The London-based New Zealander Matthew Cowan graduated from the Auckland University with a degree in English and Psychology. In 2005 he received his Masterʾs degree in Fine Arts from the University of Northumbria (Newcastle upon Tyne, UK). His practice is in the realm of traditional British and European customs. His works are photographs, videos, installations and performances, which play with the inherent strangeness of the continued popularity of long established folk customs in the modern world.
These works can be viewed as mock folk performances in themselves, playing with the elements of folk rituals that give people a link to the past. In investigating the celebration and performance of folk traditions, a primary theme is the presence of humour and subversion of the usual social order.
This comical reversal is a key to understanding the point of people’s enjoyment of folk and ritual traditions.
Matthew’s works have been presented in several solo and groups exhibitions in UK.
On his residential visit to Maribor he explored the folk tradition of our region, trying to find its traces in the present and its influence on people. He worked with local artists and cultural practitioners, as well as with other local people in order to learn more about how tradition and rituals continue to be relevant today. From this, he drew inspiration for a series of new works, which he created during his residency.
One of the motifs he finds particularly interesting and inspirational is the idea of the promised land, the mythical land of plenty (Land of Cockaigne). When he visited Cultural Centre Pekarna, he saw in it a potential for being such a ‘promised land’.
So, as a landmark, and in collaboration with local artists Ivan Krepek and Jernej Žumer from Studio 39, he painted a huge (30 m) grafitti on Hladilnica’s wall – depicting the traditional Slovenian saussage.
While researching our region’s folklore tradition, he was particularly drawn to “kurent” and especially the “pokači” figures, who where known for using their wips to ward off evil spirits. Using the whips as means of communication, the mode of this usage, and the sounds these whips make were particularly interesting to the artist. He used this as inspiration for his video work, for which he got help from the “pokači” group from Tržec.
Since he was in Maribor in spring, the time of the year, which was once marked by numerous rituals, he dedicated one of his projects to this time of the year. Inspired by Salvador Dali’s In Voluptas Mors from 1951 (which was created in cooperation with photographer Philippe Halsman), he made a video, which represents a sort of a counterpoint to the godess of spring. The skull is made of human bodies, while the video accompanies its construction, as well as its deconstruction – two opposites, two opposite principles, not unlike life and death, which are suggested by the motif itself. There is a masked figure in the foreground of the composition, and this figure is playing a clay bass (gudalo), thus giving the whole composition a ritualistic, ceremonial character.
The artist intertwined our folk tradition with his own creative poetics, and in the short month of his residency created a collage of various works.
"It was a great honour to work with GuestRoomMaribor, they were amazing hosts and they went out of their way to help me realise the projects that I was interested in. Although I was only in Maribor for a short time, I feel that I managed to get a lot of work done, and this was due largely to the efforts of the GuestRoom staff in finding ways to accommodate my artwork. Their help was far more than a simple translator's role, as they needed to understand the perspective that I was trying to make art from and communicate this to others on my behalf. This is not an easy task in any language."
Text: Maja Pardeilhan