Matthew Cowan: Flowerbeard
Matthew Cowan: Wudewasa
Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg
(interview edited by Rebecca Lal)
New Zealand born artist Matthew Cowan has developed a busy practice after graduating with a Master of Fine Arts in 2005 from the University of Northumbria, Newcastle, UK. Since then Cowan has participated in a number of artist residency programmes. He has also exhibited and performed throughout the UK, Europe and the US in galleries and festivals such as the Folkestone Fringe and the Edinburgh International Festival of the Arts. He also participated in the Northern Edge Programme as part of Documenta 12 in Kassel, Germany.
Throughout his practice Cowan has investigated rituals of folk celebration and their uneasy relationship with contemporary life. Ranging from installations to video and live performances, Cowan’s works often tease out aspects of absurd humour, fantasy and festivity, and explore how these factors can mischievously taunt the banality of modernity. In Flowerbeard, his ongoing global series of performative self-portraits, Cowan evokes the ‘Wildman’ character of medieval European origin by creating elaborate beard disguises using vegetation and flowers from the location in which he stands.
The following is an edited interview that took place on Thursday, 10 October 2013, between Cowan and myself, in preparation for his exhibition of Flowerbeard works as part of the Te Tuhi Billboard series – his first New Zealand exhibition in over a decade.
Bruce E. Phillips: Let’s start with the so-called ‘Wildman’. What is this character and why are you interested in him?
Mathew Cowan: I didn’t know much about the Wildman archetype until I started researching European carnival traditions during a residency at the English Folk Dance and Song Society in London in 2009. During this residency I was specifically researching costumes for traditional English dance, which led me to explore different carnivalesque characters and I kept coming across the Wildman. I discovered that this character was quite often depicted in churches and on buildings all around Europe as a very hairy figure. In the folklore of medieval times the Wildman’s hairiness was an important aspect of his persona, helping people project on to him the wilder aspects of humanity.
Therefore, this figure has always been important to the carnivalesque. He is half-human half-animal, a person on the fringes, and when you have a character like that you have an awful lot of agency for pushing the boundaries. Carnival is a time when the rules are relaxed and people are allowed to express that wildness. In a lot of the folk traditions that I was researching, particularly the performative forms, this wildness is at the centre of how people found a kind of instinctive meaning. It is the performances and the costumes that let people transgress. For instance, during certain carnival events across Europe, there are devil characters who are permitted to come up to a crowd and half-grope anyone, and ridiculously lewd behaviour is seen on the streets. Carnival is a time that permits behaviour that would otherwise be inappropriate.
The costumes used to depict the Wildman are not necessarily hairy per se but are often made out of a lot of rags, straw or pieces of material hanging off the body so that when the performer is moving the costume will take on a representation of hairiness. Morris dancing costumes sometimes take on this quality as well. In the Flowerbeard works I don’t want to draw a direct lineage to the Wildman but want to make my own versions of that character and let an audience project their own feelings on to the character that I have made. It is a character I keep coming back to because in different contexts and in different settings he represents this kind of fringe opportunity for transgression.
B: You mentioned to me that the Wildman is sometimes hairy but other times half-man half-foliage.
M: Yes, but it depends on the region or the place in which he is represented. I also like the fact that he doesn’t necessarily symbolise anything that is good nor bad. The character is ambiguous in that respect. He comes from the natural world which doesn’t have any notions of morality.
B: In the Flowerbeard series are you seeking out sites to photograph that are thresholds between the manmade and nature?
M: I like the description of these spaces as thresholds. However, more important to my thinking is that I want the work to be set in the present. There needs to be some sort of evidence that the performance is taking place in the real world. I usually want something contemporary in the background or recognisable in the setting, some sort of anchor to the place in which it is situated. I consider these photographs as performances that occurred in a specific moment and at a specific place.
B: Exploring aspects of tradition has been a core part of your practice, what set you down this path?
M: I moved to the UK about a decade ago and in those days I was interested in documenting rituals and traditional events, having come from a background as a Morris dancer in Auckland. In the early 1990s I was part of a team called Green Man Morris, which I had convinced my friends to join. We had a great time, partly because we had no idea of the context for this kind of folk tradition and had never really seen others performing it before. So we decided to teach ourselves and moulded it into our own thing. Basically we wanted to be in a band but none of us were really musicians so we became Morris dancers [laughs]. I did that for a while and when I arrived in the UK I started taking photos of these folk events and rituals that I had only heard about. I did this for about a year or so before I realised that I was part of a pack of photographers following these events around, just taking straight documentary pictures. Over time, I started to wonder why people were taking these photos and why crowds and crowds of people were turning up to the events. Especially because, in the mainstream press, traditional events get kind of pilloried and ridiculed. And so I started questioning: What is it that people are looking at and what stories are people telling themselves when they are looking at these events of ritual dance?
