Top image: potato mould, from the Afterlife series
It seems there's almost nothing that Estonian artist Heikki Leis can't turn his hand to. His work includes hyperreal pen and pencil drawings, sculpture, portraiture and our favourites, macro shots of mouldy food. We grabbed him for a quick chat about inspirations, idols and, of course, mould.
Your photographic work ranges from heads on platters to mould, where do you find inspiration?
It’s difficult to say where ideas come from. Sometimes you just stumble onto something that gets the juices flowing: movies, nature, music. The film Enter the Void has a particularly powerful effect on me, for example. People, interesting appearances, are often the catalyst. Occasionally I look for a person to fit my idea, other times I see a face and immediately know how to use it.
I enjoy hiking, especially in the mountains. The vistas and surrounding nature have a strong restorative effect. It’s good to escape the city and live simply from time to time. Defying the elements is inspiring, but you end up cursing why you ever went there in the first place.
Is there a big arts scene in Tartu?
Yes, we have Tartu Art College and a fine art faculty in the Tartu University. I’ve worked on a couple of movie productions which was a great opportunity for me. I watched the cameramen at work, observing the way they use light.
Your photos are beautiful and yet often a little unsettling - where does this sinister side come from?
I try to develop a wider relationship with the subject’s environment in my portrait series, an opposition to it. I have a great respect for documentary photography, for realism and naturalism, but I’m not particularly fond of beautiful or beautified pictures. I prefer something kinky or shifted in a photo.
When using models I prefer to choose them for their character, not just their good looks. I particularly like using older people - their life is stamped on their face which makes them much more interesting to draw and photograph. If I’m inspired while out in town it haunts me for a while, but I don’t like to bother strangers with my requests. Perhaps I should be a bit braver.
How long did you have to leave food out to get the spectacular results in your Afterlife series? Did it smell really bad?
Starting at two weeks and, in some cases, going up to two months. I kept them under dishes so there was no smell at home, it smelt during the shoot but it’s not as bad as everyone thinks.
Which food made your favourite mould?
Beetroot and potatoes gave the most interesting results. No one knows what to expect when growing mould, often what sprouted wouldn’t work for photos.
Who's your idol?
Salvador Dali; I could study his paintings for hours. I first encountered Dali's work when still very young and I’m sure they’ve left a mark on my psyche. I use hyperrealism and surrealism in my own work, but it’s his attention to detail I really enjoy – there’ll always be something new in his paintings if you look for long enough. Autumn Cannibalism and The Temptation of Saint Anthony are my favourites, but I enjoy his sculptures too.
We're just putting up the Christmas decorations here in the office - how do you like to prepare for Joulud?
If anyone could nicely and precisely make these mouldy vegetables into Christmas decorations, that should fit very well.
For more information on Heikki Leis, head to his website heikkileis.ee