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Death and the Lady: Shirley Collins is the Secret Queen of England
09.21.2016
10:54 am
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Photo of Shirley Collins by Toby Amies

This is a guest post by London-based artist and filmmaker Nick Abrahams

“She burns as passionately and beautifully as ever, a fountain of snow and flame, a queen singing over a dreaming land. For me, and for many others, she is the Secret, and True, Queen of England”—David Tibet, Current 93

“Shirley Collins is a truly amazing figure. She… is the very spirit of folk music, and has always been in a kind of awkward relationship with it, as the kind of music that Shirley has always espoused is the oldest, truest, perhaps darkest form of folk music, with all of these fantastic dissonances, all this bloody and tragic history distilled into every verse…’—Alan Moore

While making “Ekki múkk,” a film for Icelandic rockers Sigur Rós, I was looking for someone to play a kindly snail, and when David Tibet of Current 93 suggested Shirley Collins. I thought she would be perfect, and she was. Shirley is a legend within folk circles, and I have loved her channeling of an English folk tradition from the moment I first heard her Anthems in Eden many years ago.

In November, Domino Records are releasing her first recording for 38 years, Lodestar, and I was pleased as punch when Shirley asked if I would make a film to accompany the track “Death and the Lady.” I was surprised as anyone, as at the time I had no idea she had been recording anything! This video in many ways is a companion piece to “Ekki Mukk,” sharing as they do themes of nature, life, death… the big themes!
 

 

“[The video]… captures the sinister quality of the song, the inevitability of Death coming to us all. The setting in the ossuary at Hythe is chilling, yet calm, almost tender; and the appearance of the hooden horses is so wonderfully strange and unsettling.”—Shirley Collins

The skull which contains a robin’s nest in it in the video was not a prop, it really is a feature of the ossuary—a robin really did once make its nest within that broken skull! The memory of this nest from some long ago holiday is what drew me back to film at St Leonard’s in Hythe in Kent. It seemed like such a unique location, a reminder of the constant coexistence of life and death.  The song itself has Kentish roots, and the horseskull creatures are inspired by the Kentish tradition of the Hooden Horse, where a horse skull would traditionally be used in performing an ancient folk custom about death and resurrection—although these were later replaced by painted wooden horse heads, in order to be less scary.
 

 
And finally, artist Cathy Ward—who grew up nearby—had designed some amazing corn dollies, woven in the traditional manner, yet utterly modern, alien and mysterious, all at once. 
 

 
The film is fairly elemental, using water, air, earth and especially fire as textures to layer over Shirley and the landscape. When visiting her to discus the video, I saw some old photographs of her taken by Alan Lomax, the seminal field collector of folk music, and she was kind enough to let me include these in the clip. They seemed to fit well with the themes of vanity and death, and added an extra level of poignancy, contrasting with the Shirley of today.

And if the end of the video seems to echo the famous “Dance of Death” at the end of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, that’s because it turned out that both Shirley and I had independently thought about that scene when thinking about the song’s lyrics. I asked Shirley why she had not recorded for 38 years. She told that when she discovered her then-husband was having an affair, she “went through … a loss of confidence in my ability to sing well, leading on to dysphonia, where sometimes I couldn’t even make a sound.”

More after the jump…

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Posted by Richard Metzger
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09.21.2016
10:54 am
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The psychedelic hairscapes of Cathy Ward
09.02.2015
05:21 pm
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This is a guest post by artist/director Nick Abrahams.

Los Angeles gets the pleasure of being the first city in America to stage a solo show by the London-based artist Cathy Ward. Her forthcoming exhibition at the Good Luck Gallery is opening on September 5th, with the artist talking about her work at the gallery on September 6th.

Cathy Ward is something of an alternative British institution, having exhibited in many medias and forms over the years with everything from large scale sculptures and installations, to tapisteries and work made from corn dollies. But the work she is best known for are the dark psychic landscapes, reminiscent of woven hair, which are both immediately familiar and unlike anything else you will have ever seen. With a technique she has been honing for seventeen years, she scrapes intricate patterns into a layer of ink to reveal fine lines of the white clay that lie underneath, these scratch works suggest many things… cosmic struggles, full of pulsations and explosions…  the dark matter or the ‘dust’ of Philip Pullman’s novels… swirling waterways or weirs, made up of feminine eddies or sprays of water… but most of all they resemble plaited and flowing swathes of hair….  ‘I can’t plan them, I can’t replicate them either,’ Ward says.
 

Albina Incubii Albion

Hair of the recently deceased was carefully bound and arranged in Victorian hair works, an art form and custom which gradually fell out of fashion. These memento mori often took the form of a piece of jewellery (such as a locket), but sometimes in fabulously complicated and contorted “hair wreaths.” The hair that flows through these memorials also flows through the works of the Brothers Grimm, with Rapunzel’s climbable tresses, and later continued to flow through the counterculture of the 60s as a signifier of a rejection of cultural norms, whether by long-haired bikers or drug-addled hippies.
 

