Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Catherine Bertola at the Bronte Parsonage Museum, Haworth 15th April 2011

Rather to my surprise I 'won' a ticket for two to the preview of Catherine Bertola's new work in Haworth via a little competition run on Twitter by Art in Yorkshire - supported by Tate. I was delighted to receive them as I am already an admirer of the contemporary art programme organised by Arts Officer Jenna Holmes at the Bronte Parsonage Museum. I have also come across Catherine Bertola's work before as part of the V&A's Out of the Ordinary: Spectacular Craft exhibition which I saw January 2009 at the Tullie House Museum in Carlisle. Her site specific work 'Everything & Nothing' created from dust collected by cleaners and curators at the V&A was both beautiful and thought-provoking.

The Bronte Parsonage Museum offered the artist a very different opportunity to interpret a historic space. There are no brightly lit wide-open gallery spaces here, just small, dark rooms in an old house which have become a much-loved shrine to the lives and work of the famous 19th century authors. Catherine's response has been to create 'To be forever known', a sound installation which plays on a 6-minute loop in the dining room where the Bronte sisters wrote. There is plenty of interpretation available in the house to explain the laborious reading, recording, rerecording process which went into the installation but we were lucky enough to have Catherine Bertola explain it to us over a welcome glass of wine. For those not lucky enough to have been there, listen to this excellent interview online.
A Conversation with Catherine Bertola by Art-Talk

She told us about her impression of the house as a 'period set', a faithful reproduction of how the house might have looked but in the end not actually real. The only 'realness' is the space itself, unchanged since the sisters wrote on or walked round the dining-room table after their evening meal. Into this space Catherine read out excerpts from five of Charlotte Bronte's letters, recording them, then replaying them in the space and re-recording them until the words almost vanished and all that was left was the resonances of the sound in the room. And what strange sounds they are, the audio track hums and whoops and saws like a bad dream out of the BBC radiophonics workshop. The dining room is placed right next to the entrance door so there was a constant background noise of people chatting while they came in and out and I found it hard to hear more than these eerie synthetic sounds, not the "unintelligible whispers" mentioned in the interpretive leaflet. The piece is also very short and I have to say that a first listen left me quite disappointed. However, an odd alchemy took place as I explored further and I found that I began to listen much more closely to the sounds of the house, the creaking of the floorboards upstairs as people moved about and the ticking of the clock which I'd never noticed before. For the first time during a visit here I began to feel the house come alive, and those strange noises have continued to haunt me, becoming transmuted in my memory into an odd song like whale music.

Haunting is quite an appropriate word to use since it is clear that the artist is trying to recapture something of the life which people believe still lingers in the fabric of the building. Her companion work to the dining room installation is 'Residual hauntings', three black and white photographs taken on a slow shutter speed of the artist re-enacting some of the day-to-day activities and domestic tasks which once took place in these rooms. The resulting images show ghostly spectres descending stairs, planting bare feet on the kitchen floor or whirling around the dining room table. In an age where there is a plethora of fake paranormal television shows, these photos perhaps don't have the power that they might once have had, but they increased my conviction that behind this work is also an unstated reference to the world of 19th century spiritualists whose activities Catherine seems to be emulating, using science to make real the vanished sounds and souls that once filled these rooms to those who have made the pilgrimage. I have to admit I remain unconvinced by references to the artist's use of "...scientific methods...revealing the resonant harmonies and tones of architectural spaces" but the results certainly had the desired effect of making me think hard about the real meaning of preserving a house like this. Why do all these people visit the Parsonage if not to try to touch something which is in fact long gone. The spark of genius that once walked these rooms can now only be found within the pages of the Bronte's books but this doesn't stop people wanting to experience the atmosphere of the house that was once so filled with creativity. And this in the end is what Catherine's work did for me, I took away a great desire to hunt out my well-thumbed copy of Wuthering Heights in order to touch that genius for real once more.

Catherine Bertola's work can be experienced at the Bronte Parsonage Museum until 8th July 2011 and there are several exciting 'Conversaziones' coming up which the artist has organised as part of her 'To be forever known' project which I shall certainly try to attend.

Thanks again to Art in Yorkshire - supported by Tate for organising the tickets for me. They are actively promoting the arts in Yorkshire through their great new website Art in Yorkshire. Read more about the larger commission called 'Personal Tempest' that the Catherine Bertola work at the Bronte Parsonage Museum is part of on that website.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Jaume Plensa at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park 6th April 2011

I felt tremendously excited by the opportunity to attend this special bloggers' preview evening at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, showcasing the work of internationally-renowned, Spanish artist Jaume Plensa. And I’m glad to say I wasn’t disappointed. YSP looked sublime on a gloriously sunny April day and as the evening progressed and the sun went down, Jaume’s external sculptures really came into their own, polished steel surfaces reflecting the sunset and then white lights inside seated figures mirrored by the glittering lights of a distant town.

The preview began with a chance to hear the artist himself talk modestly about his work in the Underground Gallery, framed by three of his extraordinary illuminated human figures crouched protruding from the walls of the room. Sadly the room’s acoustics were such that I didn’t hear much of what was said other than his concept that as humans we have auras that surround us and fill space and a quotation from Blake, “one thought fills immensity”. The words were immediately resonant as we stood with the three glowing figures looming over our heads carrying on their faces the first of the many words we were to discover.

