In t e b gi ning th r w re fr gm ts
By Shaun Caton
A large, battered looking envelope, thudded through my mail box and I noticed a San Francisco stamp mark. Opening it, I discovered 10 articles of bisque porcelain in the form of ‘Frozen Charlottes’, manufactured sometime between 1850-1920. These dolls were made in the millions and earned their peculiar name from an 1843 American ballad, which tells the true tale of a young woman who froze to her death from not being insulated against the winter cold. Small, white, naked, with painted faces, hair, bows and boots – these figurines had immobile limbs. They were often baked into cakes and puddings, to add an element of novelty for children who eagerly prized them out. There are still countless examples in existence, and self-styled archaeologists actively excavate them, and they can be found for sale in their multitudes online.
Quod: figment one
One seed of a great now isolated and almost unknown forgotten Germania is scrambled in hinterland memoirs of ancient bog wood hand hide and shriek bottle and crock dump…a finger points to the future … 1859 outcasts …for old time’s sake… tiny black cries prickle through obsolete spiderhole calendars…pock marked urchins brought forth from nought…deeply beneath the swollen underbelly…feet in heads our hands in mouths… we commune…b b b birdlike… plaintive febrile mutterings…scuttling shattered songs of yesteryear into the debris and milkweed… warbling kindergarten lullabies back and forth… our dried tongues long ago tittle tattled in cracked cups…our evacuated brain pans…wherein purple worms now writhe…hand in m m mund mouth spouts brackish mush… black sputum … seeping from bloodpipes… of 600 come what you will celestial seasons rotating counterclockwise round the sun… time lapse … plus one… unbidden… hidden in the midden…resides in metronomic oblivion…bodies scattered…gluey faces leer blearily…the cardboard cadaver dribbles into her bearded breast…procures a mutant infant…
exited… the bellowing animals inside unexpurgated… spirited windwards… this trod earth compacted under stink foot… liquid of brain feeds a rain god pregnant with water membrane ready to burst… very brackish…dislodges bone head factory…soil slowly slithers into sludge… mudlark ectoplasm burped up … teeth prong this grassy knoll…consuming slumbering topsoil like cannibals to ravenous kith and kin… carries away…towards another blue… perhaps bluer than you might think… a white birth death rebirthday… chuntering our ribald passage into … birds electronic trilling… new light…new animus…we all spit now in one united heave …we all spit now…we all breathe again…an argosy of amputees…
Libet: seemingly random p i e c e s
An examination of these images by three children gives us various comparative interpretations:
Only some of them will fall down:
“The sky rains huge great big gigantic poops on all the breaked up people that live underground. None of them wanted this. They haven’t all got their legs so they can’t stand up. Only some of them, will fall down. But if we helped them they could walk away. Out of the picture. Into another one. They would be happy then to get away from the poops ha ha ha that fall on top of their heads. They would be happy these little people.”
They go to the hospital:
“In this painting someone don’t have any face and the others hasn’t got no legs, just knees like things. This is because it grows out of. Some of them got broke to pieces because then they go to the hospital to get better. A foot smashes him in the face and it got blood like and the others all crying like boo hoo hoo all the time like they are very sad. They look a bit like dolls. Dolls arms and legs that got killed and it is not their fault. Why do they look like this? This picture is ugly I know that because it’s the colours and I don’t like them at all.”
Living the night no end:
“This is a story about people that are horribly treated by something we can’t see what it is but it’s a story. In this story there is something scary going on. If we was in the picter it would no be fun. It would be like living the night no end.”
A very brief history of ritual fetishes
In 1990/91 during a pivotal creative trajectory, when I journeyed back and forth between makeshift studios in London and Paris, I was assembling fetishes at a frenzied rate of production driven by an inner dynamo, welling up from a loquacious mire in my subconscious. These were constructed from papier mache. Empty snail shells became their eyes. Twigs, seashells, (cowries) and thorny spikes, adorned the trunk and head. By adding paint, my offspring became cobalt blue, red ochre, white speckled with pink, a glistening black treacle glaze, reminiscent of 19th century Rockingham face jugs.
One day, I found an incomplete set of false teeth lying at the end of the street and inserted these into the mouth of one of my fetishes. I conjectured that they must have been dislodged during a nocturnal, drunken brawl. Somehow, this chance discovery reminded me of a dream, about my dead grandmother’s dentures, that fascinated me as a child prone to moribund rumination. I called this fetish the flibbertygibbert. I collected some hair trimmings from a barber’s shop and stuck it crudely onto the fetish head. This called to mind a poem, Helian, by the Austrian expressionist, Georg Trakl (1887-1914) in which he uses the words: hair stiffened by dirt and worms, when describing his family as a group of corpses. After almost a year, I had incubated a dozen homunculi.
