Solanum, Installation View, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2017.

Installation for On the Heights, Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Oct- Dec 2017

The works in Solanum emerge from an investigation into the folklore, magical rites and rituals linked to the Yorkshire landscape. Focusing especially on the narratives and figures connected to local bodies of water, Austin’s installation explores relationships between ideas of the ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’.

Within the mythic and folkloric traditions, these bodies of water are ambivalently characterised by an association with death, decay and corruption on the one hand, and with life, protection and purification on the other. Peg Powler, a figure believed to inhabit the River Tees, was a water-hag lingering on the margin of life and death, who was thought both to lure children to their deaths and - sometimes - to offer her protection to the drowning. Odin, whose first son was believed to have drowned in a well in North Yorkshire, sacrificed his own eye to the well of Mimir in order to achieve knowledge of the future.

Austin’s work represents a sequence of characters and narrative patterns that are developments of stories like these. Here, symbolic objects, tools and ritual garments stand for the potential of a new mythology of the natural and the unnatural, the sacred and the profane. The work emerges from her ongoing research into specific seasonal plants and their use in early British ritual practice, folklore and medicine, tracing figures and stories that begin to challenge simple oppositions between a ‘pure’ nature and an ‘impure’ human culture corrupted by industry, technology and human artifice.

Water, in Yorkshire mythology, links the human and the cosmic realms. At the same time, the stories Austin draws on serve as reminders of the inseparability of transcendental knowledge and physical decay. Solanum explores this dialectic, working towards a narrative that situates these oppositions within the contemporary geo-political landscape.

[1]  William Hylton Dyer Longstaffe, The History and Antiquities of the Parish of Darlington