YSP curator Sarah Coulson then took over and as we walked on from room to room, she attempted to explain more of the ideas that drive the artist, these include a deep love of humanity and a desire to create connections between people, both in a social sense but also between people and his work. It was interesting to approach the work with these explanations in mind. I have to say that I came away with some quite different impressions but that of course is the beauty of good interpretation, it allows you to make up your own mind!

Jaume’s work is mostly concentrated in the Underground Gallery with in addition, one piece hanging from the roof of the YSP Centre corridor and several large sculptures in the surrounding outdoor spaces. What follows here are just my first impressions after a necessarily short look round concentrating mostly on the indoor spaces, but I will definitely be returning for a longer visit very soon.

The four large rooms in the Underground Gallery might have been built to house the four incredibly diverse works on show in them. Jaume’s signature use of a wide range of materials in his sculptures was well-illustrated, demonstrating his words, “the material is never a direction, but only a vehicle.” The first room I have already described, the three hollow glowing plastic figures crouching on opposite walls like evil incubi. Stare at one and disturbingly you catch another out of the corner of your eye hovering in the dark space. Each is portrayed trying to cut themselves off from the world with their white waxy hands covering their ears or eyes or mouth, each an absolute expression of isolated anxiety. I was left wondering what terrible thing they were trying to block out.

In the next room, hollow illuminated plastic is replaced with the heavy timelessness of alabaster in a completely stunning array of giant, elongated Benin/Easter Island-looking heads hacked out of the raw stone. Some are like Michelangelo’s unfinished Captives, still emerging out of their roughly hewn blocks of stone, others are much more complete and float free. For an instant as my eyes adjusted to the gloom they shimmered like an optical illusion, glowing weirdly in their individual bright white spotlights as if they were holographs or projections flickering into life as some unseen switch is tripped. The alabaster is cracked and flawed while each face is polished smooth and the surfaces glitter in the harsh white light as you move around them. I thought the faces were all the same but Sarah explained that they are actually based on the digitally manipulated photographs of a series of girls. Jaume believes that women may be the future of the world and these quiet contemplative heads are displayed like fragments of a future civilization’s art laid out in a museum store, hence the wooden crates they stand on. For me they seemed more like a set from a film, a temple from a lost alien culture, eerie and other-worldly or perhaps powerful objects being readied to be packed away in a vast Raiders of the Lost Ark-type government storage facility.

The following room juxtaposes stone and plastic. Three giant white illuminated children’s heads are placed on a square carpet of tumbled marble rocks which have a floury white texture quite at odds with the smooth white plastic of the heads which face across their stone carpet towards each other but entirely unknowingly since they have their eyes shut. Across their smooth young features are ‘tattooed’ in raised letters words such as Hysteria, Insomnia, Disease and Hunger, all the ills that man is heir to along with all his sins, Desire, Wrath and Ignorance among them. Sarah described Jaume’s work as essentially hopeful, the words used here are from an Oscar Wilde letter describing the experience of prisoners in Reading Gaol in an effort to ameliorate the conditions. I saw no hope however. These children weren’t communicating with each other, they were withdrawn and silent, passively waiting to be scarred and damaged by the things we see written on their faces. Like all humans, they exist side by side but ultimately they will be isolated from each other by their individual experiences.

The silence and sadness of that room was shattered by the next and final room where a dimly-lit circle of brass gongs hangs ready to be brought to ear-shattering life. The noise when people really got going was powerful in the most primitive and visceral way, I managed to record a short clip on my phone although it was so loud it nearly blew out the speakers! Listen!
I was immediately transported to the world of film again, this time to the temples and seductresses of Hollywood epics, like Samson and Delilah or Cecil B DeMille's Cleopatra. The quotes from the Bible’s ‘Song of Songs’ cast in clear resin on each gong underlined this feeling with its erotically charged story of the woman who searches for her lover.

In complete contrast to this powerful assault on the senses is the curtain of cut-out steel letters which sways and quietly tinkles along the whole length of the corridor which fronts the Underground Gallery. It is titled ‘Twenty-Nine Palms’ and contains sentences from a selection of the artist’s favourite authors.

Jaume Plensa 'Twenty-Nine Palms' YSP April 2011 from Karen Griffiths on Vimeo.
I liked Sarah’s description of Jaume’s concept of words lined up on the page as if in front of a firing line, which he then frees with a new life of movement, light and sound in his sculptures.

Verses from the ‘Song of Songs’ are also engraved on the steel doors of two glass brick built 'cells' illuminated with soft coloured LED lights which are located in the entrance lobby of the gallery. Step inside and you are completely isolated from the outside world, a soothing gift from the artist perhaps better experienced on your way out after all the visual and aural excitement of the rest of the gallery.

Escaping into the open air, words from many different languages appear on the skins of metal men solemnly kneeling and embracing a collection of trees. Or they form the actual skin of a number of steel sculptures, delicate kneeling forms with no faces, bleeding letters over their stone plinths. Each one like a shining Tower of Babel, chattering silently as the sun went down. As the artist says “I invite you to listen to these noises. I invite you to imagine silence”.

Jaume Plensa continues at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park until 25 September. Opening times and other details from their website www.ysp.co.uk

A big thank you to YSP for the opportunity to view and photograph the work and meet the artist and to Emma www.theculturevulture.co.uk for organising it all.

Find a full set of the photos I took at the preview in my Flickr photostream