Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Folk Art

Ahh, Cornwall. Land of clotted-cream and pasties; piskeys and knockers; home of our precarious fishing industry, an egregious trans-London surfing boom, and of course... art. Yes, art. It's bloody everywhere in Cornwall. Like shit in a field, as we say in bleak and bleary Lancs.

Cornwall has a long and lovely history of art, not least because of it's geography. It's spectacular land and seascapes have been inpiring it's indigenous population for hundreds of years, whilst the last century or so saw artists from further afield making their way there because of the way the sea and the sky amplifies the light. But, because of it's geography - it's relative isolation - Cornish art has always been informed by the rustic; by the naive and the spontaneous. And because the lifestyle of a naive, untutored artist is attractive to certain kinds of people, you can't buy a cup of tea in Cornwall nowadays without some batik-shod, middle-class lesbian pretentiously trying to sketch you in charcoal before you've even got your wallet out. And this is a shame, because I fucking love folk art - I mean REAL folk art. Not the knowing, pseudish cult-of-the-amateur stuff that makes up most of contempory Cornish art. But the un-selfconscious stuff; stuff that isn't meant for a gallery. Stuff that's dumb or just plain weird; stuff that only makes sense to the artist or makes no sense at all. Everything from garden gnomes to Christmas lights; plastic windmills and hideous ornaments. These things are the unrefined sugar of civilisation. Which is why I was like a kid in sweet-shop last week when I got to go in the church at Zennor, in Cornwall.

Zennor is a tiny Cornish village just up the coast from St. Ives. It's got one fantastic pub and a Norman church. Zennor is famous for only one thing: a story about a Mermaid. And here's where the folk art comes in.

Basically, because the story of the Zennor mermaid was so ingrained in the mind of the village, the Church had to appropriate it, effectively Christianising their pagan folklore by associating the mermaid's tail with Christ, and her body with Mary. So they turned the mermaid into a symbol of fertility and prosperity. Here's a picture of the famous Mermaid Chair in the church.

Lovely, isn't it. Now, I also happen to know that the Zennor mermaid is mentioned in a song that the villagers sing The Wicker Man.

So. I'm looking at this chair thinking and I'm thinking about pagans and rural isolation and stuff like that. Suddenly, I turn around to face the back of the church and find the weirdest, most incredible collection of church cushions you've ever seen.

Aren't they brilliant!? The stag and the eclipse are just ace. Each one is an individual piece of devotional artwork; praising, thanking or just being enamoured with something, whether it's a cow ("Osmunda") or the snow or even just a tractor.

Anyway, having made my mind up that the people of Zennor were definately pagans, just as I was leaving I saw this poking up from the corner of the church.

It's what appears to be a giant, papier-mache Christ. Which -pagan or not- has to be one of the coolest and tackiest things I've ever seen.


pisspoorenglish said...

I'd heard that the light you get in Cornwall is why, traditionally, the arty types flocked there.

Anyway, I like the tractor.

pisspoorenglish said...

aah, I think i missed that bit where you said 'amplified the light'.