In an installation by Cora Roorda van Eijsinga, you do not have enough eyes and ears. There is a lot going on, often all at once. Out of the entirety of film fragments and performances rises an image of a socially inspired artist who does not flinch from the poetical elaboration of images.
Cora Roorda van Eijsinga (b. 1967) tells stories, or to phrase it better, she provides us with the elements with which we can construct one or more stories ourselves. These stories often cover such universal, timeless themes as love, despair, jealousy, deceit, ambition or the drive – against our better judgment – to direct and control our lives.
Originally from Rotterdam, Roorda van Eijsinga completed her graduate work at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam in 2003. She has produced a body of primarily spatial installations for which she employs all kinds of media and materials, ranging from movie fragments, found footage and her own photographic and video material to performance, sculptural objects, found objects, special effects, text and sound. ‘I seek out those means with which I can best relate the tale. Images, for example, that evoke certain associations, or bits of information that look at a theme from a different angle or discipline, or elements that put things slightly out of balance, setting people on a different track. I let the story lead me. The material is subordinate.’
For a large part, she finds her inspiration in the world of film. ‘Movies let you direct people in subtle ways. You can zoom in on details that can completely reverse the whole story or the meaning of a particular scene.’ She often uses fragments from Hollywood films, especially from the 1960s and 1970s. What fascinates her are the obsessions, the desires and the reasons why characters do what they do in the film.
In If Love Is a Red Dress, an installation presented in 2005 at W139 in Amsterdam and which included three video projections, a microphone stand and a red dress, the central figure is the American actress, Karen Black. Roorda van Eisinga’s fondness for this actress is based on the primarily tragic roles she played in the course of her career. ‘Black has the aura of a woman who has the willingness, but right from the start, you sense that everything she sets out to accomplish is doomed to fail.’
For the central projection of If Love Is a Red Dress, Roorda van Eijsinga selected a fragment from Robert Altman’s film, Nashville (1975), in which Black plays Conny White, an ambitious country music singer on her rise to the top. She steps out on stage in a red dress and performs her hits to loud applause. The second projection shows another scene from the same film, of Sueleen Gay, a would-be singer at the beginning of her career. During her performance for a room full of political dimwits, her manager forces her into doing a striptease. In her craving for fame and desperate for a breakthrough, though ashamed and humiliated, she follows his instructions.
The installation combines these two story lines from the Altman film, of the celebrated, apparently successful woman alongside a girl prepared to do anything to get to the top, with a fragment from the 1960s horror film, Circus of Horrors, in which a flamboyantly costumed trapeze artist falls to the ground during her act. A shot of a man looking out of the corner of his eye at the beginning of the scene makes us suspect that her equipment was tampered with, her performance sabotaged.
Robert Altman is one of Roorda van Eijsinga’s model figures. Altman’s unconventional plot structures – not linear story lines, but rather collages of many short story lines whose connections to one another are not always clear – have become his trademark. Roorda van Eisinga’s installations follow that same principle, but in three-dimensional form. As a viewer, as you would with an Altman film, you almost automatically seek out the parallels between the story lines and the meanings behind them.
‘What binds the women in the three fragments,’ Roorda van Eijsinga explains, ‘is that the mainspring of their lives is recognition and affirmation from an audience.’ She calls it ‘status anxiety’, or the seeking of attention and confirmation. Indirectly, the artist points out the celebrity cult in our own society. ‘Look, for example, at the television series, Idols. It both surprises and fascinates me that for so many young girls, their greatest wish is to be famous.’ If Love Is a Red Dress also shows the cynical side of all the glitter and glamour. ‘The women all live in the illusion of being in control of their own lives, but in the end, it is obvious that someone else is pulling the strings.’
Nature versus Nurture
Roorda van Eijsinga is currently working on a ‘total installation’, to be presented this autumn at the Arnhem Museum of Modern Art, entitled I began to doubt my theory…. Here too, the themes of success and failure – life’s designability and its frailty – play a central role. ‘The subject or theme of this work actually evolved in a very organic way. In the first instance, I was gripped by the images of laboratory monkeys that the American scientist, Harry Harlow, used for his research in the 1950s. The monkeys were skinny and had plucked bald patches in their fur. The moment they were born, they were removed from their mothers and put into isolated spaces, deprived of any form of social contact with other monkeys. The real mother was replaced by a surrogate, in the form of wire mesh with pieces of cotton cloth, some of which provided milk as a form of reward. Although the monkeys were provided with everything they physically needed, they grew up to be frightened, half autistic, clearly unhappy adults.’ Harlow published his findings in 1959. His conclusion was that babies and children have an inborn need for warmth and motherly love, and that to a child, a mother’s presence means more than just a supply of food.
‘Along with Harlow’s monkeys, the story of Genie was also running through my mind. Until she was 13, Genie grew up in total isolation, sitting in a room, tied to a chair, without anyone ever talking to her. When she was found, she was incontinent and malformed, and the only two words she knew were, “stop!” and “don’t!” Genie’s story is a frequently quoted case study in pedagogy, psychology and philosophy. I did not know the details at first, but it was clear that I wanted to do something with the image and the story. I began investigating scientific theories about the influences and relationships between genetic predisposition and the influence of the environment in which we are raised, the so-called nature/nurture debate. I kept my research as broad as possible, and the information and visual material I collected grew as I went along.’
Her installation in Arnhem will cover three exhibition spaces. She will show found footage of Harlow’s experiments; film fragments from Mockingbird Don’t Sing (2001), the romanticized version of Genie’s life story; images from The Exorcist; a fragment from the 1948 film, Remember Mama, a stereotypical image of the ideal mother; and objects, photographs and texts. Roorda van Eijsinga wants to confront her viewers with questions: To what degree are our preferences, fears and habits already imprinted in childhood? How much free will and power to shape his own life does a person really have? What consequences does the lack of security and warmth have on the development and growth in babies and children – like Harlow’s monkeys and Genie, and the countless Romanian orphans from the Ceaucescu era – and can this be set right at a later stage?
Women are central in many of Roorda van Eijsinga’s works – woman as the seductive ‘vamp’, as a man’s submissive plaything, the woman in her traditional role as mother, or as the daughter, without a mother. Does her work perhaps have a feminist agenda? ‘I am a woman, and it is logical that my work is made from my own perspective and my own memory. Maybe for that reason, women do play a major role in my work. But I try to keep my own opinions out of my work as much as possible. I do see myself as a socially engaged artist, but more the way Jean-Luc Godard once described it: “It is not about making political films, but making films in a political way”.’
Godard, the influential French filmmaker, has been important for her work in several ways. In Roorda van Eisinga’s case, there is never a question of a single, clearly delineated theme or story. Different, short story lines unfold, introducing different subjects. Out of the tangle of information and visual material comes an abstraction, as it were, a thematic grid in which you draw unforced associations, connecting elements, getting lost in your own thoughts along the way. In the end, the installation really performs through what is not shown, in the discursive spaces between the various elements.
In this process of editing and rearranging, the viewer moves ever more to the fore, with the artist moving more and more into the background. Although, as she describes it, she ‘filters her own opinion out of the material’, she is aware that some degree of manipulation and direction is naturally inherent in every selection and every form of montage. ‘What fascinates me most is that through various forms of montage, you can subtly direct people. You can zoom in on minute details and nuances or make small changes that suddenly turn the whole story or the meaning of a scene around.’
Cora Roorda van Eijsinga. Ik begon aan mijn theorie te twijfelen…
Museum of Modern Art, Arnhem
22 September 2006 - 7 January 2007