Posted on 22nd February 2020
By Shaun Caton
the moist dead
porous skulls of infants
in slow motion
their shadows sucked
into dark holes
OVER TIME, I have interacted with objects that are so mysterious and enchanting that one cannot quite articulate their innate fascination, which is frequently spellbinding. These objects are ancient and at the same time appear so contemporary, as to be timeless. As a lifelong collector, coming from a lineage of seasoned, obsessive collectors, I am mesmerised by the cult of the object as a supernatural icon. Here I focus on a few of my favourite objects.
Who and what is Little Mannie? The story starts in the early 1970s and centres round a collection of ancient stone heads, found in West Yorkshire and catalogued by Sidney Jackson, the keeper at Cartwright Hall Museum, Bradford. His 1973 booklet ‘Celtic and Other Stone Heads’ inspired me to reimagine the enigma of archaic heads.
We are lured into their dark history by their inherent grotesqueness, hideous expression, and weird mien. Jackson’s pamphlet of oddities, with its green dayglow cover, has continued to inflame my curiosity for 25 years. Take Old Harry for example, a monstrous stone head with bulbous eyes and chipped fangs, who appears to have had cranial surgery performed by a ham fisted stone mason. Like Old Nick and his other namesakes, this ogre arouses a sense of disquiet by virtue of its very ugliness. As we are enamoured by notions of beauty, we are also drawn to the disfigured. In medieval times, something horrid was called ‘grimlich’ nowadays we call it grim. Little Mannie was referred to as a God Dolly and brought happenstance calamity to the lives of people who came into direct contact with it, by a series of circumstantial domestic accidents and tribulations. Much of the lore associated with jinxed items may be the by-product of an inflated neurotic superstition, exaggerated by the tabloid media for spurious entertainment value. Just because something has an unsettling aspect does not mean that it is necessarily imbued with evil. We invent a scary story. We frame the object within this context. It suits our need for spinning an enduring fantasy.
Little Mannie was initially (wrongly) considered to be an ancient Celtic figurine by the ‘renowned’ scholar and sometime psychic, Dr Anne Ross. With its huge nose, flaring nostrils, and slit eyes it could fall into any camp of misattribution. However, after further expert examination and comparison, the object was determined to be an African fetish linked to the practice of black magic. When we intuit that a power object has been employed in some clandestine witchery, we automatically associate it with psychological unrest, as referenced by the plethora of horror films which fixate on the primitive as source material for the nefarious (The Witches, Hammer Films 1966, being a good example of this phenomenon).
Dream Fragment (18.02.20)
I steadily climb a green hill covered in stones and discover a group of chanting pilgrims walking barefoot to the summit, their faces hidden by cowls. On the way up, I encounter a weathered placard of embroidered bearded faces, stitched in a furious tangle, that resembles a riot of mossy heads all eating one another. Rain has saturated the purple fibres. They hang heavily, like putrescent masks. I am given a crudely photocopied book, much thumbed, cracked, and dirty. The indistinct photos show vagabond female teenagers in the 19th century carrying fake infants made from reconfigured doll parts with ill fitting, matted, wigs. At the top of the hill there is a worn Sheela-na-gig carving exposing its vulva with a manic grin. Upon a brick and flint wall: a curious stone idol with misshapen features beckons to me. I am told this is the protector. The guardian of the mound. In most towns and cities, gargoyles abound. Only a few of us can hear their rain schemes play out for insomniacs.
Some years ago, I chanced upon a heavy stone head, about the size of a clenched fist, for sale in a bric-a-brac shop. The crudity of the carving made me question if it was a piece of folk or tribal art. The weight is considerable, especially when held for more than a few moments. Its colour is a very dark, chestnut brown. The texture is extremely hard, which might explain why the features are so simplistically gouged. Its form reminds me of the strange sentinels that inhabit tree trunks, bridges, walls, doorways, lintels, wells, and fireplace surrounds – liminal characters that leer at us through centuries of shifting belief systems. At first glance, the head resembles an inflated fungus, or wrinkled pig’s bladder, striated with delicate folds and creases. On the basis of its novelty value and for the sake of speculation I acquired the head, which has an indescribable, untutored semblance. However, I learned little from the shop owner, who reading my thoughts, suggested, ‘it could be an ancestor figure’. That clinched the deal.
Since purchasing the object, it has variously served as a door stop, paperweight, and curio. At one stage, it was arranged on a bookshelf; later it relocated downstairs where it became lost for a while amongst a profusion of packages. I retrieved it by providence and took it upstairs, where it resided on a side table. During the filming of a documentary, I was asked to sit and talk on camera with the object in frame. Each time this sequence was filmed, it came out completely blank, despite new batteries being inserted into the camera consecutively. After some consternation, the director believed the head to be hexed. He was convinced that it had been previously worshipped in magic rituals and that it was charged with supernatural energy which blocked any filming of it. The head has recently been moved to the kitchen table where it oversees eating. Things have quietened down. There have been no more extraordinary experiences to relate. For the time being it slumbers.
