Once upon a time, beyond seven mountains, beyond seven forests, a black swan came to the town of Corby. The swan was nearly four metres high and looked out on to the boating lake in Thoroughsale Wood.
The sculpture by Scottish artist Kenny Hunter came to Corby as part of a temporary exhibition by Fermynwoods Contemporary Art called Beyond Seven Mountains. The exhibition title originates from the way Central and Eastern European fairy tales and folk stories begin and refers to the way contemporary artists continue the tradition of storytellers, reinventing myths and legends, to create new folklore for our time. But this is a story about what really happened.
A long time ago (2015), Fermynwoods commissioned a residency with artist and poet Sophie Herxheimer where she produced The Listening Forest, a book of drawings, stories and poems made and collected by Herxheimer in conversation with people and nature around Corby. Beyond Seven Mountains built on that residency and featured work by Holly Slingsby, Robin Rimbaud (Scanner) as well as Kenny Hunter’s Black Swan.
Holly Slingsby’s work, Cloud of Witnesses, consists of three installations suspended high up in the trees, made up of the accoutrements that represent the stories of mythic deities and saints, as if they had been left behind after the stories were told. The iconography of the Greek god Hephaestus, a blacksmith who made weapons for the other gods, alludes to Corby’s steel history. The youths who frequent the woods in the evenings would pour libations, perhaps hoping to appease the gods since Slingsby stated, “Corby residents liked my work so much they took half of it home”.
Local artist Robin Rimbaud (aka internationally acclaimed electronic musician, Scanner) was also drawn towards stories associated with Corby, including its emblem the Raven, once considered as a messenger between the Greek god Apollo and humankind. For Rimbaud this was also a way to reference Corby’s links to outer space, such as the Corby Crater on Mars and the prayer of peace for the lost crew of Apollo 11 by a Corby grandmother. The resulting work, Dark As A Raven, is a sonic installation that presents cinematic layers of sound incorporating the raven’s uncanny ability to mimic human speech, conjuring up a sense of the astral, the familiar, and the foreboding of the forest.
Finally Hunter’s Black Swan, a part cartoonish part King Kong like sculpture made of steel and resin exploring how animal characteristics can represent human emotions. The sculpture also refers to writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s phrase “Black Swan Theory”, which he used to describe any event that is unexpected and makes a strong impact, against the prevailing view of the time (until 1967 Europeans commonly believed that all swans were white).
The installations were enjoyed by the people of Corby, as well as others who came from far and wide. London, Sydney, even Kettering. “Magnificent”, said one. “Beautiful”, said another. “My children were delighted”. “It’s great … what we might see in a park in London.” Some even enquired about the possibility of the swan visiting their estate when the exhibition was over. However that did not fit the prevailing view that Kate Cronin from the Northamptonshire Telegraph wanted to propagate.
In her first article Cronin suggested that the appearance of Black Swan was “puzzling visitors” and that it had appeared “with no immediate explanation”, despite the sign explaining the work only a few metres away being visible in the photograph accompanying the article. After offering the plainly written official explanation (but incorrectly attributing it to Corby Borough Council rather than Fermynwoods Contemporary Art), Cronin concludes “Still not sure what all this means? Us neither!” lazily attempting to shoehorn a them-and-us relationship between Corby readers and that scary three letter word, art.
Some weeks would pass and brave children would come and visit Black Swan, feeding it seeds and Quavers during family picnics under its wings. Others would try and climb on its back, perhaps unsure of the protocol of respecting sculptures. Giant children with adult sized feet would also leave muddy footprints on Black Swan and cause cracks to appear in its body. After an attempt to chisel and saw into its backside, possibly hoping to create something of a Trojan Swan, Fermynwoods repaired and relocated the work to nearby Barnwell Country Park, only 31 minutes away via the X4 bus.
In contemporary tales, trolls aren’t fed by people clicking and clacking over bridges, but by click bait articles. In her second piece, this time reporting on Black Swan’s relocation, Cronin continues to perpetuate the anti-Corby stance and unfairly attributes it to Fermynwoods Contemporary Art.
“Ironically, the black Corby Swan was a metaphor to show that the prevailing negative view of Corby that people have is wrong”, she stirs, when only two weeks earlier she claimed not to understand what it meant. Incorrectly stating that the sculpture previously shown in Germany, Liverpool and Canary Wharf was “designed to challenge negative attitudes towards Corby”, Cronin using scare quotes to insinuate that the ‘different audience’ of Barnwell Country Park are somehow a positive antithesis to Corby folk. This is not what Fermynwoods believe. I know this because I, the writer and Fermynwoods longest serving member of staff, am from Corby, and proudly so.
In her ignorance Cronin has made a black swan of an ugly duckling. Like many who grew up in Corby, dismissed as the runt of the Northamptonshire litter, I’ve heard these fables all before. Art? In Corby? they laugh, as if the town’s struggle following the collapse of the steel industry is somehow a result of our character. But it is no fairytale and it is about time these tired old narratives were put to bed.
Attributing quotes to “FCA bosses” is poor attempt at creating an artificial hierarchy between Corby people and a mythical entity ‘Art’, unreachable by mere mortals. Fermynwoods’ Director is actually a very nice lady called Yasmin who works tirelessly to bring art to Corby, but that’s another story.
Many years later when the children had all grown up, nobody remembered the nasty trolls, or that a sculpture was relocated from a temporary exhibition mildly ahead of schedule. Instead they remembered that there was once some fantastic art in their town. Black Swan had been taken in to the people of Corby’s hearts. They called it the Corby Swan and remembered that they had once curled up under it, pretending to be eggs.
And they all lived happily ever after.