Papay Gyro Nights 2011

24 Feb 2011 in Festival, Orkney, Showcase

Papa Westray, Orkney, 14-21 February 2011

LIVE PAINTING to music performed by folk band The Chair and the folktales of storyteller Tom Muir were the highlights of an international arts festival on the tiny island of Papa Westray in Orkney, known locally as Papay.

Papay Gyro Nights saw residents of all ages and visitors witness cutting edge short films, digital architectural videos, paintings, storytelling sessions and live music as their island was transformed into an art gallery with shows in unusual settings.

Artist Armando Seijo painting Orkney band The Chair

Artist Armando Seijo painting Orkney band The Chair (photo Catherine Turnbull)

Armando Seijo with his finished painting of The Chair

... and the finished result (photo Catherine Turnbull)

Curated by Ivanov and Chan of Land Art, Papa Westray, the idea originated in the ancient Papay tradition of the Night of the Gyros. This tradition was last enacted in 1914 with a ceremony in which young boys of the island made torches which they set alight to entice the ‘gyros’ out of hiding. The gyros derive from the Norse gygr, a giant troll-woman. Older lads dressed as the monstrous gyros traditionally pursued the youngsters, hitting them with tope or tangles (seaweed).

The eight-day festival aimed to interpret the original traditions and rituals through work created during the festival and through works which reflect the global community of which we are all a part. It began with Dr Ragnhild Ljosland of the Centre for Nordic Studies in Kirkwall telling stories about the trolls from her native Norway and an Orkney fairytale and a torchlight procession to a bonfire at the Old Pier.

During the week there were several showings of short films from Iceland, London, Argentina, China and Norway with continuous showings of architectural designs from Norway, Japan and New York.

Composer James Hesford released a single ‘The Entire Population of Papa Westray’, commissioned by Land Art. The starting point for his improvised piece was memories of evenings playing with local accordionist Margaret Rendall at Papay pub nights. Hesford took the notion that many Scottish tunes are named for people and each of the 70 Papay residents gets four bars each in his composition.

Storyteller Tom Muir performing at the festival

Storyteller Tom Muir performing at the festival (photo Tszman Chan)

London-based artist Armando Seijo arrived armed with brushes and oils to paint folk bands Satfishforty and The Chair on a vast canvas at the front of the hall, capturing players and observers. Seijo immortalises live events outside the studio, reacting to the mood and people. During a storytelling session from Tom Muir of Orkney Museum we weaved our own images as he told dark and supernatural tales about the devil, an ogress, a witch and a saint. Behind us we heard Seijo painting furiously and later saw his interpretation of the tales, adding a rich dimension to our experience.

Another coup for the festival was a screening of the Thai feature film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Winner of the 2010 Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival and selected for the London Film Festival, the Papa Westray screening was ahead of its DVD release in the UK. This poetic film depicts the final days of Boonmee in the forest with his family and family ghosts.

Fish and chips and more screenings rounded off the festival which had brought together the community to celebrate their island life during an experimental week.

Three art prizes named after the Neolithic house on Papay, the Knap o Howar, were awarded by all the islanders. The Festival Prize went to Armando Seijo the artist in residence. As Ivanov said: “The people of Papay have taken him to their hearts.” The architecture prize went to Multiplicities of New York for a tower house designed for Inner Mongolia. Its broch-type structure to withstand the challenging weather had a resonance for the harsh environment of Orkney. Wu Jungyong of China took the short film and video prize for his animation.

Ivanov and Chan have pulled off a remarkable feat by staging their first major Papa Westray festival without funding

© Catherine Turnbull, 2011