Lost Commune

The pulsating lines of Wards works have something of the drawings of Hans Bellmer about them, suggesting female curves and crevices, with the female body as a site of erotic mystery and power.
 

Cathy Ward

At a retrospective of the works of outsider artist Madge Gill in London, Ward was a natural choice for the position as artist in residence, with both artists driven to obsessive drawing styles, Gill with repetitive depiction of angels or ‘spirit guides’ , and Ward with her incredibly detailed abstractions reminiscent of woven hair, both describing very active ‘inner landscapes’ of womens minds, and there is a feeling that the act of line making may, for both women, act as a form of spell casting or be a sacred act.

There is a musicality to the waves in Ward’s work, and she has found a natural connections with certain musicians, such as Sunn O))) who used a triptych of her works on their Monoliths and Dimensions sleeve, and Stephen O’Malley of the band later providing a soundtrack for Ward’s animated work “Sonafeld.”

‘The Order’ is a new set of works which make specific reference to Ward’s early tuition under the Sisters of Mercy in Ashford—not the Goth band, but one of the schools run by notoriously strict nuns whose ghostly outlines people Ward’s new pictures.  Ward says that the nuns all had their hair cut close to their skulls: “As a child I was shocked, appalled, fascinated that nuns sacrificed their hair in this way. Hair in the 1960s was a symbol of liberation and this livery was being wilfully, symbolically removed.”
 

The Order

These works often inhabit ornate frames sourced from flea markets and junk shops, giving them the feel of found objects, rediscovered antiquities from another time and place.

These works form part of the world of Cathy Ward’s artistic vision. Her many projects in collaboration with her husband Eric Wright can be followed here’, while more information about her solo works can be found here.

This is a guest post by artist/director Nick Abrahams.

Below, Ward’s “Sonafeld” with Stephen O’Malley soundtrack:

Posted by Richard Metzger
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09.02.2015
05:21 pm
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What does a snail eating sound like?
06.23.2014
04:08 pm
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Filmmaker and visual artist Nick Abrahams will be presenting “Lions and Tigers and Bears,” an exhibition of photographs, installations and artworks inspired by the lush magic of the British countryside. The show which opens at The Horse Hospital in London on Friday examines our changing relationship with nature by inviting the spectator “to use their own imagination to bear on sounds and images which are both extraordinary and overlooked.”
 

 
Last year Nick made “Ekki Mukk,” a short film collaboration with Sigur Rós that won the British Council Best UK short film award for 2013. That short (see below) forms part of the “Lions and Tigers and Bears” project and also inspired Abrahams’ 7-inch single of the same name:

The single and exhibition include 3 key audio recordings – that of a snail eating, a fox sleeping, and sounds recorded around a tree. The sounds evoke mysterious worlds – the tree is the Martyrs tree in Tolpuddle, under whose branches the first trade union in England met in 1834, to fight for better pay and working conditions… the snail is heard eating, amplified to a level which we can hear and sounding something like a chainsaw – what else would we hear if we could listen closely enough ? And a sleeping fox…. what does a fox dream about ?

A fourth recording features the voice of Shirley Collins, a living national treasure and seminal folk singer, who reads a prose poem by Nick Abrahams, leaving us in the world of fairytales.

A feature film of the “Lions and Tigers and Bears’ project is currently in development. Nick says there will be a live snail race at the opening (6pm to 9pm) and to “please come, bring friends (although not more snails, they can be rather ‘me me me’).”
 

 
The Horse Hospital, The Colonnade, Bloomsbury, London WC1N 1JD
 

 
Below, Abrahams’ stunning music video for “Ekki Mukk” by Sigur Rós:
 

Posted by Richard Metzger
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06.23.2014
04:08 pm
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Sigur Rós: Stunning new short film for ‘Ekki múkk’
09.24.2012
05:31 pm
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Icelandic avant gardesters Sigur Rós are in the midst of their “valtari mystery film experiment.” The idea was to give twelve filmmakers a small budget to make whatever film they wanted to make when they heard songs from the groups’ latest effort valtari

“we never meant our music to come with a pre-programmed emotional response. we don’t want to tell anyone how to feel and what to take from it. with the films, we have literally no idea what the directors are going to come back with. none of them know what the others are doing, so hopefully it could be interesting.”

The stunning short film for ‘Ekki múkk,’ tenth in the series, was directed and written by Nick Abrahams, who writes:

“Goes without saying, but no animals were hurt during the filming—had to wait weeks until someone I know came across a dead fox in the countryside to use in the end sequence.”

Irish actor Aidan Gillen (“Mayor Carcetti” in The Wire) plays the man. The voice of the snail was provided by Shirley Collins, icon of traditional British folk music.
 

Posted by Richard Metzger
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09.24.2012
05:31 pm
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