Those questions are what really got me thinking about this subject and at the same time I was thinking about commencing a masters in fine arts, and it was then that I decided that this was what I wanted to concentrate my practice on. I was still a Morris dancer then and I was also interested in ‘mumming’, which is a similar thing but more like a folk drama which has a lot of heavy costume and nonsense verse. It is virtually all nonsense really [laughs]. There is a fight and a death and then a quack doctor’s cure. It happens on the street or in pubs or people’s houses at certain times of year. In my master’s research I considered in more detail the narratives that people have in their minds, what it is that people are thinking when they are watching these kinds of traditional events. Are they tracing a link back to some sort of time in the past that might not have actually existed? What stories are they telling their children about what it is that they are watching? In their own minds do they know what it is that they are watching? Do the performers even know the origins of what it is that they are doing? I found that you could ask 10 different people and have 10 different stories about what was actually happening and I thought this is where it actually exists – the meaning exists in the observers’ thinking about the performance or the ritual. The meaning is slightly different for everyone who sees it. This is also the case with my artwork. The work I make is not the performance, it is the meaning that observers take from it.
I am also very interested in working with humour because, in Britain especially, it is an important aspect of traditional performance and ritual. Humour is often tied up with festivals and times of celebration but ritual humour on the other hand is something more than that. Ritual humour provides a little more meaning or a serious jest in aid of what is happening, a little like the role a court jester might have, or a medieval fool, or a Shakespearian fool. Humour exercised by this sort of character is of a perceptive and knowing kind – the character is interpreting what is happening. I think a lot of folk ritual can be seen as a piss-take of other aspects of society, which is an attractive place to start thinking of making work. In some way contemporary artists also take on the role of being a serious fool.
B: You have completed a number of residencies around the world. How does the mode of working in the context of a residency fit in with your practice?
M: I think my work really suits the setting of some residencies because I am very interested in how a particular setting influences the local people culturally and historically. I am interested in what has happened in the past in that place, what the folklore is like and what traditions exist in that specific place. My work really suits that sort of hyper-localised study, and so residency projects have worked really well for me, to go and spend time in a place and get to know people and their traditions.
There are two ways that I work: as a performer myself with a specific tradition, or with other people as performers to work alongside and together make something new. My collaborative works are a little bit more subtle perhaps, an exaggeration of what my collaborators would do normally. When it is myself as a performer I have more licence to take it further. Collaborating is relatively new for me and is a little bit harder because there are more people involved, but very rewarding. An example of this is a work I did with some traditional Slovenian whip-crackers. I think there is a fine line working as a contemporary artist with guys like this because in no way am I wanting to change what they do or not respect what they do by any means – my motivation is the opposite. Rather, I am coming from a new perspective. They are mostly interested in keeping the activity the same and carrying on a tradition whereas what I am interested in is the construction of meaning around what they are doing. As a contemporary artist, I am also interested in sharing what they do with new audiences. So it is important for me to work with them and for me to learn as much as I can about their tradition in order to make the most of the collaboration, and this project worked really well. They enjoyed themselves and so did I.
B: I remember you telling me you had these performers doing their whip cracking in unusual locations.
M: Yes, these guys usually perform at particular festivals in the summertime or very early spring. The place where I made the film [Pokači, 2012] is an island which is used in the summer as a swimming complex but because it was spring the pool had not been filled with water yet. The acoustics of this place was amazing. When performers want to re-enact something the way it has been done exactly in the past then I am not particularly interested in that sort of dogmatic tradition. That is one reason why I always try to set my work in a contemporary place.
B: You studied psychology initially.
M: Yes I originally studied psychology at Auckland University and my interests were cultural psychology and social psychology, so I have always been interested in groups and how groups relate to each other and what cultural tradition could mean for an individual’s identity. I guess when I started studying psychology I had also started to Morris dance but, surprisingly, I don’t think I had put the two together.
When I first left school I started studying at Waikato University and there was an undergraduate course I took called Ritual and Religion. One of the things we did during the course was to attend an Anzac ceremony, to study it as if we were anthropologists, and I think that had a profound influence on me – being forced to step back from participating and looking at the meaning and how people were relating to the events. I can never remove ritual from my artwork, whether it exists as humour or in a deliberate performance, or the deliberate changing of the state of an object.
B: Lastly, could please explain to me your understanding of the object in relation to performance?
M: When people ask me what kind of artist I am it mostly appears as though I am a performance artist, but I actually think that what I am mostly interested in is making ‘objects of performance’. The objects I create have no meaning as an art object unless they have been used in a performance or if the ritual has been enacted while I am wearing that particular costume. And so, while my work is very much about performance, I actually feel like I make performance objects as my work. The objects I use in a performance are also sculptures that are exhibited. Sometimes I make the object first before I have a full idea of the performance and sometimes the performance comes first.
Matthew Cowan is a New Zealand artist working in the realm of traditional European customs. His works often consist of photographs, videos, installations and performances which play with the inherent strangeness and the continued popularity of long-established folk customs in a modern world. These works can be viewed as mock folk performances in themselves, playing with the elements of folk rituals that give people a link to the past. Cowan has exhibited, performed and held residencies extensively throughout the UK and New Zealand. He has also shown in the US, Japan, France and Poland. Selected exhibitions include: Terminalia, Charlie Smith Gallery, London, UK (2014); Travelling Art, 500m Gallery, Sapporo, Japan (2013); Cultural Transference, Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, New York (2012).