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.