One thing into another and a picture of us.
by Peter Hollinghurst
Cabinet des Fées would like to introduce you to Peter Hollinghurst, a UK artist and digital alchemist whose latest series, Memory and Muchness, is inspired by Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, stories with which we are all familiar. To the left is the Queen of Hearts: “though she appeared frivolous in her anger, she held a tragic love and an innocent sorrow in her heart that she could never allow to be healed while she remained so aloof.” We asked Peter to talk with us about the intersection of myth and fairy tales. Here is his response:
People are sometimes a little unsure of what exactly a myth or fairy tale is—where one ends and another might begin. In truth, lately we have all been losing touch with what it’s all about—the world we live in doesn’t seem to have any gods or goblins anymore, and we have perhaps forgotten what they are. We see them in pictures and fictions, cleverly executed in computer generated magic in films, but we don’t often see them sitting next to us having a cup of tea. Not these days anyway.
So we tend to get a little confused, and to not realise that they are all still very much with us, sitting next to us in the teashop, drinking tea, but wearing clever disguises.
To be able to see them, we need to reawaken our perception of myths, legends, and fairy tales. To see what they were, are and could be in the future. To understand how they relate to each other.
We tend to compartmentalise everything (an unfortunate consequence of a rather odd labelling obsession we inherited from the Age of Reason). Putting things in compartments destroys the connections between things, and they lose their flow. This is exactly what I believe has occurred with myth—we cannot see the flow anymore.
It all started in pre-history (or perhaps the birth of history with Homer). We had tales of gods and heroes—big stuff that told us about the universe around us and why it seemed to work the way it did—why we have seasons and storms and death and sorrow. People believed in BIG gods that looked strangely like us (and acted like us, too). These are the myths and legends—epic stories that reflect us but are not seemingly about us at all. They are about bigger, more important things than us, and they put us into place in scale with them.
Then we swapped all those gods for a single one, and our lives ended up being regulated by that belief for a while. The new faith focused us on living a good life, knowing our place and working hard. Our myths got smaller and a little more intimate in response—and became folklore and fairy tales. These are the small myths of the commonplace—they explain why your grandpa had a stroke (elfshot) and where the cheese you put on the counter went (a goblin ate it). We packed our world with small gods and local heroes: Jack slew our giants, not Jason and his Argonauts, and the giants were not descended from gods anymore because we knew God didn’t work like that.
After a while of living in the Middle Ages, we got reason—a whole age of it, actually. The compartmentalising began. The myths got parcelled away as classics, the folklore and fairytales as quaint tales, and we started to learn we had a new god—ourselves. Our rational mind became god—and with it we could tame the universe.
The myths and legends didn’t go away. The age of reason was full of bizarre tales of people giving birth to rabbits, ghosts and magic. People still had not quite got the idea of what was scientific, and all sorts of amazing oddities were reported with great seriousness. Eventually it seemed to have been sorted out. Everything made sense (or so they told us). But even now we still have myths and fairy tales—they call themselves urban legends, conspiracy theories, UFO’s. It’s all ultimately the same stuff in different guises. Because we still need a sense of the other, the strange, the not us that is really just a mirror of something hidden deep inside.
Myths and fairytales don’t exist in separate boxes—they are a continuum—an evolution of ideas shaped by our relationship to the world around us. I think it is mostly the nature of the worlds we touch—classical myth is about the world of rulers and epics, faerie tales about common folk and insecurities. But in essence they are the same— myth is a process of creating cultural meanings in a group using stories and metaphors, symbolic language and rites of passage. We tend to place myth firmly in the realm of the classics—thus we think of it mostly as Greek myth—but all cultures produce myths (even our modern culture), and in that wider sense I do not feel there is any separation between them and fairy tales. We are left purely with distinctions of style and form that enable us to classify the origin and cultures in which a myth is produced. If anything the distinction is in the evolution of myth—from those of the ancient world (gods and heroes), through the pre-modern (faerie tales) to the modern (beliefs in systems and urban legends). Where the difference is manifested is in a decline of myths about Gods to an increase in ones about ourselves. Myth changes its focus and orientation.
The mysterious and magical will still sit down with us for tea—only nowadays most of us have forgotten how to notice it.