England’s Dark Dreaming

Detail from the first drawing in the series

Detail from the first drawing in the series

A few days ago on Twitter I was thinking out loud about the film The Witch, which I watched on Saturday evening, specifically about its relationship to the theme of Folk Horror which is getting some interesting attention recently. Folk Horror seems to be a nebulous concept to define, even though it’s one of those “I know it instantly when I see it” types:

Now that I can expand out of Twitter’s character limit, my best working definition so far is that Folk Horror is the projection of the trauma of wide-scale social/religious/political upheaval and conflict—experienced at societal, familial, and personal levels—onto nature and the land itself, manifesting as the supernatural, subverting our perception of the idealised bucolic setting.

It’s not perfect as definitions go, but it’s broad enough to cover the original Folk Horror films of the late 60s/early 70s as well as newer creations that draw on it, such as The Witch and perhaps the TV series The Living and the Dead.

While I wouldn’t specifically classify my artwork as Folk Horror, I can certainly see some similarities in themes (if my definition of Folk Horror, above, is considered accurate). England in Darkness, the series of large-scale charcoal drawings I’ll be working on over the next few months, will explore the current social and political upheaval happening in the UK, and specifically in England, overlaid with a mythic/folkloric aspect.

In April 2015 I wrote a post in which I drew comparisons between our current times and the social and political upheaval around the time of the English Civil War (upheavals separate to the armed conflict of the civil war itself):

The whole of Britain (not just England) seems to be in a similar mode of radicalism and revaluing at the moment, albeit that blogs and online articles have replaced pamphlets and broadsheets, and this time they’re talking about landscape, rewilding, psychogeography, archaeology, myth, and hauntology as well as politics and government.

The British political landscape has also changed over the past few years: the recent seven-party televised election debates replacing the three-party debates of 2010, the rise of Scottish Nationalism and last year’s close referendum on Scottish Independence (and the inevitable prospect of a second referendum at some point in the future), talk about devolution of central government power to local governments in England as well as Scotland and Wales that might actually happen (although maybe I’m being too optimistic there), and the Snowden leaks that prompted people to re-evaluate the reach of government into private life.

I should say that I’m not expecting Britain or England to erupt into civil war or revolution, but I think the similarities in the upsurge of radical rethinking and revaluing is notable, and non-violent change seems afoot.

Since writing that post we’ve seen the emergence of a new left-wing radicalism in the Labour Party, with Jeremy Corbyn as the figurehead, but supported by a huge rise in grassroots Labour Party membership (which I think it’s safe to say reflects a large scale rise in political activism, or at least political consciousness, amongst previously unpoliticised people). This, along with the extending reach of far-right politics, reflected in increased UKIP support and a rightwards-shift in the Conservative Party, has been cited as start of the collapse of the “Neo-Liberal Consensus” or, at the very least, a massive expansion of the Overton Window.

We’ve also seen the Brexit referendum, in which the country was split in many ways: old against young, Wales and England (with some notable exceptions, particularly in London and the South East) against Scotland and Northern Ireland, and many more ways depending on which demographic you’re looking at: education level, socio-economic class, etc. And the Brexit result also triggered a rise in racist attacks (both verbal and physical violence) as the far-right look to expand on what they see as a referendum mandate for violence and open displays of hatred.

The UK currency shows no sign of any real recovery from the massive drop that happened the morning after the referendum the night before, and the economy continues to stall (and Article 50 hasn’t even been triggered yet!).

Welcome to a country which is just starting to experience again (and still only at a relatively small scale compared to things that are happening elsewhere in the world) the trauma of wide-scale socio-political upheaval at societal, familial, and personal levels.

That this trauma coincides with a growing concern about land and (our) place (in it)—manifesting as psychogeography, new nature writing, landscape punk, rewilding, the folk horror revival, etc.—is therefore unsurprising. And it’s therefore also unsurprising that my artistic practice should similarly reflect the current wide-scale social/religious/political by utilising myth and folklore, which are older, deeper, stories about the land and our place in it.

From an artistic perspective, I’ve been re-examining the artist William Blake, not so much for technique and style, but rather for his use of myth and religion to reframe socio-political issues and simply the way he “got his work out there”. I’ve also been studying Käthe Kollwitz’s politically-charged drawings and prints, William Kentridge’s use of charcoal, and many other influences. Symbolism will start to play an increasing role. Masks will appear at some point. I’m not being deliberately vague, it’s just that this whole thing isn’t plotted out yet - I don’t work that way.

I’m still working on the very first drawing in this series: two figures, one male and one female, standing next to each other, each holding a staff, in a composition that reflects the nearby Long Man of Wilmington chalk hill figure (albeit with a touch of double-vision). And it also draws on a lot of my previous artwork - certainly my continued life-drawing practice, and also much of my recent photography and drawing work that is collected in my book Myth and Masks and in my Shadows of the Hinterlandscape box set of artwork.

I’m tentatively calling this series of artwork England in Darkness. I had also considered using the phrase I’m using for the title of this post, England’s Dark Dreaming, a partial reference to the Sex Pistol’s refrain that there is no future in England’s dreaming. I may still revert to it. Everything is in a radical state of flux.

Note: The full series of the England’s Dark Dreaming drawings, along with some explanatory text, will be published in my forthcoming book of artwork England’s Dark Dreaming, available to pre-order from our online shop.