Variant issue 23    www.variant.org.uk    variantmag@btinternet.com    back to issue list


Elsa Stansfield (1945-2004)
Pioneer of European artists' video


For more than thirty years, the Amsterdam-based artists Madelon Hooykaas and Elsa Stansfield have been creating both discrete and monumental works and installations across the world. Now this successful international partnership has drawn to an end. In the morning of Tuesday, November 30, Elsa Stansfield died, after a two month struggle against acute leukemia.
Elsa Stansfield was born and grew up in Glasgow and later trained in London, where she studied film at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London. From 1972 she worked regularly with Madelon Hooykaas on collaborative film- and videoprojects in London and Amsterdam. In 1980 she was asked to develop the department of video/sound at the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht and consequently she decided to settle down permanently in the Netherlands.
Stansfield and Hooykaas are closely associated with the development of video art in the Netherlands although they might be more properly referred to as sculptors using a wide range of media, both old and new. Materials such as copper, lead and stone are combined with contemporary media and methods resulting often in keynote commissions such as their work 'Abri' situated in the sand dunes near Wijk aan Zee The work manifests itself as a kind of parabolic dish, situated within it is a seat, giving view over dunes and sea. Visitors can, sheltered by this 'shield', listen to the amplified sounds of wind, birds and the breaking of waves.
The work she made with Hooykaas has been exhibited all over the world, for example at the Documenta in 1987, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and at exhibitions in Sydney, Montreal and Tokyo. Elsa retained strong links with Scotland, exhibiting their first video installation at the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow in 1975, and most recently a new video installation at the Visual Research Centre, Dundee Contemporary Arts in April 2004. Stansfield and Hooykaas were well known and respected by their peers across the UK. David Hall, the pioneer of British video art commented on hearing of Elsa's death:
"Elsa was the first artist to be awarded an Arts Council bursary to work with video in my department at Maidstone College of Art in the mid-seventies. Later, from 1980, as head of time-based media at the Jan van Eyck Academy, Maastricht, Holland, she enthusiastically organised international seminars and exhibitions. Her work in association with Madelon Hooykas will be remembered as of profound importance in the developing European video art scene."
Sue Hall, another colleague from the early days of European video scene said:
"From one of Elsa & Madelon's art videos I remember the chaotic tranquillity & soothing rhythm of breaking waves. That's the image I see when I think of Elsa. Compact, dark, intense, clever & a completely original artist. On her own path, with Madelon, a unique talent whose art could immerse an audience in her world."
Elsa was an artist, inspirational teacher, and profound thinker. One of her ex-students Justin Bennett, now an established new media artist, offers the following thoughts:
"I met Elsa for the first time in 1991 through a mysterious bullet hole in the window of a gallery she and Madelon were exhibiting in. Although I was a fan of their work since seeing the grey, grainy photos in an old LYC booklet, the meeting was the start of a long, though sporadic relationship. I studied with Elsa the next year at the Jan Van Eyck Akademie in Maastricht, and thereafter collaborated occasionally by making soundtracks for their work. Elsa was a great teacher – one who didn't have to say very much to get me thinking. Sometimes her comments could be completely off the wall, and only much later it would dawn on me what she had meant.

Steve Partridge