The week between Christmas and New Year’s I had the pleasure of directing a music video for the band Shearwater. I had the added pleasure of meeting and working with Nicholas Kahn, one half of the artistic team Kahn and Selesnick who created the costumes that we used in the video. They are amazing and got me thinking about costumes and creatures, and hiding in plain sight.
At first I thought I might write a broader post on costume–but of course, that is way too broad, and then I thought, “Why don’t I just call Nicholas and talk with him?” So I did that. Below is our conversation.
AL: Could you talk a little about how you and Richard Selesnick started collaborating?
NK: We were roommates in college. We did work together back and forth in the same space. We set up things in our apartment, scenes on my side of the room with costumes and props and narrative, and scenes on his side of the room that I would appear in and he would shoot, and then he would appear in mine and I would shoot.
So we were collaborating in college, some 25 years ago, or longer. So it’s gone on a long time and it’s been since day one. We were making masks; it’s always very hands on, the craftsmanship is ok, but it’s more about the vision and that it looked great for images. There’s often a desire with them to be half animal, half man–I spend a lot of time looking at Northwest Indian masks and masks of other cultures– so there’s a quality of you put on these things and you’re just transformed, and that’s always intrigued me as a way to talk about issues like the environment–to create an empathy with your subject by becoming that subject, so that’s a lot of where that comes from.
And those two particular costumes that we used in the Shearwater video are both from a series that I made from that Persian lamb recycled coats. I wanted to play a hard-lined sort of Soviet ’30s geometry, like a constructivist geometry, against a classic animal mask and the soft organic forms. I wanted to see if there was a way to represent animals with geometry but then soften them with the fur. They came out of that kind of tension. Those two were some of the more successful of them–I think I made about five.
I don’t even know what kind of animal one of them is, which I like [the not knowing]. He’s a bear–bat hybrid in my mind. He’s kind of both, but also humanizing him by putting in the little blue eyes intrigued me; I liked adding that other natural element, like putting the real horns in the minotaur worked well.
AL: Do you always think of him as a him? Because Jamie [Dobie] made it seem decidedly female.
NK: It was awesome to see it transform to a girl, yeah. I thought of it as a “him” because I was always wearing it. It was great– it suddenly had a different kind of compassion in the eyes. She wore it wonderfully.
AL: You mentioned masks of other cultures and Russian influences, I am curious what else has influenced you?
NK: Let me think. I also really liked Marcel Dzama. He’s one of our favorite artists. He works in kind of the same genres as we do. Less photography, obviously – he’s more drawing and big, ceramic installation and video. He had done some videos that were awesome. I designed these masks to be used in a video, and then that never happened, so it’s so nice for them to get realized in a video now.
NK: Another big influence are the Noh Masks. I have a number of books of these. Some of these characters I am totally looking at. I love the way there may be just one expression on the mask but the actor can make it feel like so many different things, the same way that Jamie was able to work her bear-bat mask. I’m looking a lot at the history of puppetry, as well. I think I have been looking at the Japanese stuff a huge amount for this new project.
Also, this whole project started with Bergman’s film, and I’ll remember the name of it [Ed.’s Note: Sawdust and Tinsel], where there is a traveling circus going through the woods. That’s where the start of this whole project and those masks came from. It’s kind of a dance of death and a carnival at the end of the world, is what this project is coming from.
We are also looking at a lot of James Ensor, the painter. The masks that he has from carnivals–that quality of European carnival and the apocalypse and death wandering through. So that’s just my natural bent.
AL: Mine too.
NK: Fellow apocalypsee.
NK: I tend to use clothes from the 1890s to 1940 or so, where men’s clothes didn’t change that much. I tend to go pre-War, this sort of magical period of costume where you can get these wonderful coats and suits and various things, and mixing those with the animals is marvelous.
It’s also the kids’ books that I grew up with–my parents kids’ books, of the 1930s–all those kids’ books tended to have characters in the dress of the time, in the 1930s clothes, but with animal heads. It was instilled in you as a kid that in the normal world there are people walking around wearing funny animal heads. I think we are all affected by this kind of strange brain washing, and me in particular, it can be really marvelous when you can magicalize your own world by having people wandering around in day-to-day settings in animal heads and lovely, cuddly, furry coats.
NK: Another influence that is pertinent: Alexander McQueen and his costumes. His use of materials, and his animal/human hybrids–very important.
AL: Can you talk about the project that you are currently working on?
NK: It’s a larger project and we haven’t come down to the absolute perfect name for it yet. It revolves around a theater troupe we call “truppe fledermaus,”–sort of 1930-ish kind of period, but sort of timeless–where maybe an apolalypse has happened, maybe it hasn’t. They have a group of carts they carry behind them with all their stage props. But they are basically doing theater for the animals in the forrest.
We don’t speak German but we love it as a language because it is so humorous. So this troupe is going around to caves in the forrest and and they are enacting these carnivalesque performances but not for people, it’s for the animals that are out there. Telling this environmental tale–the tale of Mister Bat dying there from the white nose fungus, which is something that is happening. A story of future dying. There is a death character with a skull face, and this bat character. There is a man-of-the-sea character who is covered in ropes and pulleys as if he has emerged from the tangled nets of the sea where things are disappearing from. So it’s a strange, allegorical performance.
AL: When can some of the project be seen?
NK: Some of the bat heads that we have been working on will be at the Field Museum in Chicago in May.
AL: I can’t wait to see them.