'to Lubberland': Exhibition Notes


‘To Lubberland’
Matthew Cowan
Cecil Sharp House
11 December 2009 – 31 March 2010

“Lubberland” is an English word for the medieval fantasy land of Cockaigne. ‘to Lubberland’ by Matthew Cowan, raises a glass to Cockaigne, and its enduring influence in the folk idiom. Its place in folk consciousness can be traced through imagery and ritual in folk ballads, dances and mummers plays. As good an opening as any to this strange land of inversion is the question put to the quack doctor of the English Mummer’s play every Christmas. To which a classic answer begins:

I've travelled through Itty Titty, where there is neither house, land, nor city; wooden churches, leather bells, and black-puddings for bell-ropes... Bellerby Sword Dance Play, 1879

This introduction to the strange land is repeated throughout many mummers plays in seeming nonsensical recollections by quack doctors. As the basis for these vivid fragments Cockaigne is a medieval destination of luxury and pleasure, a descendant of the topsy turvy Roman celebrations of Saturnalia, the festivals of Misrule, and in turn a rich visual ancestor of the social inversion in folk ritual such as mummers plays and ritual dance today. Cockaigne is a land of the inverse, where all the restrictions of society are reversed – beggars and debters are pronounced kings and princes, sexual liberty is open and encouraged, and food is plentiful, animals even pleading to be eaten. It serves both as an severe illogical ideal and a extreme opposite to the restrictions of the reality of medieval life.

The works in this show serve to map a path to Lubberland, exploring the underlying theme of 'inverted place' and its fantastic promise of luxury, whilst referring to the cynical observation first noted in the 1820s that London is itself a version of Cockaigne. The set of four images ‘Cockaigne in London Town’, named after the Elgar concert overture of 1901, refers again to the paradoxical travels of the quack doctor of the mummers plays, through contemporary photographs of London streets.

Collages made from Victorian depictions of mummers in the Illustrated London News have the mummers and dancers rotated and turned on their heads. With the title ‘Holy Fools’, they deal with the hyper-romantic portrayals of both folk audiences and folk performers in the engravings, and hint at an audience’s need to develop a romantic history or ritualistic tradition to contextualise what they are watching.

‘Euphoric Clashes’ is a specially created new piece in neon and a trolley full of Morris Dancing sticks. These words are an anagram of the “Cecil Sharp House” sign that adorns the outside of the English Folk Dance and Song Society building. It acts as an alternative designation for Cecil Sharp House, revealing a spiritual joy observed in the stick clashing of morris dancers.Other pieces in the exhibition are linked by their backwardness, their invertedness, and the fact that food is in such plentiful supply in the land of Lubberland that even the very buildings are constructed from it.

The animated video “lumps of plum pudding and pieces of pie” tells a sorry tale of gluttony and force feeding in a literal take on the solo morris jig. ‘Where Does This Noble Doctor Come From?’ is a map of the world turned upside-down re-outlining the quack doctor’s travel anecdote, with the addition of talking pigs and pancake thatching.

The exhibition continues until 31 March 2010.

Bruegel the Elder, Peter. The Land of Cockaigne. 1567:

Pleij, Herman. Dreaming of Cockaigne. Trans. Diane Webb. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Cockaigne to Diddy Wah Diddy : Fabulous Geographies and Geographic Fabulations Minton J. Folklore vol 102:i, 1991

Matthew Cowan is a New Zealand born artist who has been working in the UK since 2001. His practice delves into 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. Recent shows have been in London, Newcastle upon Tyne, Poland and New York. During 2009 he has been Artist in Residence at Cecil Sharp House, the headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society.