Two Neolithic Heads from Vinca
In 2010 I acquired two small terracotta heads from an antiquities dealer. They have the angular stylization typical of Neolithic heads from the Vinca Culture near Belgrade, in Serbia. One has the suggestion of an owl or bird goddess where superficial damage reveals an eye wound – an enucleation? Perhaps, it bled tears from those sightless eyes? Its surface is pitted and under magnification resembles that of a horned toad. The other head is alien looking, insofar that it is oval with huge almond shaped eyes and it has three holes on the crown – evidence of trepanning? Were these holes inserted to permit a string to pass through them, so that the figurine could be worn as a magical amulet? It would not look out of place in one of Picasso’s images from 1907, when he was experimenting with cubist distortion under the spell of Congolese masks and statues in his Parisian studio. Both heads sit snugly in a padded box and have been used as power objects for their iconic qualities in some of my live performances. They have travelled in my coat pocket to Germany, Poland, and other now forgotten locations.
It was during a very cold snap in January 2011, that I was invited to perform at the Catalyst Gallery in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The space was once a glove and handkerchief factory opened in 1845, and its workforce comprised of young children susceptible to fatality caused by machine injury. With these facts in mind, I decided to take the heads with me and invoke them on a specially lit table. Working in such a cold temperature meant that I had to wear several layers of clothing to keep warm throughout the day. The gallery hired an industrial heater until the fuel ran out, afterwards it rapidly cooled to freezing point and water froze in my paint pots overnight. Whilst painting an image on a 10m sheet of paper my fingers turned numb and I frequently had to rub my hands to get the circulation moving. During the confusion caused by extreme coldness (the performance was 7.5 hours long) I somehow misplaced the Neolithic heads. At first, this led to frantic searches of crumpled boxes stored underneath tables. Finally, a highly comprehensive going over of the entire site yielded no return and I reluctantly came to think that the heads had been lost, or worse still, stolen. With an increasing sense of disappointment, I tried to backtrack on all the possible situations in which the heads might have been exposed. After much rumination, my attention was drawn to a small black holdall bag, the kind that normally holds just a few notebooks and pens. There at the bottom of the bag, inside a zipped up side pocket, was the small red box containing the heads. They had never been displayed publically and by a sense of disorientation brought about by fatigue, my memory was tricked into thinking that I had taken them out.
Back to Bed: a short and comical history of some ornamental pigs ‘Carcassonne Style’
I wish to share an amusing vignette with you, that touches upon the avant garde and the extent of people’s willingness to enter the zeitgeist. During a particularly damp Spring, I arranged to meet my art teacher, who I had not seen for almost 40 years. Our rendezvous was pre-empted by numerous online exchanges that bordered on the surreal, befitting the jovial nature of communications between a former mentor and savant.
Arriving in the city of Carcassonne, I was offered the archetypal artist’s garret for the duration. Complete with leaking bathroom pipes that sprayed water in all directions from tiny punctures, the trademark squalor associated with a semi-derelict building on the verge of collapse, complimented the setting. I was told the place was owned by a mercurial gallery owner who resided on the other side of the street, who was incapable of selling the property, as a chain of prospective buyers kept pulling out at the last minute leaving him in what is commonly known as the lurch. My home for a few days served as a suite of grubby, heavily curtained rooms, dark and oppressively full of obsolete items of unattractive, damaged furniture, covered in a fine layer of grey dust, burnt, blackened, cooking pots and pans, (of the cannibal cuisine variety?) broken, immovable doors, mouldering rolled carpets, the lair of long expired, now skeletal vermin.
From this house of horrors, I discovered a strange U shaped day bed and set to work, placing a snarling stuffed boar’s head at the foot of this little chaise, to keep me company during the long night, punctuated by the Gallic gurgling and belching of overflowing drainpipes. Having emptied a trash can of paint stained tissues over the bed, I retrieved a bird cage filled with oblong stones, and some sanguine plastic grapes, a few old Chianti bottles and a cracked vase, from which I fashioned an artist’s still life motif. To my surprise, I also found a number of chalk ware ornamental pigs (some of them gravy or sauce boats) which I decorated with pink tempera stripes and a form of enlarged lilac pointillism that so epitomises French impressionist painting. I placed these miniature animals around the bed, in a silent coterie, as if they were talismans placed before the shrine to the great god of detritus. Thus, the scene was set, and all I needed to do was to paint a black and white backdrop. I was ushered away to meet the art dealer, presiding over an exhibition of boring paintings that had failed to sell a single item. He ordered his dolorous gallery assistant to source a roll of Japanese paper and with much self- aggrandisement, generously donated a sheet to my project. The paper was slightly yellowed at the edges which afforded it a vintage feeling fitting with the installation I had assembled from rubbish. Soon, I donned my grottesco mask and got into bed, mindful of creeping bugs and tickling fleas, my art tutor whirling paper birds on wires over my head, while a zealous young photographer took picture after picture of the shadow play on the surrounding walls in a flickering rapture of shimmering narratives.
