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‘All moveables of wonder, from all parts,

Are here- Albinos, painted Indians, Dwarfs,

The Horse of Knowledge, and the lerned Pig,

The Stone-eater, the man that swallows fire,

Giants, Ventriloquists, the Invisible Girl,

The Bust that speaks and moves its goggling eyes,

The Wax-work, Clock-work, all the marvelous craft

Of modern Merlins, Wild Beasts, Puppet-shows,

All out-o’-the-way, far fetched, perverted things,

All freaks of nature, all Promethean thoughts

Of man, his dullness, madness, and their feats

All jumbled up together, to compose

A Parliament of Monsters.‘

This term we are working in groups on a curatorial project titled Fair. The final show we are putting together will be held at Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh in May. Though our discussions are still at a fairly early stage, I’ve noted down a few of my thoughts on the subject.

An introduction to the Fair

Pre Industrial Revolution, the fair with its slideshows, displays of monstrosities and curiosities would have been very different from fairs we know today. The Fair has had a long and varied history before it reaches us today in the form of an Art Fair. What is it about the idea of the fair that has made it so enduring?

Hiring fairs would have taken place all around Britain, enabling farm owners to hire workers from year to year. These workers would be bound not by contract but by a token exchange of a shilling, as immortalized by many folk-songs still sung today; Copshwholme Fair for example. The hiring component of the fair was common right up till the Second World War, after which farming became industrialized.

Aside from providing a practical meeting place for workers and employers, the fairground also provided a liminal space within which the day-to-day rules of society could be bent. With a function analogous to that of Saturnalia or the Carnival, the fair could be seen as a form of ‘transgressive celebration.’ On both an individual and cultural level, the fair could operate as a type of safety-valve, ‘allowing internal conflicts and nagging anomalities to be expressed without serious consequence.’

The fair’s long-standing association with riot and carnival has often placed it in opposition to the status-quo. It is of little surprise that during the era of the Victorian enlightenment, just when the general public gained entry to the museum for the first time, fairgrounds began to spring up next-door. Seen in this light, teetering on the balance point where it just might destabilize the accepted order of things, the fairground becomes a magnet that attracts all that cannot be categorized or incorporated into society.

Perhaps this why the Fair is so alluring, however it is hardly likely that the fairground would actually spill over and affect the accepted order of society as its boundaries are strictly confined. One could go as far as saying that the misfits that collect within the fairground migrate there as part of the ordering of society, an idea explored further by Mary Douglas, who states:

‘Dirt is the anomalous, not just what is out of place but what has no place at all when we are done making sense of our world’

Perhaps it is of little surprise that the fairground should find a comfortable home right on the doorstep of the museum, an institution housing meticulously constructed systems of knowledge. This probably did much to the dismay museum committees who were tentatively encouraging the working classes to view the carefully categorized displays that would educate the working man of his place within the Empire and at the pinnacle of creation. If dirt is always a by-product of creating order, then it must have worried the establishment that they had only succeeded in sweeping the dust under the carpet.

As put forward by Tony Bennett, from this moment on, fairs no longer enjoyed elite patronage, and were now perceived as impediments to the rationalizing influence of the restructured ‘exhibitionary complex.’

I suspect that the marginalization of the fairground would mainly have served to strengthen its attraction.

In his book on Mischief, Myth and Art, Lewis Hyde tells us that:

‘The stock anthropological and literary understanding is that carnival celebrations, despite their actual bawdiness and filth, are profoundly conservative. Especially in highly ordered and hierarchical societies, the carnival reinforces the status quo because, first of all, it provides the exceptions that prove the rules.’ p.187

The fair now becomes essential in sustaining orderly society, a place where fantasies can be acted out and control relinquished. The cramped space of the fairground provides a constantly shifting force in opposition to the status quo. While simultaneously feeding the status quo, the fairground absorbs all of the dirt it ejects and grows stronger. Whether this is a symbiotic or parasitic relationship is not yet clear.

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