Elsa Stansfield 1945 - 2004

Obituary - Bio

Elsa Stansfield was the type of person who preferred to take the stairs.

It is important, however, to put this self-denotation into the proper perspective: she was not a Luddite with an aversion to modern convenience and technology (or even someone who simply disdained elevators). Far from it — Elsa’s natural curiousity and inquisitiveness led her to a long-standing engagement with technology and its usefulness as a means to make art, and she delighted in keeping right on top of the latest developments. It was not uncommon for us to rendezvous after several months, and before long she would be exulting about the latest gadget or computer or piece of software that she had just begun to use.

The self-typing derives from her anecdote of attending a conference where a particular technology was used repeatedly to speed up the process of making first impressions. These presenters were rushing to make an impact in the brief interval that people might be crowded together between floors in an elevator. Given that context, Elsa stated that she would prefer to take the stairs.

It pinpoints one of the central concerns in the body of work that she made with her partner, Madelon Hooykaas, over the course of 32 years creating art together: that we need to take enough time for our experiences to resonate properly, and that many of the experiences we might ultimately value the most would be those where we had renounced an accelerated tempo of life in order to delve more deeply. Contemplation was a key element in their work. Finding ways to encourage mindfulness in the viewer was a strategic goal when Stansfield and Hooykaas set to make a new piece, whether it was intended for presentation in a site-specific public space, or in the more traditional venues of museums and galleries.

We’ve had the privilege of experiencing a number of their works firsthand in the Netherlands and the USA; the recent ones we missed were made available through Stansfield’s stunning photographic documentation and the artists’ models, diagrams and discussions. Fortunately a number of their collaborations are available to the public, such as:

Abri — (commissioned by the Professor van der Leeuw Foundation) a parabolic aluminium dish with an incorporated seat that amplifies the constantly-changing coastal soundscape for the sheltered listener in the dunes near Wijk aan Zee;

Field-Free Space (Nieuw Weerdinge (Emmen), commissioned by Semslinie Art Line) — a perforated copper and steel Faraday cage in the shape of an S, with integral benches for visitors and local farmers to rest and reflect in an atmosphere protected from electromagnetic radiation;

Wishing Tree — an interactive internet-based work (commissioned by Northwestern University’s Center for Art and Technology and developed with students of the program) where site visitors can foster the growth of the tree’s foliage by making wishes.

Their work has had a wide international audience, with manifestations in Montreal, Sydney, Chicago, Madrid, Reykjavik, Kassel (Documenta), New York (MOMA), Amsterdam, Bremen, Hannover, Berlin, Sheffield, Washington D.C., Lucerne, London, Rotterdam, Toronto, Hong Kong, Helsinki, Tokyo, Stockholm, The Hague, Dundee, Hafnarfjordur, and many others.

When we travelled together to visit their public sculpture, these trips would reveal the concern and awareness the artists had for the natural ecology and human dynamic of the site. Their careful choice of materials, such as copper, lead, stone, LEDs, electronics, and video projections were intended signifiers to the content of their works. As for media, they eschewed the label of ‘video artists’ and preferred to be considered as sculptors using an array of tools and materials as required by the artform. Nevertheless, they are considered pioneers in Dutch video, and these works have continued to be commissioned and presented. One of the most recent pieces, Deep Looking was commissioned in 2003 by the Buddhist Broadcast Foundation (BOS) in the Netherlands, and the success of that Dutch broadcast elicited a second commission for a companion piece.

Born in Glasgow in 1945, Elsa Stansfield’s life was rich with travel and experience. She studied in London in the mid-late 60’s followed by an intensive trip through India. Working on film production and sound within her own film studio from 1970–1975, she also began to work together with Madelon Hooykaas in London and Amsterdam in 1972. Stansfield moved to Amsterdam and became the head of the department of Time Based Media at the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht from 1980–1991. Since that period the collaborative works of Stansfield/Hooykaas have continued to appear in museum and gallery exhibitions, international festivals and public spaces. They received the Judith Leyster Oeuvreprize for their body of work in 1996 and their CDROM ‘Person to Person’ was awarded the Grand Prix for New Media at the Split Film Festival in 1999.

Elsa’s personal energy and spunky commentary were an interesting contrast to her small frame and childlike enthusiasm for encountering the new, both in technology and in nature. Thus it was a grave shock to all who knew Elsa to learn of her diagnosis of acute leukemia in mid-September 2004; she struggled against the illness until her life was prematurely shortened on 30 November 2004.

In considering some of the physical places, such as New Mexico, to which Elsa was particularly drawn and often returned, one becomes aware of the intensity of light and its powers of emphasis: the quality of its reflection off the subtly-hued rocks of the mountains, and the sculptural interplay of shadows as a kind of amphitheatre for the generation of exciting new ideas as well as quiet introspection. And it is here, hiking in the Sandias during the Vernol Equinox that Elsa’s presence is both powerfully sensed and deeply missed and we bid farewell, along with the sunset, to a great artist and a special friend.

Marlena Novak & Jay Alan Yim (localStyle)
New Mexico, Vernal Equinox 2005



12 March, 1945 (Glasgow) – 30 November, 2004 (Amsterdam)

Stansfield/Hooykaas awarded the Grand Prix New Media for CD-Rom ‘Person to Person’,
Split Film Festival Croatia

Stansfield/Hooykaas awarded the Judith Leyster (oeuvre) prize

1991 – 2004
Making inter-active installations and realising commissioned outdoor sculptural works

1980 – 1991
Realizing video tapes, video installations, video sculptures and sound sculptures

1980 – 1991
Head of the Department of video/sound (Time Based Arts) at the
Jan van Eyck Academie, Maastricht

Moved to The Netherlands

Started making video-environments in collaboration with Madelon Hooykaas

1975 – 1980
Studio in Wapping, East London

1972 – 1976
Co-produced and directed several films

Started film projects with Madelon Hooykaas in London and Amsterdam

1970 – 1975
Began own film and sound studio 8,9 &10 whilst working in various capacities on
film production and sound

1969 – 1970
Journey to India

1967 – 1969
Slade School of Art (U.C.L.), Dept. of Film Studies, London

First experimental films

1965 – 1967
Ealing School of Art and Design, photography and film, London

1962 – 1965
Glasgow School of Art, Glasgow, Scotland