Material Studies - Mandy den Elzen

For visual artist Mandy den Elzen (1981) the material itself is always the main subject. In her work, she distills the essence of the material-specific characteristics and displays the objects in their own right. She seeks out materials with qualities that appeal to her - a certain texture, tactility, colour or translucency - and after preservation, she presents them to her viewers in display cases.

With an almost scientific approach and meticulousness, den Elzen is directly involved in the process of transforming her material from its raw form to a finished work which can be displayed. She works with organic matter, plant and animal material, and it is essential to her to have full control of the process from the beginning, including selection and handling of the raw materials. As a consequence of this determination, she also goes to the slaughterhouse and selects her materials, when she - as she does in a current series of works - uses cow organs.

In this series, den Elzen uses the four stomach compartments of a cow; the rumen, reticulum, omasum and the abomasum. Each of the stomach compartments has a specific function in the digestive process and therefore they have different shapes and textures. The reticulum is, for example, lined with ridges that form a honeycomb-like structure, which can capture and retain dense particles of feed or indigestible objects. And the omasum is characterized by the large number of leaf-like folds, which provide a bigger surface for fluid absorption. In nature, the form is always determined by its function, and this honesty of form, these structures determined by biological processes and necessities, is an inexhaustible source of inspiration to her.

When the preservation process begins, the works immediately shift from being about the specific animals to being a display of her fascination with the diverse and profound qualities in material found in nature. Through her treatment of the materials, den Elzen brings out the characteristics and properties which intrigue her, and by doing so she shows both her fascination with and respect for nature and its inherent structures.

In her search for materials, den Elzen finds beauty and inspiration in unexpected places, because she is unbiased towards their origin. She sees through the layers which obscure the object; both the actual layers of blood and grime when it hangs in the slaughterhouse, and any layers of cultural or social notion that say that a cow stomach cannot be an object of beauty. She looks at the material itself and sees structures, patterns, textures and possibilities.

Material information, Cattle Stomach Leather

As a final product, cattle stomach leather shares a lot of qualities with conventional hide leather; it has great tensile strength, it is flexible and has a high resistance to tear and puncture.

But whereas hide leather has a uniform appearance, cattle stomach leather has great variation in structure. It is textured and grooved because of the ridges of the smooth muscle pillars and papillae formation that line the stomach walls. The interior surface of the stomach forms numerous folds and papillae, which vary in shape and size from short and dense to longer and rounded.

The largest part of the cow stomach is the rumen and the reticulum, which basically form one compartment, but differ in surface texture. The rumen is lined with short, fur-like papillae, which give it a velvety surface, and slightly larger projections in the shape of rice grains.

In the reticulum, the papillae gradually merge into tiny folds which form its characteristic honeycomb netting with a hexagonal pattern. Both the rumen and reticulum are brown after preservation.

The omasum, the third compartment, is sometimes referred to as the "book" because of its numerous thin folds of tissue which can be seen to resemble book pages. The colour of the preserved omasum is light with a yellow or grey tint. The omasum retains its compact, round shape after preservation.

The fourth compartment of the stomach, the abomasum, contains a large number of folds and has a parchment-like white to grey colour, which it retains after preservation. When preserved, the irregular folds of the abomasum resemble wavy ruffles and frills.

 Preserved rumen and reticulum   Photo courtesy of Mandy den Elzen 
 Preserved abomasum   Photo courtesy of Mandy den Elzen