On April Fool’s morning this year, I’m in the middle of publishing news of the all-new morris dancing sticker collection when something unfathomable arrives in my inbox. It’s a message from the artist, Libby Bove, and it pertains to, “an exploration of how folk customs and rituals could be applied to vehicular maintenance”.
You can see why I might be suspicious.
It takes me a little while to work out whether or not I’ve just been had. As luck would have it, the folk singer and purveyor of unusual instruments, Nick Hart, is at my house, seeing to my organ (not a euphemism). Known for his incredibly accurate bullshit detector, I show him the images. “Strange,” he nods, “but also very beautiful.” There’s something all too high-quality, not to mention wonderfully beguiling, about the photos to be a half-day prank, and so I decide to investigate further.
It turns out that Libby Bove has been engaging in enchanting art projects and creating vaguely mind-boggling, folk-influenced objects and images for some time. I’m instantly struck by the intense beauty of her Spirit of Summer creation, and there’s something so utterly eccentric and singular about her world of vehicular magik – due to be exhibited in Bristol later this month – that I decide I very much like the brain putting all of this into being and must interview her forthwith. A day or so later, the following conversation ensues.
While we stare down the barrel of ecological collapse, words such as otter, acorn and oakleaf are stripped from children’s dictionaries in favour of those such as broadband and blog. Something is amiss.Libby Bove
Your practice is described as drawing on folk culture, archival collections, vehicular maintenance and the occult. One of those seems to be the odd one out. Can you talk us through how these things come together in your work?
I think, as children, we are all fascinated by the possibility of magic. The idea that the intangible can act upon the physical is captivating, but also a concept that most will eventually write off as fantasy. A lot of my work plays with ideas of ritual, folk custom and occult practice incongruously married to seemingly opposing forces. A spell for your flat tyre, a dance to re-calibrate an engine, an iPhone as a hotline to a folk deity. I feel like the museum is, in a way, the ultimate form of display, but for me, it does something else: by utilising the form of archival display, the works, presented as artifacts, can masquerade as truth.
What is your background?
I often say my background is in theatre, but that’s quite a loose use of the word. I spent my late teens and early twenties involved in squat culture – a creatively rich, yet somewhat chaotic few years. We were quite an industrious bunch and spent our time running theatrical fundraising events, a D.I.Y gallery space and a community kitchen. This ( it feels almost inevitably) lead on to work at festivals, in set design, costume and performance.
Some of the most notable projects to come out of this time were Hell’s Pigeons Puppetry, and Cirque du Flop, a street theatre puppetry collective which busked its way around Europe, and the other, a surreal and anarchic musical performance, complete with travelling potato shy, handcart-drawn stage and absurdist humour. We didn’t know it at the time but I think we were performing our own weird version of a mummers play. Sadly, potatoes don’t pay, so I subsidised my career as a penniless creative by working as a carpenter and driving rubbish around at festivals. I also started my own small design business, selling folk art-inspired textiles and prints.
Cut to 2020. At this point, the majority of my income was dependent on the events industry, something that was quickly dwindling before all our eyes in the wake of a certain virus. I’d never properly considered higher education before, but the prospect of four years of funded creativity suddenly seemed incredibly attractive. I didn’t have great hopes for art school and had thought of it as more of a stop-gap, but here I am, two years into a B.A. in Fine Art, blown away by the experience and opportunities so far. If you’re creative and you haven’t done a degree yet, do it. It’s great.
As an artist, what attracts you to folk culture?
I have always been a sucker for a dressing-up box and the jingling of bells.
Folk is decentralised, wild and untamable. It’s D.I.Y. celebratory culture. Its tendrils stretch out for miles. Whilst some evolve and mutate, other parts remain unchanged for an age, yet still all belonging to the same strange beast. Folk culture is the distillation of daily life into a creative form. A way of remembering, acknowledging and honouring. It is permission to play, to dance, to laugh at yourself.
There’s a lot of talk of a folk revival. One of your past projects even took the name, Folk Revival. What do you think is suddenly catching people’s attention?
I feel that as a society we’re somewhat lacking in connection – connection to the land, and connection to each other. While we stare down the barrel of ecological collapse, words such as otter, acorn and oakleaf are stripped from children’s dictionaries in favour of those such as broadband and blog. Something is amiss. Folk, in its many forms, weaves narrative into the natural world and offers a way to celebrate and rekindle this long-lost friendship. Then there is, of course the social side. These last few years have highlighted the importance of this. We need each other. We need to play.
Before we get into your latest project, tell me about the Spirit of the Summer. I love the imagery involved in that.
This was a commission for the Evercreech Jack in the Green event. The organiser, Nik Slade, had wanted a female icon to represent the coming of summer that would be loosely based on my medieval-inspired sun beast. It actually started off as a logo design job, but I remember us having this meeting and both getting really excited about it dancing about with the Jack in giant puppet form, so I started looking into ways to make a massive sun that’s light enough to carry. Wheat seemed to be the perfect fit, as It not only emulated sun rays but was also a great way to represent the fruitful summer harvest.
Evercreech Jack in the Green is a fairly new addition to the folk custom calendar and I think there’s something really exciting about that. I think it’s common to think about these customs as long-standing traditions that go back generations – and, of course, many of them are – but everything has to start somewhere.
Evercreech Jack in the Green will be held on May 1st, by the way, and everyone is welcome.
Your latest project, due to be exhibited in Bristol this month, is called So Turns the Wheel of the M.O.T. The images are beautiful, if not completely unexpected. How did you come up with this idea?
