Some minds are cornucopias; sources of creative ephemera. Such is the case for artists and photographers Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick, a dream team bringing fairytales to life for the new millennium. They agreed to open up the Pandora’s Box of their creative process to share how the heck their fantastical worlds manifest themselves, and show why storytelling is more important now than ever…
“Our sources are vast,” Kahn told MessyNessy in an interview with his other half, “we are always trawling visual culture…we are [like a] very low-budget film studio making our own epic films without any motion, save for the occasional fragment seen inside a magical box or costumed figure in an installation.”
The fruits of such trawling are images both surreal and hyperreal, fantastic scenes from the Isle of Skye, or Cape Cod; a glacier in Iceland, or the cracked earth of Death Valley…
“Carnivalesque eco-panic. Is that two words or three?” says Selesnick when asked to sum up their work in as few words as possible. It’s an almost cruel question for the team, whose work always leans towards a maximalism dripping in flowers, feathers and various eccentricities.
“As a kid I won a contest making a menorah out of Tootsie rolls,” says Kahn about their choice of media, “[I] used to assist my mother, who was a semi professional baker, I loved carving dark chocolate and making bread sculptures. I have always loved the surreal kick of edible sculptures, it’s a sort of cannibalism. Hence our early 1990s bread head sculptures which really looked like mummies.” And while anchored in photography, Kahn & Selesnick are always branching out into drawing, assemblage– even the creation of tarot and poker decks.
“We were interested in producing a cheaper, functional, artwork that more people could afford,” says Selesnick about the tarot, “We see [it] as a psycho-magical device by which the user can access the various moods of the pantheon. Like the rest of our recent projects, the carnival is the ruling principle, so we think of it as being simultaneously very serious and very absurd. You might say we try to spend a lot of time either behind or out in front of the information curve.”
“I think this gives our work the appearance of being simultaneously ahead and woefully behind its time.” Many of their photos take on all the qualities of Old Masters paintings, and–get this– using zero computer generated imagery.
Their partnership has taken them to some of the world’s most remarkable landscapes, and served as a launching pad for them to bring their own stories to life…
Like 2007’s “Eisbergfreistadt,”(“Iceberg Free State”) which saw Kahn & Selesnick approach a fictional, “often overlooked 1923 incident in which an iceberg drifted into the Baltic sea and ran aground off the German port of Lübeck.”
Through photography, assemblage and the like, they wove together fact and fiction to create a completely new narrative in dozens of works.
When we first came across their work, it took two or three eye-rubs to be sure we weren’t looking at a lost vault of antique images.
“We often use Pinterest,” says Kahn about their sources of inspiration, “and have scores of categories that we collect our various obsessions in: wax seals, 1800-1830 fashion, French Revolution ephemera.” But just when we thought we’d pinpointed their source of inspiration, Selesnick chimes-in, “I have listened a lot to ‘Endless’ by Frank Ocean recently… snippets of songs drift in and out of consciousness [and] aligns with our own tendency to combine the beautiful and the absurd in uncanny dreamscapes.”
“As a child, one of my favorite toys was a series of incredible banknotes my father gathered in World War Two,” says Kahn, “they were for some absurd denomination like 10 million marks and they made me feel rich. He told me stories about rooms wallpapered in bank notes from the great inflation of 1923, and [they] always stuck with me.”
When it comes to tangible materials, they’ve picked the pantry clean. “We’ve used lard, whiskey, rubber sheeting, [and] meteorites,” says Kahn, “dried noodles, lead, mold, gold leaf, butterflies, scorpions, old fur coats, glass eyes, hanging mosses, lichen, 18th century linen sheets, 1950s model train scenery, mortuary tables, dried anchovies, war relics my dad gathered in Nazi Germany, [and more]. We get gifted some of the strangest things that get regurgitated into sculpture and photo sets and costumes, and then torment us in our limited storage abilities, it’s an ongoing battle of attraction and repulsion. My home studio is like an a cabinet of curiosities…”
Now, as much as we expected these two to say they were found under a glittering rock at Stonehenge, Kahn was born in New York, and Selesnick, London. They met back in college at Washington University in St. Louis, and today they’re based in upstate New York.
“We were photo majors, but also very involved in other media,” says Selesnick, “so [we] tried to expand our approach to photography to include some of those other interests. Looking back on it, really what we were doing with all this was world building, and this kind of approach to one’s work often lends itself to collaboration. [We] realized we could accomplish a lot more if we worked together.”
It’s a real lesson in the power of modern storytelling– a task that’s changing in exciting ways in the digital age. “Myths are now disseminated through culture much more quickly than they used to be,” says Selesnick about the fate of fables and the like, “because of this increase in the speed of information, things become much more mashed up. In fact, you could say that this increase is the essential mythology of our time. Information itself is losing its texture, and becoming frictionless as more and more content speeds through our heads. One of the reasons we use so many older objects is not because we are luddites, but because the mood of such objects and the cognitively dissonant rituals and happenings they inspire force us to slow down, and consider the hurtling velocity of life a little more deeply.”
Sadly, one can’t fit inside Richard and Nicholas’ backpack. But one can play with their Tarot and poker decks, follow them on Instagram, and learn more about their general happenings on their website. Keep an eye on the horizon for a revival of their Eisbergfreistadt Panoramic Card Deck’s Kickstarter this February, and follow #Fledermausworkshop and #kahnselesnick to hear about when it launches.