The Song of Master John Goodfellow

Photography by Sam Roberts

Julia Robinson’s The Song of Master John Goodfellow

Essay by Jenna McKenzie

Resonating with the bawdy ebullience of Early Modern festivals, Robinson’s most recent work, The Song of Master John Goodfellow, explores and subverts the socially-laden taboos of sex and death. Taking its title from Francois Rabelais’ notorious series of satirical novels, Robinson’s work draws our attention to a fascinatingly formative period in Western history, one that still exerts influence in many ways today.

Written in a climate of increasing religious oppression in the build up to the French Wars of Religion, Rabelais’ The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel pentalogy was censored for obscenity. The works, which presented the adventures of two giants and became popular for their licentious, scatological, and vulgar content, abound with the same intelligent wordplay and punning that is a hallmark of Robinson’s works.

Like Robinson, Mikhail Bahktin was drawn to Rabelais’ work for its significance in reflecting a social system’s balance between permitted and not permitted language. In Rabelais and his World (1965), Bahktin also identified two subtexts that made the Gargantua and Pantagruel novels so subversive during the French Renaissance. Firstly, they presented what he termed the ‘carnivalesque’, a period of collectivity, disillusion of normal social structures, and heightened focus on sensual, material, and bodily unity with nature associated with Feast Days and festivals. Secondly, the novels presented the carnivalesque in the mode of ‘grotesque realism’, whereby bodily changes connected with death and renewal (such as eating, sex, and evacuation) are given prominence.

Like Rabelais, Robinson invokes the carnivalesque by means of grotesque realism in The Song of Master John Goodfellow. Overtly phallic gourds are at once concealed and revealed in an intricately smocked covering or an elaborately collared prophylactic sheath. And in a masterful act of inversion, two communing gourds are presented within an elegant stage-like structure – their top ends partially hidden from the viewer in an act of modesty, their copulating nether regions exposed for all to see. By deploying devices of corporeal cunning, Robinson imbues inanimate objects with anthropomorphic qualities.

Robinson’s work stems from an enduring interest in the varied responses humans have to sex and death, that are registered in ritual, religion, folklore, and fear. In this new body of work, Robinson deftly explores and exposes how we react to these phenomena. At one end of the spectrum we respond with celebration and openness; at the other, with concealment and repression. In The Song of Master John Goodfellow, Robinson reminds us that this dynamic of polarization is not something new.

During the 1500s Europe underwent the major changes of religious, political, intellectual, and cultural upheaval heralded by the Renaissance and ushered in by the Reformation. The advent of the printing press had permanently altered the structure of society and enabled unprecedented mass communication. As the feudal structure of the Middle Ages gave way to the mercantilism of the Renaissance, Sumptuary Laws regulating dress standards and reinforcing social hierarchy were issued in Elizabethan England. Popular feasts, such as May Day and the Winter Revels, were also outlawed in favour of puritanical observance of Christian holidays.

By using the vernacular costuming of the Elizabethan period, Robinson transports her audience to a time when England had begun to bid farewell to the time-honoured popular festivals that framed the natural cycles of the year. That act of censorship and control resonates across an expanse of 500 years, inviting us to reflect on how we are censored, how we censor ourselves today, and what is lost in that process. Perhaps the most significant revelation inherent in this latest body of work from Julia Robinson, however, is that art need not be a forum for merely representing carnivalesque experience, it can be a form of Saturnalia itself.