Making Folk [into] Art in Cecil Sharp House


I like to describe my art practice as lying between the positions of an outsider (in the UK) and an insider (in the folk world). I mention this on the statement at the beginning of my website:

"Matthew Cowan’s practice is in the realm of traditional British and European customs. His works are photographs, videos, installations and performances, which play with the inherent strangeness of 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. In particular, the English have peculiar relationship with their folk traditions that is part uneasiness about their past, and part fascination with spectacle and long established ritual.

In investigating the celebration and performance of folk traditions, a primary theme is the presence of humour and subversion of the usual social order. This comical reversal is a key to understanding the point of people’s enjoyment of folk and ritual traditions."

It is a strange feeling then to arrive to begin an artist in residence program at somewhere like the English Folk Dance and Song Society, and find that the works that I have been making in the recent past feel very different when I place them in this building. It is fairly obvious to me straight away that my position is as a contemporary artist, who works with the ideas and concepts of 'folk' traditions - rather than as a folk performer who presents his work as art. I notice this as I bring sculptures like the Four Hobby Horses of the Apocalypse and begin to hang them in my studio. They look as if they belong in this building, and that is the alarming thing to me. I have always enjoyed how out of context these objects, which look like Folk objects, appear in a contemporary art setting. When they are at the English Folk Dance and Song Society, their absurdity disappears.

I was not expecting this to happen!