Diary: in Ellen Ligteringen's studio

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

By Nicholas Laughlin

27 June, 2009

Ellen Ligteringen works in a small bungalow in a quiet suburban neighbourhood north of central Paramaribo. The first sign that this is not simply a respectable middle-class house is the wooden rack in the paved driveway, hung with net sacks of what look like--

"Duck feathers," she says. "It's raining so much these days, they aren't drying properly."

Yet more sacks of feathers are hung around the enclosed verandah, and despite the excellent ventilation there is a definite fowlyard whiff in the air. Next to the kitchen door is a small washing machine, which Ligteringen uses to clean the feathers when they arrive from the duck farm.

Inside, the house is set up like a cross between a factory workshop and a science laboratory, with a long worktable down the middle of what probably used to be a living room. Steel shelves on either side are packed with boxes and plastic storage crates, neatly labelled. Lengths of wood and metal wire and an assortment of tools are neatly lined up on the table, alongside bowls and baskets of botanical specimens like seed pods and twigs. In one corner of the room is a heap of small green leaves, withered but not yet dried. On the kitchen counter, sealed glass jars are filled with a nearly opaque brown liquid, and what look like pieces of--

"Chicken skin. I'm experimenting with chicken leather."

ellen ligteringen

Artist Ellen Ligteringen. Photo by Nicholas Laughlin

Of all the artists we have met on this trip to Paramaribo, Ligteringen is the one working with the oddest materials, and in the most open-ended, process-driven mode. Her current projects are investigative in an almost old-fashioned way. She seems fascinated with natural materials commonly thought to have little value--hence feathers and skin that are by-products of the poultry industry, and leaves, bark, and twigs from wild plants that would normally be considered "bush" needing to be cleared away.

Born in the Netherlands, but half-Surinamese (on her mother's side), Ligteringen moved to Suriname some years back. On the one hand, her work demonstrates a strong ecological consciousness. On the other, it seems to grapple with various cultural discomforts and shocks. She shows us a strange object that for want of a better word you might call sculpture: a pouch of brown chicken leather, roughly triangular in shape, filled with uncooked rice. It looks something like a pincushion, something like a piece of offal (a stomach?). "I call it Chicken and Rice," says Ligteringen, a wry reference to Suriname's national dish, which she says she got sick of eating over and over again. It is a weirdly fascinating object, both witty and rather morbid, simultaneously attracting and repulsing tactile investigation. You don't know if you want to touch it or not. (I didn't.)

ligteringen studio

In Ellen Ligteringen's studio. The triangular object to the left is Chicken and Rice. Beside it are samples of chicken leather. Photo by Nicholas Laughlin

She tells us how she taught herself to turn chicken skin into leather, researching the tanning process and devising a formula for a sort of tannin broth made from leaves and bark. Those murky jars on the kitchen counter are the next few batches of leather in progress. When she brings us cups of tea, the hot brown liquid exactly the same colour as the stuff in the tanning jars, I take a cautious sniff before I sip.

Next she shows us another sculptural object, a large dragonfly, a foot long, made from bent wire and scraps of wood. Fragments of bone, beetle wings, snakeskin, who knows what else, wait to be incorporated into the insect sculpture. I can't help thinking of Maria Sibylla Merian, the German artist-naturalist who spent two years in Suriname at the end of the 17th century, studying insect metamorphosis and recording the natural history of the country in vivid watercolours. Merian caught butterflies and moths in her kitchen garden, reared caterpillars in her parlour, and preserved small reptiles in casks of brandy.

Ligteringen's experiments are far removed from Merian's in intention, but her zestful curiosity is perhaps not so different, and her work similarly hovers at an unresolved intersection of art, science, and domestic craft. I am utterly fascinated, but can't say I entirely understand what she's looking for, or trying to make or prove or do.

By now she's moved on, and is telling us about her attempts to manufacture small batches of chocolate--she brings us yet another dark brown jar--and the cocoa trees she's planted outside, to eventually provide her raw materials. And the Surinamese Carib dancer she's been observing, fascinated by his working process. Her plans to use those duck feathers to stuff cushions of chicken leather....

Except the neighbours don't like her using her front verandah as a feather drying-room, she says as she shows us out. They don't like the smell. And maybe--she laughs--they wonder what she's really doing with them, and with all the other strange materials she collects. This small, sharp-eyed woman with her baskets of leaves and sacks of seed pods and bits of bone--is she an artist, or is she working some other kind of magic?

ligteringen studio 2

In Ellen Ligteringen's studio. Photo by Nicholas Laughlin