art / things to do

Beyond Seven Mountains: The Reinvention of Ancient Myths and Fairy Tales in the British Countryside

“A long time ago, beyond seven mountains, beyond seven forests”* there lay the English town of Corby. Since Roman times Corby had relied heavily on its steel industry, which had attracted many immigrants from the whole of Great Britain over the centuries. Now, years after the unfortunate collapse of the industry, Corby has managed to emerge from the post-industry ashes like a mythical phoenix (as poetically put in this article in The Guardian) and is now the fastest-growing borough in England outside of London. In recent years this town in the region of the East Midlands has invested millions in considerable regeneration projects such as a brand-new railway station, a high-end swimming pool, a shopping centre and a futuristic looking building called The Cube, named after its geometric shape, which houses a cinema, theatre and more.

corby-rockingham-forest-hazel-thoroughsale-forest

Despite its industrial past, it’s not only about steel and shiny new buildings in Corby. Just on the outskirts of the town one can find a little tranquil green haven made up from Hazel and Thoroughsale Woods. These two little woods were part of the ancient and bigger woods of Rockingham Forest, once the royal hunting grounds for King William I. From 1 August till 31 October, you can experience a magical moment whilst visiting the Fermynwoods Contemporary Art exhibition Beyond Seven Mountains in these old Corby woodlands. The exhibition takes its title after the way Central and Eastern European folk stories, and also this blog post, begin. Three contemporary artists have been invited to create work that play with the themes of storytelling, myth and legend, thus ‘to create new folklore of our time’.

“What would people in 200 years time define as the myths and folklore of our day?”

Besides hubby’s involvement in this project, the exhibition also appealed to me on a personal level as ever since childhood I’ve been intrigued by the ancient tradition of storytelling in its numerous forms (thanks to my mum’s fascination with ancient cultures and old Arabic tales), be it either through oral tradition (e.g. Homer’s works), ancient Roman and Greek mythology or fairy tales. The Fermynwoods exhibition made me reflect on our present-day culture and how one might define 21st-century storytelling. What would people in 200 years time define as the myths and folklore of our day? Can we find them in the Harry Potter novels (although these heavily draw on ancient mythology), the novels by Tolkien, the Star Wars or Alien sagas or in comic books? What about particular styles of music, such as hip-hop, a genre that centres around storytelling?
While I let you ponder on this question for a moment, let’s have a look at the artist works you can see in the Corby woods for the next months.

‘Black Swan’ – Kenny Hunter

Kenny Hunter‘s work of a freakishly huge black swan made of steel and resin has nothing to do with the ballet film, but is based on the old phrase ‘Black Swan’. Until the discovery of Australia, Europeans thought that swans were by definition white. In 16th-century London, the phrase ‘Black Swan’ (derived from an old Latin expression) was therefore used to indicate impossibility. In 1697 Dutch explorers (of course, who else?!) led by Willem de Vlamingh were the first Europeans to see black swans all the way down in Western Australia. From this moment the meaning of the expression changed: from a statement of impossibility it came to connote a perceived impossibility that might be later disproven. In 2007, writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb formulated the ‘Black Swan Theory’, ‘which he used to describe any event that is unexpected and makes a strong impact, against the prevailing of the time.’ In this context, Kenny’s sculpture of the elegant black swan standing proud whilst it looks into the Corby landscape is a metaphor for the town of Corby itself and its position in England.
Smaller-sized visitors such as the adorable little girl in the photo below, might not care much about the symbolism and origins of the black swan, but attach their own meaning to this big bird. Just a few minutes before this photo was taken, the girl couldn’t get her eyes off the swan and admired it in awe. She kept feeding it her bread, until she finally decided to sit down by the swan’s feet to eat her own snacks.

After meeting Kenny, I discovered he also created the iconic sculpture of a goat in Spitalfields Market in east London. Everyone who has ever been to this market in Shoreditch after 2011 will immediately recognise the image. You can find this 3.5m-tall sculpture called iGoat at Bishopsgate, opposite London Liverpool Street station.

goat-spitalfields-kenny-hunter

iGoat (2011) by Kenny Hunter @ Spitalfields Market, east London

Editorial update 18 August 2016: after having published this article, Kenny Hunter’s sculpture has been moved from Thoroughsale Woods in Corby to Barnwell Country Park (about 11.5 miles from her previous home).

‘Dark as a Raven’ – Scanner

Music composer Scanner (aka hubby) created a beautiful sound piece that connects language, outer space and history. The starting point for it was the name of the town Corby which means ‘Dark as a Raven’. In Greek mythology, ravens are the messenger between the god Apollo and humans, which is possibly related to their ability to mimic human speech. For his piece, hubby used recordings of ravens and incorporated them in a very cinematic soundscape. The sound is set at a modest volume, which means that you won’t immediately be able to determine if the bird sounds you’re hearing are actual birds in the woods or part of the sonic work. You will also have difficulties to find out where the sound is coming from as the speakers actually look like wooden bird houses and therefore fit perfectly into their surroundings.
Besides links to Greek mythology, the piece also reflects on Corby and its links to outer space: a large crater on the planet Mars is named after Corby and there’s a grandmother from Corby ‘who composed a prayer of peace dedicated to the lost crew of the Apollo 11’.

scanner-robin-rimbaud-dark-as-a-raven-corby

Here is a small excerpt from Dark as a Raven, which I posted on Instagram.

robin-rimbaud-scanner-dark-as-a-raven-corby

Scanner in front of the speaker that plays Dark as a Raven (2016) in the Corby woods.

‘Cloud of Witness’ – Holly Slingsby

Whilst walking through the woods, you might see a little shimmering light coming from the trees. Chances are that you discovered one of Holly Slingsby‘s installations (there are in total three installations suspended from the trees). If you look closely, you will recognise objects from ancient Roman and Greek culture and mythology. In her work, Holly investigates how classical symbols from ancient mythology are used in present-day culture. There is a strong presence of the Hephaestus iconography in Cloud of Witness. In ancient Greek mythology, Hephaestus was the blacksmith of the gods. Holly used this icon as a reference to Corby’s former steel industry.

The exhibition Beyond Seven Mountains is on at the Thoroughsale Woods in Corby till 31 October. The woods are just on the edge of the town centre. Finish your cultural afternoon in the Corby forests with a film in the Savoy Cinema (where tickets cost just a fraction of London cinemas), right next to the woodlands, and sit yourself down in their plush comfy seats. Or treat your taste buds to an exquisite Indian meal at Voujon Corby (101 Rockingham Road, NN17 1JW)!

rockingham-forest-hazel-thoroughsale-forest-corby

The Boating Lake in the Corby woods

Now you’ve had some time to think about the question, tell me: what do you think are the myths and folklore of our day?

* Quotes in this post are taken from the exhibition leaflet and Wikipedia.

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2 thoughts on “Beyond Seven Mountains: The Reinvention of Ancient Myths and Fairy Tales in the British Countryside

  1. Myths and fairytales, I am a fan of fantasy, fairytales, sf and more like this. Always have been, as long as I can remember. Although I am not able to go out and visit places and things you write about in your posts, I always like to read about them. In my mind I go there and my own fantasy creates something wonderful, maybe even better then the real thing since I never disappoint myself 🙂
    Thanks again!

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