In the art of Elin Engelsen, the element of water shows how we can combine nature and childishness - to be playful, to swim, and it is the reason she has painted big whales swimming underwater.
an interview by Marie Bertelsen
The recently published book ‘Elin Engelsen’ written by Charlotte Mandrup (2022) presents the playful reflections of the artist Elin Engelsen. In general, Engelsen’s art shines a light on the surface and depth of our world, which we see through the way we interact with water, the ripples, and waves around us, and how we ourselves interact with the powerful forces of nature. Drawing parallels to modern day society, Engelsen states we must be aware of our disconnection to nature and a tendency to superficiality while losing the spirit. The message is a warning of us forgetting the importance of the raw and unpolished, and she instead showcases nature as both being beautiful, but also raw and unfiltered.
Engelsen herself lives on the headland close to Vejle Fjord, and nature is the origin of her happiest moments, and where she feels at home. Especially as a child, she was gone in nature, in happiness, looking at the water, and forgetting time, simply being present. The motives of Engelsen’s art are often children, and she thinks it ties together with the fact that our world today is inhabited by people who live by only the force of romance in the pursuit of falling in love. But, as Engelsen points out, there are numerous other things in life, and the specific time of childhood is a time you should hold on to as long as possible. It is a time where you simply enjoy existing without worrying about what impression you make on people. With the childishness of exploring and playing, we are in an incredible bubble of fantasy, and having been allowed a good childhood is a gift and privilege. It is of utmost importance to have that child with you all the time, even to talk to it once in a while.
In her art the element of water shows how we can combine nature and childishness - to be playful, to swim, and it is a reason she has painted big whales swimming underwater. Diving is a big dream of Engelsen, and whereas people think it is scary to look down into the water, Engelsen simply call it home which it always has been. In her book, there is a whole chapter called ‘God’, where Engelsen is quoting a hymn. Faith has a big role in her life, and it is in nature she feels close to God which is a present and major force.
Today we are so used to seeing nature on television or on Instagram, Engelsen says. She shares a story about hiking with friends in Norway to Trolltunga, which is far from nearby towns and cities. Many people, especially young ones, were enjoying nature, which was positive, but at the same time they were not acknowledging the natural forces. It was shown in the way people were walking and moving around, how they were not checking the ground and therefore putting themselves in immediate danger. One step to the right and you are dead. People went all the way to the edge as if something could not go wrong as if we are a character on TV or in a game where you quickly get up: 'Oh you are not dead anyway'. We do not understand how death is right beside you. It is a reflection of the control we think we have possessed over nature today, but that is not reality. If you die, you die, and if you step wrong, you are dead. And when nature strikes back, we are forced to learn the importance of respecting nature. When asked whether we today see the world as being too binary, she says: 'On the contrary, binary is good'. The contrast highlights the truth in the way nature is both dangerous and relaxing. Nature is beautiful, but it is not a picture-perfect surface. When Engelsen paints a bear, it can bite, and it does not smell nice.
In continuation of alienation from nature, Engelsen draws the parallel to our contemporary ‘retouched world’ we as humans have put ourselves in, and she points out how we create a fake world where, more specifically, girls are required to wear make-up and appear in a certain way. Of course, the drive goes for boys and men as well, and with ‘the fear of sounding like a cliché’, everyone should love who they are and accept the inner beauty present now instead of worshiping superficiality. Engelsen goes as far as to suggest a personality Botox on the soul for people that strive to have a perfect face. Instead of working on the surface, focus on expecting less than perfection from other people, and befriending yourself and friends which is what will give you a deep and good life.
In the world of art, especially contemporary art fascinates and excites Engelsen, because it allows you to express something recognisable and something which makes you think. Not tied to one artistic medium, it is present in everything from music, painting, and even commercials. It has to be something that talks about the zeitgeist of our world and captures a certain soulfulness. The specific way Engelsen finds a motive is often finding a photograph on Instagram that has a certain atmosphere. It could be a girl that is standing in a certain way, and the starting point can be a screenshot that is then transferred to a different setting and context. Interestingly, Engelsen tried taking her own photos, but increasingly understood how difficult it is to create that certain soulfulness. A specific chemistry cannot be planned and is not always there.
Also, the element of age has a big effect on how the subject portrays themselves. Engelsen has experienced that when children, especially girls reaching the age 12, change. After that, it is more difficult to take a photo without losing the essence and freedom.
In terms of composition and more specifically, the golden ratio, Engelsen considers the effect of painting in an old-school way. She noticed that it could prohibit mistakes, which instead should be embraced. Allowing 'mistakes' or going outside of the formula, allows the soul to enter., and the human behind it will surface and become encapsulated in the art. Painting strictly old school requires everything to be neat and tidy which resembles more of a craftsman than an artist. For instance, a decorator or building painter will paint a wall while being conscious not of letting the paint run down. To Engelsen, the beautiful thing about contemporary art is that it is less strict without necessarily having a polished finish. She references other artists, such as musicians, reaching higher levels when the art displays the person, and you can tell what human it was, and who wrote the text.
Contemporary artists who are especially captivating to Engelsen are especially found in the world of electronic music. Especially the electronic music group Röyksopp excites her, because they are an example of how music can have meaningful texts, and not only be a simple repetition of ‘love love love’. Instead, we go a bit further and create art you can reflect upon on a different level. On a less contemporary note, Engelsen is most fascinated by Gaudi, who to her is one of the most insanely brilliant minds who has existed on this earth. A genius, she says, because Gaudi was able to take the Fibonacci and find the patterns in plants and on top of that allow his own person to intertwine, which Engelsen says is a methodological thing she would never be able to do.
The way in which Engelsen has developed her own visual language, is by allowing her voice to speak. Instead of indirectly copying others' style, you can strive to truly listen and liberate to yourself, and what you want to express. It can be achieved by challenging yourself and as exploring your own limits and skills, such as putting the motive of water in movement, which can be surprisingly difficult when you are standing in front of your work. For instance, Engelsen paints with big brushes which surprisingly will still allow you to paint water rich in detail. It is not clear at first, but suddenly the painting appears. The immediate thought is ‘No-no-no-no, it does not look like it at all! It’s terrible’, but then you take a step backwards and realises that: 'Hold on, it is water'!