“The God Machine”: A Project on the Nature of Cults by Wouter le Duc

Dutch photographer Wouter le Duc is known for projects that deal with the “psyche of unfamiliar characters” and “the ethos of their respective communities and environments”. He searches for isolated, utopic sites and builds uncanny and mysterious narratives caught between fiction and non-fiction, fact and fantasy. His portraits reveal the “quasi laments” of everyday people who approach the task of survival in different ways. Wouter maintains that it is up to viewers to finally distill and extract meaning from his works – with the help of available signifiers and nuanced stares.

“As an artist, I focus on two different parts,” writes the photographer. “The first is my personal projects in which I focus on events which influence the human psyche. Themes such as living in isolation, the transformation of memories and how observations influence our consciousness are returning elements of my work. The inspiration for these projects come from my own personal experiences such as the time I spent living in isolation in a cabin in Sweden in the midst of winter.

“I exhibit these projects internationally in museums and galleries and have them featured in magazines and websites. Besides these projects, I also work as a portrait photographer both for personal work as well as commissions. In these portraits I try to capture the moment in which a person shows his or her deeper state of mind to me.”


Wouter le Duc (Credit: Loes Linders)


One of Wouter’s most compelling initiatives is “The God Machine”. Here he tells the story of John Murray Spear based on a real person of the same name, an American Spiritualist clergyman who is most notable for his attempts to construct an electrically powered Messiah which he referred to as the “New Motive Power”. The cult leader of Wouter’s project is convinced that he is an instrument of God. He receives instructions from a group of prominent deceased to build a machine. Upon completion, this machine will represent God on earth and will distribute an unlimited amount of energy, which will take away all inequality in the world. Together with his followers he builds this physical Messiah.

The photographs look as though they are frames of a film. We see young men and women in white, written messages, technical drawings, a place where discussions are held, plans made. The atmosphere looks both fascinating and terrifying.

“This story does not stand on its own,” explains the photographer. “It is a blueprint for the story of many other cults.” Through this work, which is situated on the borderline of truth and fiction, Wouter wants to focus on the human aspects of cults. What moves people to become part of a cult and what kind of support does this give them in life?

“The God Machine” series could be interpreted in many different ways. The cult that is created, in a way, symbolises all those movements that we traditionally associate with the phenomenon of religion. A group of people get together, they have sensed some deficiency in the human condition, they devise some kind of formula, a set of principles and practices that may improve the situation of the world and bring about salvation. But the application of the project goes beyond religion. “The God Machine” could even be expanded to mean some kind of political or economic programme with fundamental literature of its own – take Capitalism or Communism – that could claim itself to have a monopoly on truth, project itself as the highest possible way of organising and bettering society based on a fixed ideology and method.

Wouter talks of his artistic influences: “A lot of my inspiration comes from artists such as Michael Borremans, David Lynch, Haruki Murakami and Anna Conway whom I admire for creating work which perfectly balances the real and the surreal and exposes a certain state of the mind through the scenes they show. Besides these artists, I also spend a lot of time investigating artists who focus on light. Numerous artists come to mind here but the two greatest sources of inspiration are Vilhelm Hammershøi and James Turrell. I am fascinated by how they create their work which is mainly communicated through the use of light.”

Born in Amersfoort, the Netherlands in 1989, Wouter le Duc is now based in Utrecht. He obtained a BFA in Photography (2010-2014) from Willem de Kooning Academy, Rotterdam. In 2013, he participated in the Exchange Program at Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver, Canada. In 2016, he received a Research and Development Grant from the Centre for Visual Arts, Rotterdam. Wouter has upcoming shows at OBA De Hallen in Amsterdam and the Northern Photographic Centre in Oulu, Finland.

Links: Website (www.wouterleduc.com) | Facebook (www.facebook.com/WouterLeDucPhotography) | Instagram (www.instagram.com/wouterleduc)

Images used with permission.