Tuesday 24 April 2018

Waking hours: Richard Mosse

Richard Mosse, 33, is a visual artist who works in photography and film. He was born in Kilkenny and, when he is not away working, he lives in the German capital, Berlin

Artist Richard Mosse
Artist Richard Mosse

Ciara Dwyer

Berlin is, technically, where I live – I moved there last summer. It's a cool city and a lot of artists live there. The rent is cheap and so is the food, but my life is so haphazard. I end up travelling a lot for work, so I'm hardly ever home. I've been in Venice for months because my work was chosen to be in the Venice Biennale International Art Exhibition. That was a big break.

I seem to spend months in various places. The last time I was living in my home, there was a woman in it – my girlfriend, Stephanie, who's a film-maker. But I left to go to the Congo to do work for my art installation – The Enclave – and she went to do a residency in Japan. So I'm not sure where that relationship is at now.

My life is my work, but, sadly, it compromises your personal life. It's hard to keep a relationship going when you're travelling constantly to war zones.

I know that there are a lot of artists who keep it together. They are able to find a way. They say to their girlfriends, 'OK, today is your day and I'm going to spend the weekend not making art and not obsessing'. But I'm not that way at all. There are a lot of sacrifices involved and you can't have the things that other, normal people have.

I plough everything that I earn back into my work, and I often go into debt in order to finish a project. It's a sort of an obsessive, self-destructive desire. Sometimes, it works out well and, sometimes, you go broke for a while.

No matter where I am, I crave routine. Because I can't find it in my life, I try to impose it on myself. I usually wake up with a hangover. Then I hit my nervous system with as much caffeine as I can take. Then I get the fear – you know the way coffee gives you anxiety? At some point in the morning, I always try to get some exercise in, just to clean my system out. I love to run, and when I'm in Ireland I often do half-marathons.

The weather has been quite cold in Berlin – minus five – so, when it's like that, I'll go to the gym.

Because my work is so closely associated with current affairs and global events, I'm addicted to news websites. I'm always monitoring them. I'm not trying to get work out of it, rather, I'm trying to make work out of it. You find an interesting story and you start to read about something that is not well documented. It can spark a project.

I'm an artist who uses cameras and movies to make my work. When I'm not preparing for exhibitions, installing shows and generally doing the hustle, I'm in the field, working. I'm not a studio artist, and I don't have a routine because I'm constantly travelling.

A lot of my work is related to areas of conflict, or post-conflict, situations. For example, I've worked in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Bosnia. For my latest project, I spent 370 days in the Congo. That was spread over eight trips. I'd say about 320 of those days were waiting around, but that's just part of the game and the way it works out there.

I had heard about a rebel group, an indigenous Congolese tribe, whose narrative I wanted to document. We spent some time with them, sleeping in a tent. I'd often wake up at 2am with an enormous bug on my face. You wipe it away and you quickly forget all about it because torrential rainstorms wash away the camp at the rebel base. You just make sure that the cameras don't get washed out, and then you try to snatch some more sleep.

Thanks to the rainstorms, it is glorious at dawn. The mist just lifts off the jungle and it's pristine. All the leaves are shining verdant green and the tropical birds are singing. It's like waking up in paradise. Everyone is already up because they go to sleep when the sun goes down and wake up with the sun. They really live with the landscape.

In the mornings, the men would bathe for two hours in the creek and then, afterwards, it was the women's turn.

One day, some people came by with a small gazelle, and they told me that their leader had shot it for me as a present and that we'd eat it later on.

Initially, they were suspicious of us, and we were suspicious of them. It took us several days to meet up with them and, as soon as we arrived, they strip-searched us because they were certain that we had a bomb.

After many meetings, we eventually explained to them that we wanted to document their way of life. They thought about it and then, an hour before dusk, the men and women got dressed. A witch doctor blessed them with holy water, and then the rebels believed that they were bullet-proof.

I wouldn't spend longer than three nights with them because, once they got to know you, they could start to plan things and it could become dangerous.

For the photos and filming, we used this special infrared light, which is almost extinct now. It makes everything look pink, and it is designed to reveal the enemy hidden in the landscape. We used it to reveal the humanitarian disaster in the Congo, which has been overlooked.

My work is very absorbing and rewarding. Sometimes, people wonder why I go to such lengths, but it's about the journey. I believe it's important to have alternate spaces for thinking about these conflicts other than the six o'clock news, where you get the sound bite. I'm trying to push past that.

There is no average day in my life, and that's a real problem in anyone's life if you don't have a single reality.

There are enormous leaps between realities – not just geographical leaps, but leaps of logic in terms of how people approach the world and how time unfolds.

Time moves much slower in the Congo. It took 10 hours walking down a mud track to get into the jungle, all the while I was engaging with the landscape physically. You don't get a chance to do that in modern life on your cell phone.

Then you get off a long flight, go straight to a cocktail bar and you tell your friends your stories. They've all got proper jobs and you can see them looking over your shoulder. They just don't get it and that can be very alienating. The only thing that keeps me sane is this belief in what I do.

When I go to bed at night, I might have a violent dream. It wouldn't correspond with the reality out the window. Berliners love their fireworks and bangers. When I hear them, they always give me shellshock and I hit the ground. That's not normal.

In conversation with Ciara Dwyer

  • Richard Mosse's 'The Enclave' will be at Ormston House, Patrick St, Limerick, from March 28 until May 5 as part of Limerick City of Culture

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