BLOG Reginald Francis

NWR Issue 115

Hanes: Tales, Stories, Myths and Legends at Aberystwyth Arts Centre

Nothing is more affronting then stepping into a room and being faced with a 25-foot tall man. Mawtholoch, King of Ireland, will have known this feeling when, in the second branch of the Mabinogi, he sailed to Wales, asking the giant Brân for his sister’s hand in marriage. Thanks to the display of Small World Theatre’s giant Brân puppet, we may experience these sensations directly at the Tales, Stories, Legends & Myths exhibition at Aberystwyth Art Centre.

The exhibition is part of the Welsh government’s themed years: the Year of Legends, and showcases the work of a number of visual artists who respond to narrative, and who gain most of their inspiration from British folk tales such as the Mabinogi (dating from the Dark Ages but recorded in Medieval times). These works attempt to align the ancient tradition of oral storytelling with contemporary artistic practices in order to highlight its relevance today.

I found out that it takes a minimum of eight people to operate the Small World Theatre’s giant puppet, with a core choir of six to relate the legend of Brân in a performance which consists of entering a public space, assembling the puppet, walking him through a town and telling his story. Just like oral storytelling, this is truly a communal affair.

Other than the giant, there is a variation of painting, sculpture, photography and video installations. A small collection of David Hockney’s etchings is on display. Hockney produced these for a storybook of Grimm’s fairy tales and he embellished the classical roots of these stories with a unique, bizarre and very visual sense of humour. ‘The Enchantress with the Baby Rapunzel’ clearly echoes the Madonna and child, an archetype of renaissance imagery. Unlike the Madonna, however, the enchantress appears to resemble the musician Ray Davies, covered in stubble and sporting an ominous smile.

The display also included a collection of Lea Sautin’s delicately crafted models resembling the wild animals of Britain. In legend, creatures such as deer, starlings and rabbits would deliver messages, convey omens, and shape-shift from and into human form. Sautin’s models are made from paper that is patterned with swirls and lines, confusing your eyes so that the overall shape is hard to discern. This theme of disorientation makes reference to the distortion of reality and fiction within storytelling.

A bilingual film installation by the animator, Gemma Green Hope, incorporates further stories from the Mabinogi with film clips of the Welsh landscape, as well as clever three dimensional animations.One of the boldest images in the exhibition is a large photograph by the Welsh artist, Bedwyr Williams called ‘Bard Attitude’ (a reference to heavy metal band Meatloaf’s ‘Bad Attitude’) which depicts a Druid-like figure perched on a rock strumming a harp as if he was on stage at Glastonbury. This figure, with his flowing white hair blowing in the wind, contextualises Bardic tradition with the kitschy rock idols of the 80s. ‘

Many of the exhibitions in this year’s legends theme have been attempts to boost tourism by suggesting that these stories will come to life if you go looking for them in the nation’s monuments and heritage sites. Tramping out into the Welsh landscape is certainly essential, but the important message of this exhibition is that the landscape cannot become magical unless it is distorted by the skill of storytellers and artists, without whom there would be no stories to tell. Thanks to those ancient dreamers who looked at the landscape through the lens of their imagination, the power of storytelling was kindled. The artists in this exhibition are certainly keeping the tradition alive and making these stories relevant to today.

Reginald Francis is working on an MA in Literary Studies at Aberystwyth University’s Department of English and Creative Writing.

Hanes: Tales, Stories, Legends and Myths exhibition runs across two of Aberystwyth Arts Centre’s gallery spaces and is showing until 16 January 2018.


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