Sunday, April 15, 2018

Unconscious Reenactment: Bruegel and the Jolly Bagpipes and Beauties at the Medieval Fair

Dancing to Bagpipes at the Medieval Fair / April 8, 2018 – Norman, Oklahoma
I felt as though I had stepped into a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Granted, he was painting during the Renaissance, and what I was attending was supposedly medieval, but the Medieval Fair is, as far as I can tell, less about historical accuracy and more about imaginative fancy.

On the one hand, it’s performance art. It’s the best kind because it’s intentional and so it’s self-aware as art being created for art’s sake, but it’s infused with fantasy, role-playing, and a deep desire to time-travel, self-invent, imaginatively recreate reality, or at least become the embodiment of a timeless energy that lives in the hyper-oxygenated air of feeling that one has infinite possibilities, and for all the angst and self-recrimination you might feel at times, joyous abundance prevails in a costume you designed just for this moment.

Dancing to Bagpipes in the Open Air at the Medieval Fair, Norman, OK  2018 - photo susan nash
 It was very chilly for an April afternoon, and people were wearing coats, hats, even gloves. It was not possible to see everyone’s costumes because they were sometimes covered up. The dancing girls – half barmaid, half bellydancers – showed midriffs that were red from the cold, sporting goosebumps along with the panoramas of tattoos.

On the stage were four musicians: a person with a drum, a man with a mandolin, and two bagpipers. The bagpipes were of different designs, and so they produced different sounds. All meshed together in an infectious, jolly cavalcade of melody, harmony, and skillful percussion.

The songs were perfect for dancing, and it did not take long for all the lords, ladies, minstrels, waifs, and wenches to dance heartily in the dry grass, much to the amusement of the spectators who were seated on parallel rows of bales of hay.

When I first heard the bagpipes and I saw people dancing, I felt a bit skeptical. Did people really dance to bagpipes?  I thought of them as being used to fan the flames of warrior ardor and to panic the horses in the a Scottish highlands battle, or to play deeply, forlornly at a funeral. But a fair? 

Bagpipes, drum and mandolin - Medieval Fair - Norman, OK  2018
 I took photographs with my phone, and as I was mulling over them on the cloud in Google Photo Gallery, the colors, composition, and shapes of the people made me think of Pieter Bruegels’s The Hunters in the Snow. So, I looked up the work of Bruegel, and imagine my surprise when I encountered the Wedding Dance in the Open Air (1566). I had seen it before (it is, after all, a very famous painting), but what amazed me even more than the visual allusion and similarity was the presence of bagpipes.  

All I could think of was that I was of such cosmic coincidence that there must be some sort of meaning in the utterly adventitious visual parallels that I could not have duplicated without having been in the planning of some sort of historical enactment or a pageant or play.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder – Wedding Dance in the Open Air (1566) - wikipedia
Another stunning coincidence was that I had just left the Fred Jones Museum of Art on the University of Oklahoma campus and had decided to visit Reeves Park, which is on South Campus. I went from a very formal museum of “high art” where my mind was definitely shaped into thinking of art in terms of its representational and conceptual aims, to the annual Medieval Fair where it was a living gallery of people exploring what they imagined medieval to be, and to express art by making themselves into works of art. The simplistic side of me would dismiss the Medieval Fair as pure kitsch.

Yes, there was the carnivalesque – the idea of a Dionysian transformation through letting go and entering a kind of divine madness (in Dionysius, the madness of the grape), but the religiosity and the dark skirtings along the edges of death were largely absent. This was not the kind of love/death juxtaposition of a Shakespearean tragedy (Othello and Romeo and Juliet come to mind). Instead, here in Reeve’s Park, with the bagpipes, the 45 F air, the costumes, dancing, with fencing and jousting exhibitions, there was a sense of play, of exploration, and above all, acceptance.

So, perhaps the ritual that was most resonant with the event was the wedding, with the dancing in the open air. Weddings in the Renaissance represented future, prosperity, the prospect of the familial issue, which is to say children and lots of them… with an abundance of good food, good cheer, and good health.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder – Wedding Dance in the Open Air (1566)
Detroit Institute of Art