For those who thought anarchy in the UK was long gone, art director and set designer extraodinaire, Simon Costin, is proving absurdity and chaos to be the enduring backbone of British culture – a punk utopia indeed, writes Indigo Clarke.
“I have always been interested in myths and folk stories for as long as I can remember,” explains the luminary London-based art director and set designer Simon Costin, who has lately been travelling the UK in a custom-designed caravan to advertise the launch of his British Folklore Museum. “For a child, they offer a means of making sense of the world, they represent a series of lessons that work on both a practical and psychological level. They are fundamental to humanity and have always been part of society, and we ignore them at our peril.”
Costin, renowned for his dreamlike installation-art style set design, seen most notably in leading fashion photographer Tim Walker’s Vogue shoots and Alexander McQueen’s dramatic catwalk shows, has also been the visual mastermind behind Gareth Pugh’s mens and womenswear presentations for the last eight seasons. His fairy-tale vision framed the most recent Valentino Couture show in Paris as well as a large-scale installation for the re-launch of Faberge jewellery in Karl Lagerfeld's poetic old apartment, featuring giant Russian domes, a monochrome trellis garden and a series of miniature theatres with live puppeteers telling a story of love and loss. His beautifully surreal aesthetic, which has brought to life events and openings for Hermes, Luella Bartley, Alice Temperley, Lanvin, Martin Margiela and Marchesa to name a few, is now concentrated on his museum, now in its infancy. Given his hectic schedule, it’s hard to believe Costin has a spare moment for personal projects, but it seems an overwhelming passion for British arts, crafts, and undeniably anti-authoritarian spirit is all the motivation needed.
The concept for the museum project came about organically. In search of further knowledge of Britain's rich folk heritage, Costin for fifteen years looked in vain for an institution or museum dedicated to the subject. “British folklore and customs represent a moment out of time, where the norms of existence are bent or forgotten,” Costin says. “While we are rooted in the here and now, they help to put us in touch with our past, help to build community spirit and foster an interest in our origins. It was with this in mind that I decided to look into opening the UK's first ever Museum, dedicated solely to researching and celebrating our native customs and traditions.”
The project has seen Costin take to the roads of Britain in a converted 1976 Castleton caravan, adapted specially to be a travelling Folk Museum in miniature. Offering a glimpse into what will be on offer at the full-scale museum, slated to open within the next three years, Costin has been raising awareness and funds with caravan visits to festivals and events around the UK. The primary focus of the museum will be a curated archive of artefacts, photographs, films, oral histories, manuscripts and assorted ephemera drawn from the study of annual British customs as they exist now and in the past. A secondary focus will be the inclusion and involvement of actual makers of various forms of folk art – from straw dolly makers, well dressers and barge painters, to contemporary artists whose work deals with folkloric themes.
Many of the little-known rituals and art practices making up Britain’s history have been undervalued, Costin says, and while the customs may appear somewhat kooky or downright bizarre, they express an important slice of history that has been neglected. “So often in the media, the UK's customs and traditions are trivialised and laughed at for being archaic or 'bonkers', and the real meaning and relevance is overlooked,” reveals Costin. The British media will often report on the injuries sustained during the Gloucester Cheese Rolling (otherwise known as “Chucking the Cheese”, a custom involving hurling oneself down a steep incline after a gigantic round of cheese), and speculate on the possible ban of the burning of the effigy of the Pope at Lewes Bonfire – but rarely are these unique customs and their cultural significance taken into consideration. “It’s hard to describe the sheer visceral exuberance of the Lewes Bonfire,” says Costin of the controversial tradition. “Hordes of people jam the streets to watch a dazzling array of people brandishing burning torches, towing gigantic effigies of nationally or internationally hated figures who will later be consigned to the flames. Banners declaring 'No Popery' [referring to when the Catholics burnt sixteen Protestants at the stake in 1560] are held aloft, along with sixteen burning crucifixes in their honour – all amid cheers of 'Burn the Pope!' I took a friend from New York one year, and she stood with mouth agape, and said ‘You could NEVER, EVER get away with this in America!’” In this increasingly homogenised, and Americanised, world, for the sake of British eccentricity and rebelliousness alone, these traditions should be recorded and preserved – a central aim of Costin’s museum.
Folklore, a term encompassing expressive culture, traditional art, literature, knowledge and practice disseminated largely through oral communication, comes under the title of “intangible heritage,” says Costin, “due to it's abstract nature and having been deemed 'low culture' for so long.” So while there may be many unlikely practices coming under the unbrella of folklore – such as urban legends, children's rhymes, conspiracy theories, UFO abduction reports,
graffiti and roadside memorial tributes, not everything will be included in the museum. The artefacts and traditions chosen will, says Costin, “Connect people with their past, as they are great cultural signifiers. It is vital that our native heritage is researched and maintained for future generations. I see the museum as filling a yawning gap within the cultural landscape of this country, and as a means for people from all walks of life to gain knowledge, and a deeper understanding, of our unique folk culture.”