What's it like to get hounded by the cops and wear horse hoofs on your feet? Only Iris Schieferstein could give us all the details. She's the Berlin-based artist behind some of the animal shoes we featured in last week's issue, and just as entertaining to speak to as her work is to look at. Schieferstein's warm character contrasts really well with the stark taxidermy she produces, and we caught up with her to talk roadkill, animal rights protesters and making custom-fit shoes for Lady Gaga.
We see you have a background in sculpture at the Weissensse college of art. When did your interest start to cross over into taxidermy?
Well, I made my first taxidermy choice was in 1990. I went for fish and placed them together in glass. Next I used chickens and then roadkill. That's how I got started because I was always really fascinated by dead things. I got a bit disillusioned with using manmade materials for sculpture and just thought 'why not use what is already there? It's easier, and it's more fantastic.' I wondered why I should build something that looks similar but isn't real. So I just used dead animals.
Where do you get your animals from?
Like I said, I used animals that were already dead. And people don't really think about dead animals that much, they just see them as garbage. Well, that's what I thought anyway. It turns out the law in Germany is different [laughs].
In what way?
Well, it's illegal to pick up dead animals from the street. They're protected by law. It's an old law that nobody really knows about. I mean, how can you come to the conclusion that something already dead is protected by the government? They say that if you use things for art and show them, or sell them, it's forbidden.
So what happened next?
[Laughing] Well, the police came and observed me for about eight days straight. When I'd take my kids to kindergarten and drop them off, they'd be there. They then wanted to take ownership and protection of all my work and it became a big issue. That was about four or five years ago, but since then I've been restricted to only using animals people can hunt and eat, or keep as domesticated pets. It's not that easy here!
So now how do you find legal ways to get the animals you use?
Well, I can go to the butchers now. It's still difficult because they don't really supply that many whole animals. It's all chopped up pieces of meat that could be labelled as anything, you know? When I go to source from farmers they always think I'm stupid, or just weird. "You want that with the head on??". It's very funny.
Well if you've already had issues with the cops, how have animal rights groups reacted to your work? What do you think people find shocking about it?
I've had a few issues with animal rights people, yes. I had a studio in the centre of Berlin and people from animal protection groups would come and protest. I decided to invite them in and sit down to have a real discussion about what I do. I told them the animals were dead or dying naturally, and by the end they were thinking in a new way.
When you work with something dead, people automatically start to think about life. At the end of the day, when you see dead animals in an exhibitoin you'll start thinking about how people use animals, in food, in fashion, as political subjects. It's a positive aspect of my work to make people think, at least for me (she laughs).
How do you feel your work adds a human element of character to animals? Would you agree that your work incorporates some intense anthropomorphism?
I mean, in terms of human relationships with animals I think we really need to reconsider how we use them. I feel as though I use animals as characters, which does link to a lot of eighteenth century depictions of animal life. In terms of fashion, people are happy to buy things like crocodile skin bags, but they freak out when you show them a dead animal that they might feel closer to. It makes people think about animals in a way that makes them uncomfortable, which I like [she giggles].
How do you feel people react to domesticated animals versus those they would eat?
The response is totally different. When I used a dog, people were freaking out like 'How can you use a dog?? Or a cat??". But then when I use pigs or sheep people don't seem that disturbed. They have more feelings for the domesticated animals, but in the end they actually rely more on the pigs and cows they eat than the cute ones they care for. I mean when I made my dog with the wings, it says something different when you're standing in front of it, than when it's sensationalised in the press or whatever.
Which have been some of your favourite installations and catalogues from the last few years? Life Can Be So Nice particularly attracted media attention (where Iris combined various animals into new species in poses that spell the title of the Prince song - see the 'be' section above). What did you anticipate from audience reactions to it?
I like to have the audience as close as possible to my work without having them touch it. I try in every exhibition to have the animals spaced out away from each other but close to the viewer. I think it's important that people get in touch with art and start to attach feeling to it. The way people react to art fluxes depending on what's happening in the world too.
Ok, we have to talk about the horse hoof shoes. They raised a lot of interest on our site last week. Have you worn them yourself?
Yes, I have worn them. I can safely say you feel a little more like a horse when you do (laughing)! Plenty of people thought it was really sick, but I just said "why not?". I mean, they get killed and if we can make leather shoes using cows why not use a horse's hoof? People always panic when they see something new.
So have you had commissioned pairs designed for others? Or do you just prefer to trot around in them yourself?
Well, I was asked to make some for Lady Gaga. It was a whole lot of work because I had an exhibition to run in Holland. I had no choice but to just work on them on the train and people were looking at me like 'what the HELL is she doing??'. I had my entire seating area to myself. I had to keep trying them on, since she's a size bigger than me, and that really freaked people out.
Where does your inspiration for sewing and melding different animals together come from? What would be your ideal creature to make, from the depths of your imagination?
I don't have that much time during the day, as a single working mum with two kids, so my dreams inspire my work. That's sort of the only time and way I can think about my work. I see different things in my mind, and ask myself why no-one's done it before.
Since I'm a sculptor, the animals I put together are crafted in my mind. It makes sense to me how they would fit together, and it's just a special process I guess. It's hard to explain, especially in English! But I see each animal as something that still has faith even though it's dead.
I used to work with cadavers with medical students when I was at art school, and from there I learned that even dead animals can retain character in their faces. Even in death, character is still there.
Milk and Lead gallery are currently showing Iris Schieferstein's work in Shoreditch. Check out more of her creations on her site here.