“In comessszzzzzzzz I, backward and wonky… In comessszzzzzzzz I, Hopper Joe…”
These lines, adapted from a traditional Nottinghamshire folk play, are being read aloud from a glittery, golden horse-head-shaped card. It’s held aloft by a figure dressed in her own ribbon-trimmed, day-glo reinvention of a smock, last worn in the village of Cropwell Bishop during the 1890s.
You might say that Hopper Joe’s introduction to himself, in the hands of Suffolk-born, Nottingham-based artist Arianne Churchman, is not only the first line of a performance called Horse-Play, but something of a declaration of intent.
“I was definitely drawn to the Hopper Joe costume in the Castle's collection because the character’s origins are in folk play,” explains Churchman. “In folk plays, normal modes of behaviour are reversed, things become topsy-turvy, and that allows you to enter the worlds of ritual, to make things wonky and strange.
“In my own work, I like finding those wonky things within folkloric culture, then squishing them together with other bits and pieces and really coming to some very poor conclusions. That’s one of the things I love about folk culture; it has these rough edges that lead to some very strange things coming out of it.”
Churchman’s work since her graduation in 2011 has explored such folkloric characters and rituals as the Cutty Wren, the Harvest Wain, the Soulcaking Séance and the Chime Child. Collaborations with Chloe Langlois have also manifested skipping Green Men in Nottingham’s city centre and a human stone circle outside Peterborough’s town museum at dawn. Horses, however, have been, and remain, one of Churchman’s consistent fascinations.
“In some ways, Horse-Play is just me combining a lot of the various horse-related things I've worked with over the last few years: from clanking, horse-brass frogs’ bones, to making and wearing horse-head masks,” she says. “But perhaps I should add that I do keep accidentally making different parts of Father Ted in my own work, so for the Castle show I may well end up inadvertently remaking the My Lovely Horse video.”
Having said that, a comic outcome wouldn’t be entirely inappropriate, given that another key influence on Churchman’s Horse-Play has been the Castle’s archived records of its 1977 exhibition The Story of English Clowning, put together by the extraordinary, if now rather neglected, poet, writer, exhibition designer and researcher Arnold Rattenbury.
Hopper Joe’s nineteenth-century costume – decorated with ploughs, horses, a variety of rural village types in patchwork silhouette and the words “IN COMEƧ I” – featured very prominently in Rattenbury’s 1977 display. It sat alongside such folkloric icons as the Minehead and Padstow Hobby Horses, the Ooser’s Head, and a seventies clown costume decorated with a picture of Donald Duck made from sequins.
Rattenbury’s eclectic approach to making exhibitions was part and parcel of someone his publisher and close friend John Lucas describes as “one of the wittiest men I’ve ever known. Arnold was a wonderful writer and prodigiously well-connected researcher who tended to know everyone, mainly through Communist Party contacts.
“The Communist Party in the thirties was very involved in folk and popular art, so a lot of the people Arnold knew in that world were also connected to the Communist Party; people like [legendary folk-song collector] A.L. Lloyd, or Enid Marx, whose extensive folk art collection is now at Compton Verney in Warwickshire. These were formidable people whom Arnold gleaned a lot of material and information from…he had extraordinary knowledge and convinced passions.”
One of the first publications from Lucas’s own Shoestring Press was Rattenbury’s 1994 chapbook The Frigger Makers, a collection of poetry that he acknowledges as a major factor in his decision to set up the Beeston-based publishing imprint in the first place.
“The Frigger Makers is a perfect example of Arnold’s playful work, where he honours the men and women who used their spare time to take their crafts in playful directions,” says Lucas. “‘Frigger making’ included things like scrimshaw, whittling, and the wonderful work miners and nail-makers did when etching the insides of tobacco tins. It was when the glass-blowers of Sheffield made ridiculously heavy glass hats and walked around in parades wearing them.”
“Arnold was a Marxist who believed in the folk as the creators of their own culture, and art as something rooted in working people’s lives," he explains. "For him, Marxism wasn’t a sour-faced and overly serious Stalinism; Arnold always insisted on the joyousness of Marxism, on the fact that whatever gives pleasure and offends the bourgeoisie is great. He stood for a genuine kind of populism, not what populism has become, but a belief that people could make their own culture.”
Churchman notes that her own attraction to the Castle’s documentation of The Story of English Clowning lay in the show’s highly idiosyncratic staging and the infectiously blatant enthusiasm with which Rattenbury had gathered and presented his exhibits.
“The exhibition design he’d come up with was quite out of the ordinary compared to anything you’d find in a major gallery or museum now,” she says. “He creates a very playful environment, complete with big tops and painted scenery. I do also think that clowning is an aspect of folk culture that often gets a bit overlooked.
“His sensibility comes through very strongly in his writings for the exhibition catalogue, where everything is written about with the utmost enthusiasm, and all in language absolutely anyone could understand,” she adds. “I’m very much an enthusiast rather than an expert myself. I’m incredibly serious about what I make, but at the same time, when you work with folk culture, you are going to make yourself look ridiculous and that amateurism is a really fun part of it.
“One of the nicest things about The Story of English Clowning is the way he’d managed to draw interesting lines between traditional folk culture, circus and various other traditions simply by putting all these objects into a space where they’re just standing about together. He has African masks displayed alongside English folk costumes, and he seems to really understand the connections – which are there to see – but it’s not at all dry or studiously put together.”
Rattenbury’s “rag-bag” sensibility, like Hopper Joe’s, informed Churchman’s own performance last month, as she made her way through the Castle grounds in three stages. She recited her Hopper Joe text on the green, put on a horse’s head in the children’s playground, then donned a plough-boat bustle on the terrace while humming a tune associated with the Minehead Hobby Horse. At each stage, she distributed small, glittery, horse-shaped “HORSEEEEEDs” among her audience like ritual protective offerings. The effect was curiously, if subtly, transformative.
“When looking through the archives, I noticed that Arnold had managed to get the Minehead Hobby Horse for his clowning exhibition, and I’d already made a sound piece and film for the Folklore Tapes record label in 2015 which had been based on the way the Minehead Horse works to create a ritual space around that particular village,” she explains.
“For that reason, my Horse-Play performance took a route up through the Castle grounds to create a similar kind of ritual space, so it ended up located somewhere between the Minehead Hobby Horse ritual and one of the Plough Plays from which Hopper Joe and his costume come, which is probably a terrible bastardisation, but that’s how I often work. What I create draws on the actual traditions but works outside them and becomes something else in its own right, I suppose.
“Besides, Hopper Joe seemed an odd choice for a clowning exhibition to me, as he’s very much a fringe character and his role is not particularly comedic. I think Rattenbury’s exhibition created a much larger dialogue around his costume than the folk play he came from ever did. But Hopper Joe’s “rag-bag” sensibility is obviously also wonderful, as it gives me a kind of permission to bring together disparate things in my own performance and exhibition too.”
Arianne Churchman’s Horse-Play is being exhibited at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery from Saturday 16 September – Tuesday 31 October. Nottingham Castle charges apply.