The bearded lady by Genie Espinosa
It’s a bunch of freaks, really, that are lining the walls of ‘The Social’ venue right now. The big mustaches, the hairy backs, the bushy nipples (eugh) and some folks with no discernable flaw but are still just … weird. Artist Jason Butler has drawn them all quite small, so you have to lean in to take in the details. Get in there for a good gawk, and back off again half wishing you hadn’t seen that, half keen to see more.
Circus troupe by Avril Kelly
‘They take on a life of their own,’ says Jason Butler, the man responsible for these oddities. The Jersey-based artist has drawn 300 of them over seven years, but over time, he says, it has become less about the characters and more about the audience: ‘People have very different reactions. Some people think they are funny, and some can’t bear to be in the same room as them. So now it’s more about the viewers, and how we see them’
Fortuneteller by Antonia Parker
On show alongside Butler’s art is poetry by Will Burns – rich with imagery and storytelling tradition. ‘The images suggested characters to me,’ says Burns, who enjoyed the digression from his usual nature themes. ‘These little vignettes came partially from having grown up in the country, hearing snippets of lives seemingly connected to these images.’
“She thought she had forgotten
his greased-back, curly hair,
the filthy greatcoat and the prematurely rotten
teeth. He said he owned the bear,
and joked that her bark
was not as bad as his bite.”
(The Barker by Will Burns)
Twins by Avril Kelly
The Butler and Burns collaboration was dreamt up by their mutual friend and the show’s curator, Nina Hervé. ‘I don’t think they are that freaky,’ she says, before conceding, ‘Well I suppose some of them are. But the thing with sideshows is they were often con-artists, or had small deformities they extenuated in order to get cash.’ We get talking about modern day versions of sideshows, such as tabloid magazines and those people making fools of themselves on X Factor and how people love watching it. ‘It’s curiosity I guess,’ says Nina.
Sideshow by Mina Bach
So while it’s probably a good thing we don’t have sideshows anymore, the hunger to study the freaky, exotic, or sexually divergent, is still there. Maybe we like seeing the grotesque because it takes us out of ourselves for a moment, or it could be we just like feeling shudders down our backs. Or maybe it’s because in the midst of the strangeness, strong or subtle, there is something almost beautiful.
Tattooed woman by Antonia Parker
Sideshow Stories will be at The Social, 5 Little Portland Street, London W1W 7JD until 15th March; see the website for upcoming events. Sideshow Stories is part of storytelling festival Yarn Fest, which runs 19-23 February at various locations in East London. For more information see our listing.
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