Matthew Cowan, installation view of “para field notes,” 2018. Photo: Milla Talassalo, Courtesy the Artist and Photographic Gallery Hippolyte

Matthew Cowan


Photographic Gallery Hippolyte

In “para field notes,” Matthew Cowan expands on a highly intriguing pro- gram that examines regional customs and folklore through art. His previ- ous projects have included “Walk on Roses and Forget-me-nots,” a survey of courtship rituals mounted in Braunschweig, Germany, and Wude- wasa, an exploration of the wild-man archetype that he encountered while investigating European carnival traditions in England. Here, in what has been described as a notebook of artistic research, he induced consideration of the past and pre- sent, rural and urban spheres; and by underscoring the significance of butter, he linked Finland, Ireland, and Germany with his native New Zealand.

Stepping into the exhibition subjected city-dwelling viewers to a potent sense of disjuncture. Electric fencing encircled the space and its centerpiece—a mound of hay bales that suggested a parade floator massive decorated cake, adorned with portable aluminum gates, blue synthetic mesh, red extruded plastic fence posts, an image of Hexenbutter (para vomit/shit), and a series of performance videos. A ribald and ghostly white ring of para, or milk stealers, was suspended overhead, their shadows dancing across the room’s buttery yellow walls. These beings are never seen because their existence hinges on magic. A solitary and imposing figure, garbed head-to-foot in a suit of butter wrappers, doubled as a sentinel and a manifestation of this historically valuable commodity. References to plowing and male snakes, who emerge first to prepare for mating, affirmed the presence of spring and its accompanying risks. A song pre- sented by the Mynämäki men’s choir underscored this fact, petitioning the Honey Paw, Lord Jesus, and Virgin Mary to keep the cows safe while grazing.

A second, smaller, flesh-colored gallery included objects from the Tavastila Local History Museum that not only revealed how people have responded to their environment and used the resources available to them, but also related to Cowan’s installation in the main space. Thus, the introduction of electrical gadgetry, both on the farm and as medical instruments, evoked para, because electricity’s imperceptibility, like para, implies a kind of magic. Seeing the resemblance between one of Minna Hokka’s coiled birch bark shepherds’ horns (inspired by Finnish and Karelian instruments) and a snake also caught one off guard. Who could have predicted that this object, used to warn of danger, would also emulate the shape of the creature posing a threat?

Though Cowan’s background in folk dancing distinguishes his approach to art, he sidesteps incorporating live performance into his exhibitions. Still, a distinct sense of movement pervaded this presentation—in part because all of the objects he makes or chooses to present are performance related, and it is from such use that their meaning as art objects derives. Cowan, when asked, makes a significant distinction. As a visual artist, “objects of perfor- mance” occupy his focus.

Some years ago, David Helwig wrote an essay in which he correlated the fiery light of Halloween with the radiance of Yuletide, two celebrations in which pagan and religious influences have long been intertwined. Cowan’s project, which echoes this approach, spurs us to think about the meaning and use of material culture, the history and evolution of folkloric customs, and the lingering presence of ritual in today’s increasingly urbanized world.