thu 25/04/2024

theartsdesk in Papa Westray: Art at the End of the World | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Papa Westray: Art at the End of the World

theartsdesk in Papa Westray: Art at the End of the World

Is Papay Gyro Nights, held on a remote Orkney island, the world's oddest arts festival?

Lights, camera, action: the firelit procession from Beltane to The Old Pier

In the same way that some chase the thrills of extreme sport, extreme art fans can now take the challenge of visiting this small art festival, which is uncompromising in terms of location, climate and content. Orkney as a whole has natural beauty, a rich history and a thriving cultural life, with a disproportionate number of artists compared to the size of the population.

The prestigious and high-brow St Magnus Festival of arts, held each midsummer, is patronised by composer and isles resident Peter Maxwell Davies.

However the Orkney "mainland", the largest island of the group and home to most of the islands' 20,000 residents, does not seem remote compared to the many smaller islands, of which there are 20 inhabited. People who, like me, live in the town of Kirkwall feel relatively cosmopolitan.

Papay Gyro Nights is a brash young upstart in the Orkney cultural calendar, and very welcome for it

Papa Westray (known as Papay) is four miles long and one mile wide and has a population of around 75, equivalent to a small street or tower block. It is the most north-westerly of the Orkney isles and visitors generally reach it from the larger island of Westray. That an art festival is held here at all is surprising, even more so that it is in early February, a time when gales thrash the island and the entire atmosphere is very much "off-season".

This is the second Papay Gyro Nights festival, set up by Papay residents Ivanov and Tsz Chan who have lived together on the island for four years. They see "the festival as a research lab and the place for a discussion about interaction between new media, ideas in relation to tradition and ritual. During the festival the island will be transformed into the art space and artworks will be screened and exhibited in old farm buildings, boat houses, workshops, ruins and open landscape".

The event bills itself as "an international contemporary art festival" and comprises mainly experimental film and video art as well as visual art and music. The idea developed from the ancient Papay tradition of "the Night of the Gyros", which until the beginning of 20th century was celebrated on the island on the first full moon of February. The original nights saw young boys going out into the winter nights, chased by older boys to "weep them with a tangle under the full moon's light". The last known celebration was in 1914, but now 100 years later the celebration is being revived with a modern interpretation.

Travelling to Papay from Kirkwall, the tiny eight-seater plane first stops at the islands of Stronsay and Westray before the two-minute hop to Papa Westray, famous for being the world's shortest scheduled flight. On Papay, the plane is met by airstrip attendants who then return to their work as farmers (on these small islands, people often hold many jobs).

The population has been given a temporary boost by the festival - something unheard of in February - and every sleeping space has been made available, with the island folk providing meals in the hostel each night. On foot, in cold winds, I circumnavigate the whole island during my three-day visit, taking in sandy beaches, dramatic cliffs, an RSPB reserve and the Knap of Howar - stone houses, built and occupied a millennium before the pyramids. Standing at the top of the cliffs, with nothing to the north until the Arctic, it feels like you've come to the edge of the world. Out to sea, white breaking waves mark the churning of the "Bore", where the currents of Atlantic meet those of the North Sea. Seals pop up their heads close to the shore, seemingly interested in my human presence. I'm sure it is the same pair following me around the island.

One aim of the festival is to bring light to the long winter nights, through film projections and fire. The eight-day event opens with a torchlit procession and bonfire (see main image) attended by visitors and islanders of all ages. The idea of masks is also recurrent, tying into the Gyro folklore of ogresses.

The work of more than 30 artists is shown, although not all of them are here in person. The lack of Orkney artists is notable, the directors casting their nets further afield to artists from places including France and the Faroes.

Ivanov admits that some of the festival's programme - particularly the film content - is "difficult", with dialogue-free pieces screened in cold buildings. However, audiences - comprising both visitors and local Orcadians - are game, and watch with interest as performance artist Oliver de Sagazan smears himself in clay, screaming incomprehensibly.

In a grain loft on a farm, Genetic Moo - a pair of artists based in London who first came to Papa Westray last year and decided to return for a residency - are making an interactive installation over the course of the festival. The Nautilus and the Nautiloid is based on a "living fossil" creature and uses a webcam to pick off colours from visitors' clothes and add them - via a projection - to the creature's shell.

Storytelling from Orkney mainland residents Fran Flett Hollinrake and Tom Muir takes place in an ancient kirk (pictured above left), which when candle-lit provides a suitable atmosphere for gruesome and ghostly tales from the isles and further afield. The pair had run a more family-friendly event earlier in the day and this proved one of the most popular events with islanders.

On Saturday night Bird Radio aka Mikey Kirkpatrick from Herefordshire plays in the Kelp House - an old building used in seaweed-processing - to an audience of well over half the number of the island's population. He uses flute, loop pedals, voice and percussion to create folktale-influenced songs well pitched for the event and audience - particularly the local teens.

Each evening, after the last event, at the hostel/community centre/pub, festival-goers and islanders gather to play music - mainly Scottish folk and ceilidh songs - and to talk and drink. There cannot be many places where anyone from small children to the elderly, video artists to farmers, can and will socialise happily together. But on a small island the population is bound together by necessity, and special events such as this are rare and not to be missed. In a city, there is such a range of choice of entertainment that people become divided into ever smaller groups defined by interests and taste. The class system, although it does exist on the isles, is much less apparent.

There are often tensions between Orcadians, who can trace their families back generations, and incomers

The festival has a highly ambitious remit and includes an architectural exhibition, the publication of a programme in magazine form and the island's own art prize, the Knap O Howar Art Prize, voted for by islanders. Last year the winner was painter Armando Seijo, who has returned this year and is creating live paintings during the festival, taking in portraits of  audiences and scenes from the films. During quiet points in performances, Seijo's paintbrush can be heard swishing - a noise that comes to characterise Gyro Nights. 

It is important to remember that although many locals turned out to the Gyro events, there were plenty that didn't. In the airport, I overheard two locals discussing the festival mockingly, dismissing it as "pretentious". As the event has such an impact on the island over the week, more consultation on what islanders want to see is needed for future events. There are often tensions between Orcadians, who can trace their families back generations, and incomers, so accusations of imposing tastes or arrogance should avoided. However, everyone knows that incomers are needed for the islands to survive - particularly for the smaller populations such as Papay, where the school only has eight pupils and the case for continuing local amenities hangs in the balance.

Bamboozling many and irritating others, Papay Gyro Nights is a brash young upstart in the Orkney cultural calendar, and very welcome for it. It does not seem to fit in the established islands art scene, with much of the type of work shown here breaking out of the cosier types of Orkney art that often romanticise the islands: extreme film and harsh music fitting in better with the bleak landscapes at this time of year. The festival describes itself as "experimental" - isn't that, in fact, what all art should be?  

Standing at the top of the cliffs, with nothing to the north until the Arctic, it feels like you've come to the edge of the world

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