and adrenaline but also inspire. Even though these soils are often barren, bone dry or even toxic it’s a very fertile ground. Picking our most favorite location is a tough one. So let's narrow them down to our top three. First up, Chernobyl for obvious reasons. The scene is so unsettling that it's almost unfathomable. The scars that are shaped by this historical and environmental catastrophe are so massive. There's this incredible contrast between the toxic, nuclear contamination and wildlife that has returned to the exclusion zone. It has become an unexpected haven for wildlife.

Secondly, Epecuen in Argentina. Once a thriving resort in the farmlands of Argentina, southwest of Buenos Aires, Epecuen spent decades submerged under water after a saltwater lake flooded the region, back in 2013. All homes were drowned under nearly 33 feet of corrosive saltwater. The water that has covered the village for decades has mostly receded, exposing what looks like a scene from the end of the world. The smell is horrible. But what a photogenic location. T

hirdly, probably White Island: an active stratovolcano island in New Zealand. Once you make landfall you're in this ticking time bomb scenario where every second counts. Wearing hard hats to protect yourself from possible rocks flying through the air and gas masks cause you're confronted with corrosive sulfur dioxide, deadly hydrogen sulfide and superheated steam. Definitely challenging. Both physically and mentally. The fatal eruption back in 2019 shows how tricky this visit was. We didn't shoot a Mothmeister character at Chernobyl or White Island, but we absorbed the atmosphere and the spirit of the places and took it back home in our memory, where it started to grow into a character.

I've noticed in a few of your photos the taxidermy pieces are also wearing costumes/accessories. Do you make these?

It's no surprise that we got inspired by the Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter, known for his anthropomorphic dioramas featuring mounted animals mimicking human life. The species that he dressed up became icons of Victorian whimsy. So yeah, he's been a muse ever since we knew about him. We consider our dead critters as characters as well. By giving them costumes, we create a connection between the animal and the character. It looks like they belong to each other. As we are hoarders we have plenty of stuff to fool around with in terms of styling.

When and why did you decide to incorporate taxidermy into your photos?

It all started with our taxidermy collection. We've been keeping an indoor zoo for years. And wanted to share it. But instead of just sharing snapshots we decided to bring the animals alive so to say in a fairy tale like universe. What we do is paying tribute to the dead animals. If taxidermy would not exist, all of these animals would have been gone. Perished. Forgotten. Or would end up in dog food. We think taxidermy is a more respectful way to 'deal' with critters.

How did you develop your signature photographic style? How has your work changed over the years?

Even though each image - and thus character - is different, we treat them as if they are part of the same family. That's probably what defines our signature photographic style: the eerie backdrops, the morbid and unnerving characters, the desaturated colors, the heavy clouds, the layered richness in styling, the slightly uncomfortable combination of both animal and character and the tenderness towards the animal. Our characters are always in their own bubble. They will never pose to shock. Nor stare into the camera.We want to go beyond the gimmick. The gore.

Why do you choose to remain anonymous?

The universe we create is far more important than the people behind the mask. It's not about playing hard to get or to be arrogant. On the contrary. Our ego has the size of half a bullet ant. The focus should be on our work. Not on our identity.

What eras in history do you take inspiration from?

The Victorian era, we're especially intrigued by the way they dealt with death and mourning rituals.They surely loved the macabre. It was the age of post-mortem photography, the taxidermy of Walter Potter, grave robbing, Jack the Ripper, the first horror novels etc... so basically a really dark and fucked up time.

You’ve mentioned before that you get inspiration from your dreams/nightmares. What’s the strangest dream you’ve ever had?

Well the two strangest dreams unfortunately didn't lead to the creation of a character...

one involved a completely silent white room with a white ping pong ball constantly bouncing from one wall to the other. A horrible void! That dream kept reoccuring every night for months. No kidding. But never got to know what it meant. It felt like a nonstop hypnotherapy session. Such a claustrophobic mindfuck.The other was more nightmarish, like a psychological paranormal horror movie and it contained being possessed by some invisible demon with evil forces, throwing me in the air, slapping me around, totally terrorizing me while my voice was gone and I couldn't scream for help. I woke up totally in panic, with a heart pounding and sweating like a pig. It's often this kind of 'underneath-the-skin' horror-injection that seeps into our veins. And in our pictures. We don't show it explicitly (like in a gory way), but it's in a more hidden way.

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