Some time last year, Iris Schieferstein was on a train to Poland, cobbling together a pair of hoof heels for Lady Gaga.
“It was on a trip to Poznań for a solo exhibition,” recalls Iris. “One of Lady Gaga’s stylists had requested a pair of shoes for her to wear to the MTV Video Music Awards in Los Angeles. I told them I did not have enough time, but they really insisted. So I had no choice but to make them on the train. This really caught people’s attention, and I took up an entire seating area! Just when I was about finished, the stylist told me the size must be 39—I had done them in 38.”
In the end, it was the US Customs that stood between Lady Gaga and her hoof heels. “They didn’t allow them into the country because of the smell of the freshly tanned leather. They thought the pieces were contaminated,” explains Iris, who honestly appears like she couldn’t care less. “I really don’t mind who wears my pieces. I am an artist not a shoemaker.”
You mentioned being fascinated with cemeteries and dead bodies even as a child. What was your first encounter with these kind of things?
My first encounter with a dead human was in a hospital, where my mother used to work, when I was seven years old. There was a middle-aged woman lying in bed, who told me to kill the insect above her. It was something between a spider and a fly, and I remember saying that those insects don’t bite, so why should I kill it? She told me if I had been there all day, I would know that they do bite. These were her last words. I felt really bad and guilty to have argued with her, like if I had done what she told me, she would be alive. The first dead animal I saw was my pet flying hamster, which tried to escape out window. But we used to live on the seventh floor.
My father studied architecture, but he was more of a designer than an architect.
He altered every home appliance—there was not even a lamp or car that was still the same. He used to work for industrial designer Luigi Colani. I often visited him at work, and Colani liked me very much. He would draw with me and take me for rides in his incredible cars, like his Rolls Royce and his Lamborghini Countach, which was the fastest car during the 70s—it was so loud you had to wear headphones! I felt free to do whatever I wanted in his estate. I also saw how they worked and the many art materials they had.
Dalí’s Dancing Teeth
My father was also fascinated by the art of Salvador Dalí, which was absolutely frowned upon in Germany then. So even though our family didn’t have much money, we drove to Spain every year. One time, when we were close by Dalí’s home, he came out and fell on his knees in front of me. He was talking about something in Catalan, which I did not understand. He was opening his mouth and his teeth were changing places! For me, he was just a strange man with a special beard—I did not even know that he was Dali. And I still do not know how he made his teeth dance.
When my parents got divorced, I had to go to my grandparent’s place in Lich. My life changed completely because my grandfather was a priest and was ashamed that I was not a Christian. So I had to read the Bible, sing in church every Saturday, and pray with them. Because I spent over one year with them, I got a deep look into Christian art.
Her First Dead Pieces
Although I was making sculptures since childhood, my first pieces in Weißensee were deformed men and animal fragments. Then, I started using dead animals, first fish and then chickens. I thought, ‘It does not make sense to build something that looks similar, but is not real. Why not use what’s already there?’ So I started collecting things off the street.
In 1990, I began learning taxidermy on my own. I was inspired by David Lynch, Jean- Honoré Fragonard, and Peter Greenaway. The school did not understand what I was doing. The first time I showed a professor, he nearly passed out. But when they saw my final work exhibited, they changed their minds.
Why She Loves Berlin
I studied art in a very good school in Kassel. After a while, though, I felt a need to move, and one of my teachers, Harry Kramer, told me to go to Berlin and look at a group called “End Art”. Berlin was fascinating— the Berlin Wall, the underground culture, the nowhere land between West and East. Two weeks after I moved, the Wall was broken down and I was able to visit the art school Kunsthochschule Weißensee, where I took up sculpting. The East Side of Berlin had plenty of parties, art shows, happenings, performances, and a touch of wildness. Not like a freak show, more like a free place. Everybody could try anything he or she had in mind.
What I still like in this city? The green places, the mixture of people, and how nobody cares what you are wearing.
I use animals as I find them and give them a special character. Every animal is different—how they smell, how they used to live, and so on. It is like reading a book.
The anatomy must be done very carefully so they look like natural creatures, even though they are not. It is like the fairytales or the Reineke Fuchs from Goethe, where animals have a human character, but at the same time, you know they are animals. The border is not clearly seen, and that’s the magic. When people see the animals, they might start thinking about the human race—how humans treat others. We’re the only race that’s killing itself.
Brush with the German Law
When I started, I did not know that it is forbidden to use road kill in Germany. You can go to jail for six years for what I did. But how could one know something dead is protected by the government? It was like a crime story on television, something good for a Kafka story. The police came knocking on my door, wanting to take possession of all my work. They observed me for almost eight days. That was a strange feeling—you don’t know someone is following you, but you can feel it. You get paranoid. Now, I can only use animals people hunt, eat, or keep as domesticated pets. I’ve been going to the butchers a lot.
I like Head 4 very much because she looks like Medusa.
Medusa was not dangerous before Athena made her into a freak so ugly that she turned any man who looked her in the eye into stone— all because Medusa was more beautiful. To look someone in their eyes is to get an idea of their personality, a little bit like reading a book. Nobody could read Medusa’s personality anymore, she was like a machine. But she also tells us a lot about man’s world, sexuality, and relationships.
You seem pretty cool about an art form people might get squeamish about. Did it take some getting used to?
Do they? Working with animals is an old tradition, even the Egyptians made animal mummies. Of course, in different forms, but it’s not unusual. It’s not really all that shocking because you see animals everywhere—what you eat, what you wear… it’s all animal.
Her Daily Routine
I usually get up at 6 o´clock to make breakfast for my children. Then, I drive to my studio in the countryside, where I tend to our two horses and work as long as I can. Normally, I have to be home at 4 or 5 o´clock to do the usual housework, like every mother does— washing, cooking, checking the mail… there’s not much time for restlessness. My two children are 13 and 11 years old. Usually, they love the art I make, but sometimes, they tell me that it’s too sexual.