What to do next? I buried the totems in the back yard in plastic bags and forgot about them, only occasionally having a dream of what else lay sequestered beneath: dead cats, birds caught and killed by cats, rats, mice, clinker, and broken flower pots. When I eventually dug the fetishes up, they had deteriorated badly like rotting cadavers, parts fell away and there was a virulent stench. After some precarious handling, I succeeded in drying out these sodden remains by baking them in the oven on a low heat, much to the chagrin of my fellow housemates who were all bean munching vegans not prone to charred paper pulp. The totems assumed a brittle, husk-like, character rather like the crumbling mummies I encountered in the Palermo catacombs. Later, I gave them all away, posting packages as far as the USA and Australia, to a catalogue of unsuspecting and open mouthed recipients.
It was not for another 27 years, that I would experiment with tin foil, accumulated daily from sandwich wrappers. Amassed and beaten into shape with a rolling pin during episodes that I call, ‘Kitchen Stink Dramas’. I made a series of grotesque idols to use in my performances and regularly coated them with libations of blue powder pigment mixed with liquefied clay. Crumbs from the sandwiches also became lodged in the folds of their bodies and turned a greenish blue mould. At one airport, I was asked by a customs officer to open up my trunk and the near speechless officer said ‘what the hell are these?’ pointing to a plethora of hideous figures swathed in offcuts of oxblood leather entwined with knotted string. I replied, ‘it’s art’.
River Heads: Gurgle Factory Goes Glug Glug
The idea to make some river cult heads came from an infrequent and aimless compulsion to forage on the Thames foreshore, and the reading of books such as, Anne Ross’ Pagan Celtic Britain (1974) and Sidney Jackson’s pamphlet, Celtic Stone Heads (1973). After numerous dreams, which I regard as subliminal messages from my unconscious, I decided to make some archaic heads for my own ceremonial objectives.
First, I collected animal teeth and bones, plucking them from the soft, sticky, mud. There had been many abattoirs over the centuries situated along the elbow of the river Thames in London and so bones are bountiful. Shards of 17th century pottery, clay pipe stems and bowls, shells, rusting ship nails, all made their way into my canvas bag. My heads were sculpted from mulch, embellished with water weed. All evinced the face of an imagined river deity. The sort of monstrosity that has a pike’s evil looking snout, eyes filled with spite, and an agglomeration of spongy growths and protuberances. I propped these fetishes up on trestle tables in dimly lit performances, rattling and rolling pebbles along the floor with my feet. A soundtrack of the river’s flowing current, of stones clunking into one another as a form of prehistoric music, of human voices talking in bizarre squeaky ejaculations underwater, pervaded these rituals. I would wear a red coat smeared with mud, and an oversize sack cloth mask festooned with barbaric decorations of painted dolls. I seemed to be living out my river dreams and these fetishes travelled to distant countries, where they were activated by a different audience consciousness. In County Kerry, Ireland, half of the town’s populace attended my performance, bringing copious measures of alcohol, pastries, and their children as witnesses and (unstoppable) participants in my 5.5 hour non-stop ‘shamanic’ performance. Even the dogs came to gingerly sniff me out and cock a leg against my shrine, adding their own steaming form of copper coloured alchemy.
People told stories about rivers and drownings, of sacred springs, crudely hewn votive statues thrown into the churning waters, sacrifices human and animal, even the story of an oyster shell with alleged supernatural powers that mesmerised the beholder into a state of stupefaction. I was given souvenirs: rocks that smelled of the river when wet, rotting fish heads squirming with maggots, collapsing sandwiches. Finally, I went to the rivers that called to me in dreams and performed exploratory actions on the squelching mud flats –my boots producing liquid farts with every ponderous stumbling. My only audience, were the seagulls screeching overhead, or the bemused passer–by, who momentarily paused to watch. By wearing red, I knew I would stand out against a background of swirling effluvium. The gurgle bubbled up and frothed around me as the tide crept inwards, soaking through my boots into the pores of my skin, permeating my being with the microcosm of the river’s dark spell. I felt that I had become an inhabitant of the river, immersed in its lore, the allure of its potency for reanimation and regeneration germinating inside me.
The gouache paintings and ink drawings accompanying this text were created as a direct response to the selection of mutilated Frozen Charlottes I received through the mail, as part of the Ineligible project in the Summer of 2019.