By Gabriella Daris
I met German sculptor and taxidermy artist, Iris Schieferstein, at her studio—43km outside of Berlin, by the Langer See (Long Lake)—where I encountered giant freezers filled with carcases—major raw materials for the artist’s work.
Gabriella: How did you come up with the idea of creating, first the photographic work (2010) and then the sculpture (2013) entitled, Death and the Maiden? What do they represent and how does the feminine versus death manifest in this work?
Iris: There is a beautiful music composed by Schubert, String Quartet No. 14 “Death and the Maiden”, and the idea behind it is the beauty of the feminine, and the unknown and invisible creature called death, one which we will be following at some point in our life. Death is always like the dark side of the moon and it is also the dark side of our thoughts and of our life. And both versions of Death and the Maiden are about our thinking and being. It is a fascinating theme and a very old one as well. So I made different versions, each one with different intensions but they all represent the opposite sides such as life and death, beauty and the beast, day and night, summer and winter… The feminine part is usually the possibility to create life: following the steps of a young girl until she becomes a grown up woman and the changes she undergoes, from an innocent being to someone with taste of sexuality and brutality. A young female body is so soft and fragile, and it is so interesting for me to place it together with the opposite creature of death. Bones are edged, clear lines, prepared to carry a lot of weight, the weight of life. Bones are the remains, where you can reconstruct a creature. The skeleton is the past; a young girl is the future.
“Death is always like the dark side of the moon and it is also the dark side of our thoughts and of our life.”
Gabriella: How long did it take to produce the sculpture Death and the Maiden, and what is it made of?
Iris: I modelled it and made the mould in clay. The sculpture is made of A-crystal, gyps, plastic particles, marble powder and horns. It took 3 years to produce because I’ve done everything by myself. And during the production period, I was getting very sick, actually, at the same spot were Death comes out from the Maiden. That means that I am now quite close to a cyborg, with titanium incorporated in my back.
Gabriella: Tell me about your most renowned work, the series of shoes made from discarded animal feet.
Iris: The animal shoes are a mixture of sexuality and brutality, which are so close to each other, and they tell the same story, like the Death & the Maiden. War and the military are always interested in aerodynamics, in making things faster for example with the use of supersonic aircraft and bombs, and showing off power, the power caused by mass and sound. So in former times they used horses, these days they use technology intelligence. But when they want to show how powerful they are, they march on special historical days, like the Waffen-SS during World War II. They were well prepared by Hugo Boss, with these black coats and trousers, looking rather sexy and fearsome. The shoes may question how degenerate we were and we still are. Why are we using the symbols of animals? Is it for reasons of empowerment? Anyway, my series of shoes reflect elements of human history through the lens of fairy tales.
Gabriella: You made a hat embroidered with stuffed rats in 2013. Why is it called Thoughts?
Iris: Because the rats are jumping in and out of your head, like thoughts, and on the back of the head they are dark rats because of the dark thoughts.
Gabriella: What made you get into the art of taxidermy?
Iris: The love of the form, the love of animals, the love of nature.
Gabriella: Where do you source your dead animals and in which ways do you manipulate them in order to create new ideals of aesthetics?
Iris: In former times, from the street—the victims of the road—but these days, I take them from butchers and friends, as well as from breeders. We are the masters of our world and we are creators (society, medicine, research, politics, religion, etc.). I am a sculptor, and dead animals are the perfect raw material for my work, which symbolizes certain creatures, like humans.
“We are the masters of our world and we are creators (society, medicine, research, politics, religion, etc.). I am a sculptor, and dead animals are the perfect raw material for my work.”
Gabriella: I find the statement depicted in She thought… (2005) to be reminiscent of the expression “little death” (la petite mort), which suggests a likeness of the orgasm to the death experience.
Iris: Sex gives you the most intense feeling of your being and one that is a memento that you are a part of the cosmos. It is especially during sex that you feel alive.
Gabriella: I love the title, Underfucked Oversexed (2005). What does this work represent?
Iris: Underfucked Oversexed is one of my personal favourites. When we make love, we are animals. That does not mean that we cannot be tender. Animals can be tender to each other. We should not think that we are something else, more intelligent than animals as we have the same origin. And women should not be ashamed of their sexuality. It is an ironical statement about women’s emancipation and the male’s viewpoint.
Gabriella: What is All about religion or Adam & Eve (2017) about?
Iris: It’s a diptych consisting of two characters: a Pope and a Muslim woman clad in Burka. Even if they seem to be naked, they both wear clothes, which are transparent. Drawing from the fairy tale des Kaisers neue Kleider (The emperor´s new clothes), this work is all about religion and religion is a fiction; it is just an idea aiming at influencing peoples.
Gabriella: Tell me about your more recent work, the two versions of Cinderella (2013 and 2017), which are currently showing at the Virtual Shoe Museum exhibition at Schloss Lichtenwalde and in the exhibition Art Shoes, Odapark, Holland (until 29 October 2017) respectively.
Iris: The bleeding pair of shoes in Cinderella is a sign of all female life. That’s why I’ve chosen shoes commonly used by women all over the world, the “ballerinas.” The blood is dripping out from the shoes the whole time, non-stop, like in the fairy tale of Schneewitchen (Cinderella). The liquid, which looks like blood, is a mix of acrylic color with distilled water, totaling 3 litters. The reservoir inside the pedestal is circulated with a pump. With the bleeding used as a metaphor, my piece reflects the story of female oppression, destiny and punishment, i. e. if they get married to old men, if they cut their labia, if they have to build new homes post-war: women usually work harder, yet they are still second class peoples, “bleeding” during their whole life.
Gabriella: Would you say that your work is as much about death as it is about life?
Iris: No, it is more a celebration of the living than the dead. In life you can change things whereas death is a mystery, you never know what is hidden behind the curtain. But as long you can watch, you can change certain things.
“My piece reflects the story of female oppression, destiny and punishment, i. e. if they get married to old men, if they cut their labia, if they have to build new homes post-war: women usually work harder, yet they are still second class peoples, “bleeding” during their whole life.”
See more of Iris Schieferstein’s work on her website.
Gabriella Daris is an art and dance historian, curator, critic, essayist and scholar, as well as dancer and choreographer. She is the author of numerous magazine and journal articles, book chapters and research papers, and editor of exhibition catalogues and artist books. She holds a BA in History of Art and Literature, a post-graduate certificate in Dance Writing and Criticism and an MRes in Humanities and Cultural Studies from the University of London.