However, this harmony was short lived and interrupted by the dramatic arrival of the art dealer, hot on our heels from his boutique of bogus art brut, he wanted to see what was ‘going on’. He was furious that the china pigs had been painted and stated, ‘eet eez not my collection!’’. Soon, I found myself elbow deep in soapy water, in what can only be described as a genuine kitchen sink drama, rubbing the objects clean in an act of ribald penance, having been reprimanded for being too experimental for my own good. Unfortunately, this soggy act of contrition was not enough to appease the dealer, who having gone into a blue funk over some pink pigs, decided to throw me out on the street, to demonstrate his authority in the face of such heinous sacrilege. Before leaving, I noticed a tangle of boar’s head bristles clogging up the sink hole: souvenirs of memorable antics. Needless to say, we created hundreds of amazing colour photographs from the performance and an excellent short film, which was screened at the 58th Venice Biennale in June 2019.
Two shards of bellarmine witch bottles came into my possession via a circuitous route. Originally, they were plucked from the slime of the Thames foreshore by a friend of mine, and covetously prized in a locked plan chest for many years. I only glimpsed them once, and tentatively asked permission to draw them, to be met with a blunt and glaring rebuttal, ‘No. I need them for my own work.’ Needless to say, they remained under lock and key and were never used. As the years crept by, my friend eventually lost touch, moved 200 miles away, discovered the ravages of alcoholic oblivion, and very slowly withered away to become a speck of dust in a plastic urn. After her tragic demise, the hoarded spoils of years spent foraging for finds were soon up for grabs, and I was invited by a mutual friend to inspect the cases of archaeological artefacts, to select my memento. Sure enough, there amongst this pile of shattered trophies, were the two smooth Bellarmine fragments, washed for 400 years by the tumbling action of the churning tides.
In order to write about the grotesque heads incised on the Bellarmine jar neck one must inhabit many other heads, both actual and fantastic, from those found at the source of the river Seine, to the phantasmagorical mannerist paintings of Arcimboldo. By placing one’s mind set in the cavity of another ancient head, a whole mythos of suggestibility begins to gestate and stir beneath the skin.
These Bellarmine fragments took over 20 years to finally enter my collection. During that time, they occupied my dreams and formed the basis of a strange new pictorial language that I now employ in my paintings and collages. One shard is merely the eye of a Bellarmine, with its startling zigzag eyebrows, starburst barbs, spikes that puncture the ribbed brow. The other is glazed and depicts the worn features of another eye, squashed nose, and cheekbone. On closer inspection, a miniscule pink dust mite can be seen traversing the rim in a speedy faltering motion, stopping here and there for a rest on its meandering transit, which seems to mimic the undulating course of the river. There must be billions of dust mites present in my collection – microscopic custodians of the grimace! A modern counterpart for the Bellarmine face could be the emoji with the not so amused face, its lips curled in spiteful disdain.
If Bellarmines could speak, or communicate with one another, how might they sound? Would their voices burble of the riverbank and its swirling currents filled with accidental and deliberate drownings, the lost and found playthings of yesteryear, and the popping of muddy mouths spewing out their untold stories? Who would capture these vomited histories?
The publications I refer to in this article are:
The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic, Ralph Merrifield, 1987.
Celtic and Other Stone Heads, Sidney Jackson, 1973.
Bellarmine jars are globular shaped stoneware flasks dating principally from the 16th and 17th centuries, named after Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, who attempted to impose strict prohibition on the imbibing of alcohol. The German ceramic artists who manufactured these onion shaped beer bottles delighted in the cruel sport of depicting his face in caricature on every single bottle neck. Thus, we see multiple examples of the growling, bearded visage of the Bellarmine, which also brings to mind the fanciful wild man of Teutonic forest lore.
Witch Bottles were extensively employed by many during the period as counter hexes against witches. Bellarmines have been found to contain finger nail parings, bent iron nails, brass pins, cloth hearts, urine, and human hair. The bottles were sealed and usually buried under the doorstep of houses, or in the voids between walls, to ward off witches.