Matthew Cowan’s exhibition serves as a kind of notebook of artistic research into aspects of the historical customs and traditions of the countryside. From the vantage point of a gallery in central Helsinki, it produces and responds to an imagined threshold between the rural and the urban. The exhibition entitled para field notes is the sixth edition of an ongoing collaboration between Hippolyte and the Saari Residence.
The exhibition contains installations of hay and other familiar materials from the countryside. These elements—coupled with photographs and videos of flora, fauna and objects referring to folklore–construct a landscape of different considerations of “the rural.” Several objects were selected by the artist from the Tavastila Local Museum in the village of Mietoinen in western Finland, providing a direct link to former times when these objects were part of everyday life. Portions of the videos have additionally been accomplished with the collaboration of the Mynämäki men’s choir.
For some time in his artistic work, Matthew Cowan has explored the somewhat strangely misplaced presence of ancient customs and superstition in contemporary life. Looking into folklore and local history while staying at the Saari residence in Mynämäki he discovered what seemed to be images of devils on the walls of a church in Kalanti, painted by Petrus Henriksson in the late 15th century. The creatures depicted in these scenes, overlooking people, turned out to be ”para”—a supernatural being who, although not evil, belonged to a pan-European tradition of milk-stealers. Para could be constructed from typical household materials and brought to life via a magic ritual in order to gather milk and butter for its owner. It was believed that a para sucked milk from the udders of neighbours’ cows and carried it home in its stomach, which it then vomited or defecated into a churn. It was also widely believed that milk turned to butter in a para’s belly. Para are a concrete application of the historical conviction that luck is a limited commodity. In the exhibition, the visitors will be able to sense the paras’ presence over their heads, in a similar way to the Kalanti churchgoers both now and five centuries ago.
The particular practice of trying to garner the limited resources of good fortune is present in many of the works displayed at Hippolyte. It is well suited that the exhibition itself happens in the springtime, opening immediately after Easter, which has traditionally been a critical period in this respect. The end of the long winter is arriving, preparations for summer can begin and historically this time of year has customs to guard against the dangers of letting the animals out of the barn too early. It is also the time that the snakes appear from their underground winter hibernation. The males first emerge to catch the sun and heat their bodies and females are soon to join as the weather slowly warms the earth. A snake’s forked tongue enables it to “smell” its environment in three dimensions as it flicks from side to side.
Most of us do not live in a world where these natural and agricultural habitats are recognised in our everyday lives. However, in the not-so-distant-past, this was not the case—only a few centuries ago most European populations were based on small agricultural communities. Some people believed that the power of magical artefacts and folk superstitions could influence current and future events and provide “luck” through the manipulation of nature. Although the concept of creating luck through superstitious practices is still plausible to us living in the 21st century, many such customs find their roots in the different ways humans have sustained survival, such as through the successful production of food and reproduction of both animals and people.
Matthew Cowan (b. New Zealand) is a visual artist, based in Berlin and Helsinki, working in the realm of traditional European folk customs. His works take the form of photographs, videos, installations and performances, which play with the strangeness of the continued popularity of long-established folk customs within a contemporary world.
In European societies, people have a peculiar relationship towards folk traditions— partly an uneasiness about the past and partly a fascination with the spectacle of long-established rituals. By investigating aspects of celebration and performance within folk traditions, the presence of humour, and subversion of normative social orders, emerge as primary themes. This comical reversal is essential to understanding people’s enjoyment of folk and ritual traditions.
Mathew Cowan’s recent exhibitions have often included artistic responses to artefacts and folk objects inside museum collections—delving into structures that guide perceptions of the past, and re-examining what is suggested as evidence in the historical presentation of identity. His works can be viewed as mock folk performances in themselves, playing with the elements of rituals that give people a link to the past.
Matthew Cowan stayed at the Saari Residence first in 2013 and then as the invited artist from autumn, 2016, until spring, 2017. He is currently a Doctoral Studies candidate at the Academy of Fine Arts, University of the Arts in Helsinki.
Find out more about Matthew Cowan. Get to know the Saari Residence.
para field notes
6–22 April 2018
Photographic Gallery Hippolyte & Hippolyte Studio
Exhibition open: Tue–Fri 12:00–17:00, Sat–Sun 12:00–16:00
image: Matthew Cowan, Snakes, 2017