Papay Gyro Nights Arts Festival

14 Feb 2012 in Festival, Orkney, Showcase

Papa Westray, Orkney, 6-13 February 2012

PAPA Westray’s small population of around 70 on the tiny Orcadian north isle keep their traditions alive but these generally take the form of a community dance to indigenous tunes or spooting when the moon and tide is right (harvesting razor clams on the beach).

THE Papay Gyro Nights Arts Festival must be one of the most unusual festivals around, as it takes its cue from one of the windswept isle’s ancient traditions based on a Norse folktale and invites multimedia artists to explore ideas in relation to ritual and custom.

The Gyro in the legend was a hideous supernatural creature, like an ogress, which chased and scooped up children. Until 1914 there was a ritual pageant enacted on Papay, as the isle is known locally, in which older boys dressed up as the scary gyros and chased the younger boys and beat them with seaweed sticks (tangles) under the light of a full moon.

Filippos Tsitsopoulos's The Madrigal of the Explosion of the Wise Whale at the Old Kelp Store (photo Tsz Man Chan)

Filippos Tsitsopoulos's The Madrigal of the Explosion of the Wise Whale at the Old Kelp Store (photo Tsz Man Chan)

No children were chased and beaten at the festival. Instead more than 30 artists submitted artworks to curators and Papay residents Ivanov and Chan, in film, painting, music, architecture and words. There was work from Japan, Iceland, Denmark, France, Faroe, Germany, Mexico, Switzerland, China, Norway, but only a couple attended in person.

The ritual of the Gyro Nights and the roots of the week long art festival were marked by a procession of islanders, artists and visitors carrying flaming torches under a full moon to the shore. It wasn’t a huge, crowded affair like Shetland’s famous Up Hellya boat burning with Vikings in full costume. But there was a primeval atmosphere as the flames of a bonfire danced, as the community remembered the old days when fire was a purifier at pre-Christian festivals and signified new life.

Much of the island was used as an art space as islanders went about their daily business of farming, fishing, building, servicing the airfield and delivering the post. Artworks were screened, projected, hung and performed in beautiful old farm buildings, a boat house, a waterside kelp store, ruins and the open landscape. Ghost stories were told in the restored St Boniface Kirk, which dates back to the days of the Papa or monks in Pictish times, centuries before the Norse came to these shores. It was the perfect haunted environment for blood curdling tales from Tom Muir and Fran Flett Hollinrake.

While the stories were told, artist Armando Seijo painted images of the stories onto canvas. His residency saw him painting the bonfire by head torchlight, capturing musicians in performance and the atmosphere of audiences as his brushes scratched furiously.

One of Armando Seijo's festival paintings (photo Michael McGhee)

One of Armando Seijo's festival paintings (photo Michael McGhee)

There was a strange creature as the focus of an interactive art installation. On the screen was projected a prehistoric sea creature called a Nautilus, which is related to the squid and octopus but has a shell. As people walked into the grain loft of an ancient farm the colour of their clothing was picked up by a camera and the data streamed onto the shell.

The effect as the colours built up over the days in a triptych arrangement was similar to the luridness of thermal imaging, with features reminiscent of mountain ranges, coral and sea against a shore. As I approached wearing a borrowed bright red coat the creature’s tentacles waved more excitedly. Participants were thrilled by the experience of contributing to the week-long residency by artists Genetic Moo through interacting with the nautilus and through children’s workshops.

Bird Radio at the Old Kelp Store (photo Tzs Man Chan)

Bird Radio at the Old Kelp Store (photo Tzs Man Chan)

Live music enthralled a crowd of islanders wearing woolly hats and multiple layers of clothing at a concert in the candlelit old Kelp Store, disused but restored. Bird Radio, aka Mikey Kirkpatrick, offered accomplished flute playing, using a loop pedal and sometimes passionate vocals, especially for his ‘Who Killed Cock Robin’.

This Herefordshire lad’s love for the folksy poetry of Walter de la Mare lured us into his set with acapella singing of his arrangements. His use of the loop pedal with flutes, breathing, voice and a battered old suitcase doubling as a manual drum machine was mesmerising – a mix of folk and electronics. His homage to Jethro Tull with ‘Locomotive Breath’ was worthy. When an encore was requested, he appeared caught on the hop, but obliged once he had decided what to play. Very touching.

There were mixed reactions from islanders and the dozen or so visitors to the site-specific film viewings. Some embraced the chance to see avant garde offerings while others were disturbed by the images and a perceived lack of narrative.

Papay is perhaps a strange venue for this festival but overall there was a sense of enrichment from the experience and the community gatherings at the ‘fringe’ events of music sessions were highly enjoyable.

© Catherine Turnbull, 2012