Portrait of Lucy Cordes Engelman, 2022, photo: Annemarie Wadlow

‘I love thinking of water as something that washes away rigid habits’ – in conversation with artist Lucy Cordes Engelman

Issue no4
Aug- Sep 2023
inkomen & eindexamens 2023

Approaching her research materials and media as ‘collaborators’, Lucy Cordes Engelman willingly invites uncontrollable agents into her artistic process. Guided by the work of hydrofeminists and ancient women mystics, this leads her to create playful and engaging encounters. Currently, she is travelling on a boat in the Arctic, as part of her residence at The Arctic Circle.

In her on-going research-based practice Lucy Cordes Engelman (b. 1987, Washington DC) creates sensorial spaces that seek to re-imagine established narratives. Before moving to the Netherlands and graduating from the Master Artistic Research at the KABK in The Hague and the advanced Masters of Research in Art and Design at Sint Lucas Antwerpen, Lucy worked in the film industry of Los Angeles. I meet with her as she is about to head to the Antarctic for a residency program.

—Nele What struck me first about your work is that it feels very exploratory and fluid; you seem to collect a lot of footage, consisting mostly of moving images and texts. I could not help but wonder: how do you decide what to focus on when researching and making?

—Lucy ‘I think that I am compelled by stories. To me, research is storytelling: I like to discover stories that are trying to tell themselves to me. This research, this process of listening and reading, really drives my practice. The work takes form depending on what story it is going to tell. I like working with “cinema”, which to me is a word that conjures an atmosphere that is larger than just a screen and rather signifies an embodied space. Within that space there can be text, vocality, virality, song, sound, rhythm… there can be all kinds of performativity. You could say that my practice is primarily cinematic and experiential. Installation-elements may come in when necessary or when desired.’

—Nele Looking through your website and works, water appears to be a recurring agent. Was there a specific moment or text that incited this focus?

—Lucy ‘A few years ago, I started researching what possible prior relationships the people here in the Lower Countries, now the Netherlands, had with water. For my graduation at Artistic Research, I was going through archival footage of the rebuilding of the dykes after the major storm in the 1950’s. It was incredible to see how they were reclaiming the land and built Lelystad. The voice over of that footage was really arresting to me, a classic all knowing male voice was stating: “Sons and Fathers working together to fight off the sea!” It was so encapsulated, the mentality, which I am sure has expanded and shifted a lot since that time, but it still underlies everything. I wondered when this mentality emerged. Did we inherit it from the Enlightenment and from times of colonialist expansion? Or does it reach back further in time? These questions propelled me to look into local water-mythologies, and I soon discovered the Dutch neolithic marine goddess called Nehalennia. At the same time a friend introduced me to Astrida Neimanis’ highly influential text Hydrofeminism. [1] While I was reading that text, it felt as if a dam was breaking –just to use water analogies. Her words felt like a wave, overpowering me!’

'I like to discover stories that are trying to tell themselves to me'

Lucy Cordes Engelman, Close to the SALT/SEA - book/folder/carrier bag, 2022

—Nele What does water represent for you?

—Lucy ‘During my Masters, a tutor introduced me to Margaret Atwood’s novel Surfacing. Drawing on feminism, Indigenous thought and critical race theory, Atwood details the way water is often linked to an alternative psyche or a feminist perspective on the world. Water represents a form of unboundedness: I love thinking of it as something that washes away rigid habits and can usher in other practices and thought-processes. Water embodies the continuous struggle of trying to unlearn and undo those things that have become familiar to us as people existing in this time. One thing Atwood writes about really beautifully in the novel is this human desire to connect with the more-than-human-world, even if that connection teeters on a kind of self-annihilation. To recognise that we also are more than human, we need to break away from the Enlightenment foundation of contemporary western societies. We need to acknowledge that we carry microbes on us, that we pee out whatever we ingested, that we are not just our bodies…there is so much we need to continually return to, because reimagining established narratives reminds us of our own fluidity!’

—Nele In your work, you re-use materials that have been part of your earlier works. That way of working reminds me of the metaphor of water holding all knowledge from the past, the present and the future simultaneously.

—Lucy‘Neimanis indeed writes about all the water that has ever been here on the planet. All this water is still here; it goes up and down, comes in and out, and goes all around. This non-linearity is fundamental and unavoidable – it is one of the reasons why I use historical materials and re-use my own. It brings about this experience of déjà vu: where have I seen or heard this before? Did I dream it, did I live it, is it the future, is it the past? I see it as a way of loosening attachments. I am very attached to many things, but I very much value letting go of the things that are no longer facilitating movement or flux. In magical realist literature, for instance in the works by Jorge Luis Borges or Gabriel García Márquez , you enter a world that is indeed magical but not entirely chaotic. This way, these stories give you enough grounding to think through the non-linearity of your own existence. In my experience, water beautifully helps us to think this through as well.’

