Imagine an alternate reality where guidelines on how to protect yourself from the coronavirus are written in groovy technicolor. Where the situation is still serious, but slightly less weighty, because the reminders to not touch your face are actually fun. Such is the world of Mathery, the name of Brooklyn-based duo Erika Zorzi and Matteo Sangalli. Partners in work and life, the two have been self-isolating in their New York City apartment since the pandemic first began wrecking their native Italy. To stay busy during quarantine, they’ve been making new images that transform everyday objects like toilet paper and cleaning supplies into tongue-in-cheek commentaries on the social etiquette necessitated by Covid-19. They’re bright, informative, and an engaging antidote to life spent sheltering in place.
Ali Cherkis: Where in Italy are you from? How long have you lived in NYC?
Mathery: We are from Milan and Brescia, in the north of Italy. For 10 years, we have worked and lived together in different places across Australia, China, and South Korea. That experience has given us the opportunity to work and experiment with various disciplines such as product design, exhibition, and photography. We’ve been in New York four years, and now we’re mainly working as directors in design and photography.
When did you start collaborating?
We met at university in Milan while studying product design. Things simply clicked when we started working together on assignments. Our first project together was a blog called 01mathery that we started in 2010 to which we posted one idea a day. We did it for 100 days. That project established our way of working together and we haven’t stopped since. We’ve never worked separately. Two heads are better than one, right?
What inspired you to make this project? What are some of the moods and ideas you wanted to convey with these images?
We decided to self-isolate in the first week of March just as we heard about the outbreak in Italy. We were receiving messages from our friends asking about our families back home and realized that the idea of the virus reaching New York and the rest of America was far from everyone’s minds. In that moment we felt we needed to spread some information and be creative in doing so.
How has working exclusively from home changed your creative process? What are some of the challenges of shooting still lifes at home?
We travel a lot for work. This past year we were only home for half the year! But we are also used to working from home for long periods of time and have been doing so for years now.
We often make a big mess, then clean up and start anew the next day. It’s definitely inspiring our creativity, because staying home is exactly what we should do now and what we want to talk about in the photos. So apart from a quick stop to the dollar shop next door on day zero, we’ve shot everything using seamless [backdrops] from previous projects and personal objects as props.
What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned from this experience so far?
Despite the terrible situation we all are in, we realized that we are lucky to know how to deal with our time at home, almost as if we had been training for it our entire life. We’ve been through long periods without work, and are used to working on passion projects during moments like this.
What does your home studio setup look like?
We were lucky enough to find a brownstone apartment with a pretty high ceiling, which is key when we work on still life projects. Even though we have a decent amount of space to play with, things still get messy pretty quickly! We have a Profoto generator with two strobes that we try and stick to for small projects. Being able to scale down the number of lights and modifiers helps you really master every single light source compared to the normal studio situation where we have everything available and always end up with a very complicated light setup. It’s definitely an opportunity to simplify ideas while not compromising the outcome.
Do you feel like you’re seeing your space in a new way?
Not really, actually. We are very used to working from home. Even before the ‘rona, we were used to working on the production and planning of each project from our desks at home and then going into a studio for the actual shoot. We do miss working on big sets with our crew and all of our collaborators, though. That said, we also can’t wait to see how the whole system is going to change after this.
Are you finding light through your work during this dark time?
Keeping our creativity active is really key for us. There are a lot of limitations currently, but sometimes they help to narrow down possibilities and make the process more straightforward. As artists we feel some sort of responsibility to prove to ourselves, and to our community, that we need to keep creating in spite of these dark times. Think how many times we say, “I am working so much and don’t have time for personal projects.”
Lastly, where’s the best pizza slice in the city, for when things are good again?
Best slice? Champion Pizza in SoHo, right after a day at the New Museum and before a margarita at La Esquina!
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