By Chloé Harper Gold
It’s 8pm Central European Summer Time when Ernst Miesgang enters our Zoom room. Bespectacled and understated, the artist known online as “Friend Five” tells me in a cheerful voice colored with an Austrian accent, “I always had a passion for unpleasant content.”
Miesgang’s collection of work displayed and sold on SuperRare may certainly fall under the category of “unpleasant content,” at least for some people. His series titled “The Delusions of Friend Five” consists of photographs from the turn of the 20th century that he digitally altered in bizarre and disturbing ways. One photograph, “Anastasia,” shows a woman in a headscarf standing in front of a full moon. Her face has been digitally removed; in its place is a pile of eight small human skulls nestled in the fabric. Another, “The Great Inventor,” depicts an anthropomorphized creature with an octopus-like head wearing a suit. The eldritch abomination, with a pair of scaled hands, examines a small human standing on a decorative table. A storm cloud, complete with bolts of lightning, floats over the human. “Another day in the life of the creator,” reads the artist’s description.
“In my youth and as a young adult, I read a lot of Franz Kafka and Edgar Allen Poe, but also a lot of pop literature, from authors like Chuck Palahniuk,” Miesgang says. He also read books by Philip K. Dick, Stanislaw Lem, and Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.
“And of course, the classics,” he adds. “H.P. Lovecraft, Jules Verne, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, and so on. I’m also a big movie fan. Mainly arthouse productions and horror movies.”
Miesgang’s macabre predilections are present in “Delusions.” A photograph of a man whose head is engulfed in flames is titled “Captain Howdy”—a subtle reference to The Exorcist—and bears the biblical line “My name is Legion, for we are many” in the description, further pushing the demonic and hellish undertones of the piece. A subtler work in the collection depicts a woman smiling as she holds a bouquet. As the viewer looks a bit closer, they realize that the woman isn’t wearing a hat; an enormous bug is on her head. That photograph is titled “Grete Samsa”—as in the character from Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.
“In my art, I use dark moods and the unpleasant element of threat to get attention from the viewer because those are the emotions that always triggered me most,” Miesgang says. “I love to quote the great classics in my work, like The Metamorphosis by Kafka or the movie The Exorcist. I pick elements from those universes and make my own interpretation of them. Mythological figures like Medusa or Baphomet are also a big inspiration.”
He does, in fact, have a piece in the collection that depicts Medusa.
It’s important to remember that the photographs in “Delusions” are real. Although the images have been twisted, dissected, and stitched back together in Photoshop to give them their fantastic and phantasmagoric flair, the original subjects are, or rather were, real people, not just images rendered on a computer. Miesgang sources his photographs from antique shops and flea markets in Vienna, where he lives. The boy holding his own floating head by a balloon string featured in “Pothead” could very well be a living person’s grandfather. It’s this combination of authentic early 1900s photography and perfectly-matched digital manipulation that makes the images so successful as works of art. It grounds each piece in reality (or some version of reality) and gives them a perverse playfulness.
When selecting vintage photographs to use in his art, Miesgang says they have to be “outstanding in some kind of way. An outstanding composition or unusual elements usually attract my attention.”
“The best ideas [for the photographs are the ones] I get immediately. That’s the best thing that can happen, when I see a vintage photograph and I have the idea that it could be a scene from a movie or a character from a book,” he explains. “I also play around with influences from surrealism, dadaism, pop culture, street art, and so on. It’s a playground for me where I can mess around. I really enjoy it because the contemporary art scene in Europe is very academic and conceptual and sometimes a bit over-intellectualized, in my opinion. But I like it when something bangs.”
Miesgang, who studied art and photography at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna (he graduated in 2018), has been an independent artist for 10 years. Working with a wide range of materials and techniques, his oeuvre includes sculptures, collages, experimental photography, and installations.
“I can’t say which kind of art interests me the most,” he muses. “I love to work with all of them. As an artist, I enjoy the freedom to do whatever comes in my mind and to experiment. That’s the only way to find new and unseen images and objects.”
He describes his creative process as working subconsciously.
“The best ideas come into my mind when I’m staring out of the tramway window or while going for a walk,” he says. “They just pop up and there they are.”
Over the course of his career, Miesgang’s art has been exhibited in Germany, Russia, Finland, the United Kingdom, and Greece, as well as in his homeland of Austria. Although he’s been making art on a professional level for a decade, he has been in the NFT space for only a few months.
“I am a big crypto enthusiast,” he says. “I’ve been into crypto since 2018 and I got into it by mining. I read some articles on how to set up a mining rig and I was immediately hooked. My inner nerd was triggered!”
Miesgang and his friends set up a mining rig together; he recalls using the heat produced by the rig to heat up his studio. He says that his early days in the crypto space was a lot of trial and error because of the relative lack of readily available information on how to navigate the market. Most of the knowledge he did get came from YouTube creators.
“The first time I heard about NFTs was in 2020, on the EllioTrades channel on YouTube,” he says. “At first I thought, ‘that’s completely crazy.’ I thought it would be a short-term hype like many other hypes in the crypto space. I did not see any potential. But then I learned about marketplaces like SuperRare. I checked out the content and thought that my image manipulations could probably fit in this space. So I applied at the beginning of 2021, three months later I was on board, and here I am.”
Ernst Miesgang is anything but a traditionalist…but he does prefer the traditional format of physical forms of art, like sculptures and paintings.
“I have a clear preference for physical art because a visit to a museum [or a gallery] is an overall bodily experience,” he says. “You see the artwork but you also experience the size, the material, the smell, the surroundings of the artwork. I enjoy a walk through a good exhibition more than scrolling down a computer screen.”
“But who knows?” he adds. “The technology for immersive virtual experiences develops quickly. Maybe it has the potential of sensory impressions we do not even dream of yet.”