'Astrida Neimanis writes about all the water that has ever been here on the planet. All this water is still here; it goes up and down, comes in and out, and goes all around'

The Taste Undid Our Eyes!, 2021, Lucy Cordes Engelman

—Nele I read in your artist statement that you engage with your material as a collaborator. Is that a way of inviting an agent that has the potential to introduce this unforeseeable non-linearity?

—Lucy ‘Wind, rain, sunshine or cloudiness; these are the elements that first come to mind when I think of my artistic collaborators, since these elements highly affect what I make of course. Film is another example: it is so tangible as a material, and so responsive to light as well. Super-8, for example, can have a mind of its own; it can come out entirely differently than anticipated because of some chemical process or because a piece of hair or dust got caught. To my mind, such mistakes or mess-ups are always a gift. Conversely, when I record something with a phone, I like to enmesh that phone within whatever it is recording, literally rubbing it in leaves, for example. In that way, I am not fully in control and allow for the phone to operate as a collaborator. The same goes for when I am editing the footage. In that process, I allow my mind to wander off, so that I am not fully able to dictate the final result. I usually engage with my work for a long time and give it space to form itself. Something in my heart really likes the mystery, the fundamental openness of not being in control. Even though I am often working solo, it feels like I am working with a vast multitude of team-members.’

—Nele You actually are part of an artist collective called SAPLAB together with artist Paz Ortúzar and sometimes a rotating third member. What do you do together and what role does it play in your practice?

—Lucy ‘Paz and I met during a postmaster study at Sint Lucas in Antwerp right after I graduated from Artistic Research. My work with her is indeed the most recognizable way in which I am working in collaboration. In our practice we make space for words, thoughts and writings of ancient women mystics, often in the form of performative readings. What is so interesting about some of the mystics, especially those from the Low Countries, such as Germany and France, is that they were the first people to write in their vernacular (every-day) language. Their texts were called “heretical” and were not seen as sacred. Some of the mystics were tortured and burned. In fact, they were countering the traditional idea that sacred texts only belong to the Catholic Church. I believe they did so with the intention of letting people experience those stories themselves, in a direct way. So together, Paz and I are researching, re-envisioning and re-mixing these ancient texts. Some people might be horrified by this idea, critiquing us for supposedly not staying true to the original word. The mystics, however, focused on the living, breathing world and their writing was open and generous. This is why I have come to trust that they would encourage these writings to be re-embodied, so that they could truly remain a lived experience!’

'Wind, rain, sunshine or cloudiness; these are the elements that first come to mind when I think of my artistic collaborators'

Lucy Cordes Engelman, SAPLAB: “For the infinite has no walls” with Paz Ortúzar and Bernardita Bennett, 2022

Lucy Cordes Engelman, Losing its name, a river enters the sea, 2022

—Nele I have the feeling that you also let your expansive cinematic works speak for themselves in relation to the installations or set-ups you tend to make. When I experienced your work Losing its name, a river enters the sea (2022, a ritual + screening) in July at Seelab in the Hague, you also incited a ritual in the set-up you had prepared. What role do rituals play in your artistic approach?

—Lucy ‘In general I am interested in trance and transcendental collective rituals. For me cinema can act as a portal, expanding possibilities of being and perceiving. On the other hand, a surprising sight can also incite such an experience! During a residency at Baer Art Center in Iceland I made the installation work Lupine in the Shark Shack (2021). Lupine is an invasive flower species to Iceland and is changing the native landscape forever. According to polls, half of the people in Iceland find it very beautiful and seductive, and the other half is horrified by it. That ambiguity was very compelling to me. I decided to create my own lupine ritual, gathering it under the midnight sun, keeping it in bags outside for several days and bringing it to this old traditional shark shack. They used to dry sharks there for eating-purposes, I believe, and I decided to dry the lupine there as well. I laid out the lupine on a set of stones built in the shape of a human body, which remains the most recognisable shape for us humans. And if you can believe it, only later did I realise that I had made something with resonances to the Earth Works of Ana Mendieta (an artist I greatly admire), who was also making these bodily forms on the ground as a kind of devotional ritual. I return to her words time after time: “My art is the way I re-establish the bonds that unite me to the universe. It is a return to the maternal source”, she said. I like to think about ritual in such a way as well.

Lucy Cordes Engelman, Lupine in the Shark Shack 2022

—Nele I have the feeling that your research makes you connect to where you are and that that is one reason why you dig into the history of the places you are residing in. Do you create rituals to celebrate your connection with your environment?

