Dark Movements: Clive Hicks-Jenkins and the Return of the Mari Lwyd

From Planet 218

Mary-Ann Constantine previews the new Clive Hicks-Jenkins exhibition coming up in June at Aberystwyth Arts Centre and locates it within an ever shape-shifting folk tradition.

The horse has returned. A new cycle, new images; renewed meanings. The return is both insistent and revelatory, which is pretty much as it should be. It is the nature of the beast. In 1852 William Roberts (‘Nefydd’), a Baptist minister from Blaenau Gwent, published Crefydd yr Oesoedd Tywyll: neu Henafiaethau Defodol, Chwareu-yddol, a Choelgrefyddol (The Religion of the Dark Ages: or Rituals, Games and Superstitions of Antiquity), a composite collection containing a prize-winning eisteddfod essay on the Mari Lwyd. It is a fascinating read, especially the preface. Starting from the unshakeable premise that the only good tradition is a dead tradition, Roberts twists and turns around his material with a discomfort bordering on self-hate. Furious as hell that people might think for one moment that he is interested in this stuff, he fences it off with footnotes and buries it deep under learning. Locating the roots of the tradition in a Roman past gives them a patina of Classical respectability, and signals that they are very, very dead.

It is always a mistake, however, to tell people in anything but the vaguest terms what they shouldn’t be doing. Nothing is racier, weirder, or more perverse than a book of medieval exempla: little stories of thou shalt nots held up by the Church (read Chapel) for us all to shiver in fear, in excitement. When Roberts included in his essay twenty verses from the traditional Mari Lwyd mumming dialogue he probably thought of them as a threnody. Mere proclamation of her death was excuse enough, however: the bones were up and rattling off down lanes, past pubs, through the cobbled streets of seaside towns. By now a necessary part of the corpus of traditional (revived/renewed/preserved) Welsh folk practices, the modern Mari comes in various guises (including, for those without easy access to horses’ skulls, a stylish cardboard flat-pack version: Mari Lwyd meets IKEA). She stalks, too, through Welsh literature, ghosting the self-loathing of Caradoc Evans and ‘ripping the stitch of grief’ in Vernon Watkins’ wartime Ballad of the Mari Lwyd; and more recently, giving form to a childhood terror in Francesca Rhydderch’s novel The Rice Paper Diaries. For nearly two decades the horse’s skull, the white sheets, and the ambiguous twisting bodies have haunted the work of the Welsh artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins. The earlier incarnations were discussed with great insight by Monserrat Prat, who reads in the sequence of Mari Lwyd works developed between 1998 and 2002 a double skein of loss and fear.

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