The broader concept of magic for vehicles was something that started in 2020. I think it was the combination of two things – a week spent under my van cutting away rust from the chassis, and a trip to Boscastle and the wonderful Museum of Witchcraft and Magic. One thing that struck me from the museum was the prevalence of magical practice and folk custom in the everyday, and I began to wonder what a world would look like had the persecution of the witches and cunning folk not happened. We would be using it daily. We would be using it to fix our cars.
Somewhere in the rust chippings, an idea popped into my head for a welding ritual with dancers dressed in welding masks and a sacrificial car fire. I never quite got to the car fire part, but I created a series of ceramic masks for a variety of vehicle ailes and began to build up a body of work to illustrate this folk-fiction vision of an imagined timeline.
I knew I wanted to further explore folk customs, and what role they might play in this world of ‘roadside magic’. Inspired by traditions of morris dancing, mumming plays and wassailing, So turns the wheel of the M.O.T. takes these elements of carnivalesque performance and ritualistic dance and applies them to the biggest date in the car owner’s diary: the annual M.O.T. test.
Can you talk us through some of the images and the ideas behind them?
Plausibility has been an important aspect of this work. It has not been my intention to create a total fantasy; my aim is to present a snapshot of a world with an uncanny resemblance to ours, that offers a new perspective on the value that we assign to these customs. Whilst these customs are fictional, It has been important to me to fly as close to the truth as possible, drawing from existing customs to build something believable. The documentary tone of the titles has helped with this and it‘s been interesting to see that they are actually being believed. That one with my nan in – that got a lot of people asking about carriage dancing and why they’d never heard of it before!
Timsbury Mock Deer
A ‘Mock Deer’ was a common addition to M. O. T. Day in certain areas of North Somerset. Similar to the Welsh tradition of the Mari Lwyd, The mock Deer would be paraded about from garage to garage on test day. It was thought that by popping a wheel nut or some other tasty morsel into the Deer’s wretched mouth, you would secure another year of safe rolling. These traditions largely died out when It became possible to book an M. O. T. Test on almost any day of the year, as they were no longer confined to the quarterdays of Candlemas, Rud-day, Lammas and Hallomas. It is interesting to note that the majority of the Mock Deer were in fact not mock at all, and often made from real pelt and antler. The Timsbury Mock Deer (pictured) is particularly exceptional as it uses a preserved head in its entirety. It is kept by a local family and its first recorded appearance is at the Bridgewater wagon dance of 1882.
Carriage Dancer, Frome Horse Dance
The annual carriage dance was a popular custom across much of the British Isles. Originally the cart horses would be paraded through the town, accompanied by a throng of merry dancers. Dressed in highly decorated garments that are not dissimilar to the pearly kings and queens of London, this spectacular roving ritual was thought to bring good health to both horse and carriage for the coming year. Carriage dancing is still practised today, the most notable of which being the Frome horse dance, although you will find a parade of motor vehicles in place of the carriages, and the only horses nowadays are wooden.
Linwood Gasket Dance
The Linwood Gasket Dance takes place on the first Sunday of May. Dancers perform a rhythmic dance in which step work mimics the proper firing of all cylinders. The participants are often dressed in light white cottons and adorned with ribbons and gaskets. It is also customary to wear a crown consisting of coagulating herbs, such as plantain and yarrow, to ward off any gasket leakage, alongside a healthy bunch of mugwort to protect against the ingress of evil spirits into the engine system.
Betty Rossiter, a.k.a Nanny Bet, is one of the original ‘Carriage Dancers’ of Enfield Town. Known locally for their lewdish songs, jubilant dance, and impeccable M.O.T pass rate, Enfield’s dancers were considered some of the finest in North London. Betty retired from carriage dancing in the 1990s, though still sings regularly, both on and off the stage.
Cone Dancer, Midsomer Norton
Cone dancing was a major aspect of winter Solstice M.O.T rituals and was thought to ward off breakdowns in the coming year. It is still practised today across much of Somerset. It is largely a fun, family-friendly festive affair, although it has, in the past, fallen into ill-repair due to the drunken and loutish behaviour that occasionally ensues.
Who are you finding inspiring on the folk art scene at the moment?
It feels like the folk scene is buzzing with exciting energy at the moment. The wonderful Boss Morris are going from strength to strength – I love how they’re keeping the traditional dances, but set to this totally surreal and fantastical reimagining of folk dance costume. I think they’re at the helm of a morrising revolution, to be honest!
Someone who’s been a particular inspiration to this project is artist and writer Lucy J Wright and her project Plough Witches. Here, she takes the traditional framework of the plough play and, through a series of documentary-style images and kitsch props, repositions female and non-binary bodies into these roles normally undertaken by men. When you cast aside the rigidity of these practices, we can see folk custom as something fluid and subject to change. We can create new works that imagine these customs in a different light, yet are still steeped in a strong sense of historical narrative and collective memory.
What’s next for Libby Bove?
My next project is something that’s been in the theoretical pipeline for quite some time. The Museum of Roadside Magic is the umbrella project which encompassed this imagined world. My plan is to convert a truck into a mobile exhibition of the museum, which I’ll then tour around a selection of UK service station car parks, laybys and ancient monuments.
So watch this parking space…
So turns the wheel of the M.O.T. opens at the Former Fire Boat Station, Bristol, on April 20th with a private viewing between 7pm and 9pm, before opening to the general public, April 21st-24th, 11am-6pm. For more info on the artist, head to libbybove.com.
Photos by Libby Bove. Spirit of Summer photos, Mark Pickthall.