—Lucy ‘Absolutely! Especially in the Netherlands I was struggling, I moved here because I fell in love with someone and I wanted to fall in love with the land I inhabited as well. It was really interesting in itself, because I had never felt so disconnected from a place before. I don't even know if I recognised what I was doing at the time, but looking back it is very clear. During this process, I went down to Domburg for a research trip to film. It was right before the pandemic, and I stayed in a little hotel called “The Hotel Nehalennia” on Nehalenniadijk. I had been out all day soaking up the surroundings, and then, late at night while I was reading this gust of wind blew open my balcony door out of nowhere. I really felt this more-than-myself-energy at that moment, and related it to Nehalennia. Was she real? Is she real? Does it even matter? From then on, I wanted to tell her story. I sometimes tell it by just sharing this experience. So many people who grew up here do not know about her. This practice of passing experiences on, rather than owning them, really is the point of my practice. We as artists are so desperate to be unique! And while it is important to push boundaries, I am convinced it can all happen through being in dialogue and through sharing experiences together.’

—Nele What did you do before moving to the Netherlands and developing your art-practice here?

—Lucy ‘I was working in the film-industry in Los Angeles with the goal to make traditional films and sneaking in my mythologically enchanted fragments. It was really difficult, rejection-heavy, and I needed to adjust a lot. But it was also very exciting and seductive. I loved working in it, but ultimately there were too many compromises; it was unhealthy, physically as well as mentally. Really excitingly though, I just got funding from the Netherlands Film Funds, to do a short narrative film I wrote during the pandemic. So finally, I have the opportunity to bridge my prior film experience and my current practice. It is going to be a short fictional narrative about a composer who is working a dead-end job in a kitchen, where a chef mansplains her how to properly cut a squid. At the end of the film, she is at the shore where these squids are washing ashore. She has an immersive transcendent ingesting experience with the squids, connecting with them more sensorially and on her own terms. In real life, the woman playing the lead, Ishtar Bakhtali, is a composer. I am really excited about it, because it is a chance to push myself. This is a chance to truly explore the traditional filmmaking situation and at the same time maybe break some of its rules.’

—Nele What you said about rituals really stuck with me. Now I am thinking back to this scene in your Artistic Research graduation work. You are filming this horse, and because you shift the frame of the camera it looks as if the horse has a horn like a unicorn. In that moment, I suddenly understood how these mythical creatures come into existence.

—Lucy ‘I think that humour is so important in artistic processes; the idea of make-believe and making up is so much fun. As children we always do it and when we grow up we lose it. Of course rituals are sacred and I never want to desecrate anyone’s sacred rituals, but for myself it is part of playing with the dynamic aliveness of the universe. I like to open it up. All story-telling is fiction unless you are recalling a factual event. Even though I am not so wrapped up in the factuality of historical writings since they are also told through a human lens. In any case, I want to remain open to the “what-if”. It is so fascinating and juicy to contemplate possibilities; it really blows my mind to see what you can come up with. Even if it is not actually true, it is still intriguing. That whole realm is very beautiful but can also be dangerous of course – just thinking of the many conspiracy theories as we see today. When it remains flexible, fluid and watery though, it may carry resonances of truth. Take Elaine Morgan’s theory of the aquatic ape: Morgan speculated that we evolved from being in the water and that this is the reason why we are not so hairy. But it was utterly dismissed as pseudoscience. I don’t care though. Just playing with such thought-experiments can be very generative.’

'In the process of making a work, I allow my mind to wander off, so that I am not fully able to dictate the final result'

Lucy Cordes Engelman, The Gift of the Seal Mother, a film in fragments, 2021

—Nele You told me that you are going on a journey to the arctic. How are you preparing for that?

—Lucy ‘I am looking forward to working with a 16mm camera, which is something I only just started to learn. The nice thing about the 16mm camera is that it is one of the few cameras that is not running off battery or electricity. So when you are in an extreme environment it will still work, because you hand-crank it –it’s for instance often used for training films in extreme environments.. I am also mentally working up to going to the glaciers, because I know that they are melting faster and faster. There is a part of me that is a bit anxious in anticipation of how devastating the changes and loss might be. There is a possibility that I am just going to be a conscious observer; that I will just try to be with the elements and listen.’

[1] Hydrofeminism: Or, On Becoming a Body of Water., Astrida Neimanis, in: Undutiful Daughters: Mobilizing Future Concepts, Bodies and Subjectivities in Feminist Thought and Practice, eds. Henriette Gunkel, Chrysanthi Nigianni and Fanny Söderbäck. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Nele Brökelmann
is a visual artist

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 4 — 2023