These are really just notes – I was thinking about how we try to make sense of exhibitions, how much our own personal reference points guide what we take from them, how we challenge or absorb ideas, or rush to define, interpret or misinterpret, see what we want to see or not… it’s not an opinion of the exhibition, just an attempt to gauge how our own reference points filter information…
‘English Magic’ intrigues me as a title because it taps into my fascination with folklore and slightly arcane takes on history and landscape… I’m getting pictures of Shakespeare’s Prospero, maybe John Masefield’s Box of Delights and Herne the Hunter, paganism and druids. There’s something possibly Tudor, like Dr Doctor Dee, or Derek Jarman’s films touching on similar themes shared by Peter Ackroyd with their dreamy analysis of British art and literature and folklore.
The design of the promotional material is pastel pink and green… not sure what that says… it could be quite retro-nostalgic bake-off village fete competition styling, but there’s a huge hawk glaring out which I think will have set the context of my initial thoughts – wild England, which makes me think of Richard Jefferies (because of his Victorian after-the-flood apocalypse novel After London: Wild England). I’m quite precise here because it’s a whole cultural/historical area I’m really drawn to. I’m quite excited about what I’m going to find.
Film: Ooh-oo-hoo ah-ha ha yeah
The first room is darkness, a video playing – just about to start again – and various spot-lit taxidermy victims: owls and hawks. I love owls and hawks, but part of me is not reading this as I once would, because of the obnoxious turning of ‘wildness’ into a high-street shopping/interiors experience which seems ubiquitous now. (I say obnoxious, but that’s not true; there is some beautiful wild imagery and it’s wonderful to see deer and owls and foxes and nature influencing design… but then you read something like ‘If you love the wild outdoors trend, want antlers but not keen on hunting, you’ll love these plastic resin antlers!”, a paradoxical statement that has integrity and no integrity at the same time…).
The film opens with amazing footage of owls and hawks, tethered hunting birds in a pastoral landscape – it’s all high-definition detail, breathtaking in the way it captures feather and claw and expanse of wing in slow-downed movements, and that wizard-like power of watchfulness in the eyes… and a barn owl’s legs are indeed a thing to behold. Dust sparkles in the air and I wonder if it’s intentional that the eerie, almost medieval drone of the soundtrack is broken by the noise of families feeding and possibly whelping outside in the cafe. But nothing detracts from the innate power of the birds themselves.
Next up is footage of four-wheel drive range rovers being crushed in a scrapyard, an abandoned Victorian redbrick building (could be a school, a hospital, a factory?) in the background. I enjoy this because I don’t like these four-wheel tanks, don’t see the need for them if you’re not dealing with farming terrain or large equipment on a regular basis. To lazily generalise, they’re a symbol of an aspirational, ersatz country life associated with weekend homes whose value puts housing out of the reach of workers in rural communities.
This dissolves into the inflatable Stonehenge, which appears with the skyline of Canary Wharf’s financial centre in the background, and there’s May Day celebration as everyone cartwheels and does handstands. It’s pagan abandon/freedom. I can’t help, though not sure I want to, but think of Danny Boyle’s opening of the Olympic ceremony, which suggests a refashioning of an idea of ‘old England’, one that’s tied in with pop culture – I’m off on a tangent thinking about Michael Bracewell’s 1997 book England is Mine: Pop Life in Albion from Wilde to Goldie, with its fantastic image of Malcolm McDowell deep in a forest in a sparkling blazer, an image full of Lindsay’s Anderson’s political might from the film If…. Then I’m thinking about the book Electric Eden which explores similar ideas of an ‘old England’ in folk music from the 60s/70s.
The scene clears, Stonehenge deflates and the soundtrack winds down before breaking into footage of the Lord Mayor’s show. Various costumed dignitaries are beaming, seemingly benign, from the horse-drawn carriages. Two wicker giants, Gog and Magog, are paraded – so I’m thinking of The Wicker Man and 1970s ‘folk horror’ momentarily (but who will be sacrificed?) before getting lost in the knowing observation of details of the Lord Mayor’s show flowing thick and fast – there are parades from the military, financial institutions… it’s redolent of the gathering of parents at the school Speech Day in the closing scenes of If… before McDowell and his revolutionaries take over. In my head, I’m somewhere in the early 1970s. I was a baby at the time, so this is really a second-hand experience through film and TV and all sorts of media. I didn’t live it, but the ‘memory’ of this time is made real because I grew up in the landscape it created.
One image is particularly effective to me: a pair of bridled carriage horses are resisting their role, teeth and nostrils flaring, eyes rolling, as a costumed handler attempts to bring them under control, so any footage from any riot is echoing around too, but also the birds from the opening – both the hawk and horses are tethered, but who is ‘tamed’?
As the film closes (amid footage of the recording of the celebratory soundtrack by an English/Trinidadian steel band) it’s back to the hawks and owls, and you realise you’ve been sitting on a crushed range rover.
Lines and lines and lines, as Tubbs would say
Next up is a room which I’m not surprised to find given the time I’ve gone to in my head… here is David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tour and the troubles in Northern Ireland (a series of photos line the walls, all taken in the time period of the tour). A vast image on the opposite wall traces lines across the country linking all the places Bowie played. It’s like a map of railway tracks (I think I remember a quote on the wall about Beeching and closing railway lines in the 60s, but can’t confirm that so may be wrong). It’s also like a map of ley lines. So I’m thinking of a map of latent pagan undercurrents, pop music as escape and, at the same time, restrictions on people’s options for travel (particularly those on the fringes).
This all ‘exits via the gift shop’ (pains me to quote Banksy, so why do it…) and here I get my first full view of the key image of the exhibition, unfortunately on a postcard. It’s a flying hen harrier with a range rover in its claws, and I buy two. For me the hawk represents an old, unfettered wild Albion, a latent ancient strength that will see out the excesses symbolised by the range rover. In other eyes it may be ‘We’re coming to get you’ – after all, the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft is not that far from the museum.
That’s the end of Part One, as the rest of it is upstairs labelled ‘Part Two’: the hen harrier with the range rover is huge on the far wall and explains the shooting of two such birds over the Sandringham Estate on a day Prince Harry was shooting. There were no prosecutions as the carcasses of the birds could not be found.