Brontean Abstracts

Cornelia Parker at the Ikon Gallery
Last weekend I went to see Never Endings, Cornelia Parker’s exhibition at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham (on until November 18th). My attention was particularly caught (unsurprisingly) by Brontean Abstracts, her work which came out of the artist’s time at the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth. The exhibition guide talks of Parker’s “forensic interest in the stuff of the Brontes’ lives”, and this section of the exhibition features photographs taken through an electron microscope, displaying in the most minute and scientific detail a pin hole made by Charlotte Bronte, the hair of the three sisters, their nibs and needlework. I was fascinated by the level of detail, presumably representative of a “never ending” search for the essential, real Brontes, the people behind the novels, because that seems to be what we, whether as literary critics or the reading public, want. One might assume it’s a modern obsession, this consuming interest in celebrity, wanting to be close to those in the public eye, but as I have previously mentioned in the case of Tennyson, this has been going on for a long time now. And, of course, wanting to know every minutiae of the life of the Brontes is arguably a very different proposition to wanting to know who Kate Moss is going out with and which moisturiser Victoria Beckham wears; this, one can argue, is a “literary” interest, one for the erudite, the well-read. It isn’t, really, though. I wonder if Parker was really suggesting that we are trying to get too close, that the scrutiny of biography and reworkings of history is all a bit much, extraneous, almost. What impact would that image of the pinhole have had if it had been made by Mrs Jones of Cardiff who lived and died in obscurity? But then, what material value would be placed, at auction, say, on Mrs Jones’ nightdress, for example, when compared to Charlotte Bronte’s? It’s all about association, and Parker is making us question, uncomfortably, if we have over-emphasised these associations – it’s cynical, but celebrity sells; is it right that these anonymous pictures become more interesting because of their associations? It’s an idea Parker plays with throughout Never Endings, in works such as Stolen Thunder, handkerchiefs with smudged marks on them which come from contact with tarnished metallic objects such as Dickens’ knife, Nelson’s candlestick and a suit of armour belonging to Henry VIII. Stolen thunder is exactly what it is – an almost religious iconography lent to everyday objects by virtue of their illustrious owners. The catalogue suggests that:
“Just as the perception of a religious artefact is transformed by belief in its reality, Parker’s treatment of the objects she selects often plays off the possibility of cliché that characterises cultural memorabilia.”
Perhaps what Parker is commenting on in contemporary society is a frightening tendency to replace traditional religion with celebrity-worship, in which mortals become deities.
What particularly caught my eye here, however, was a framed series of photographs, twelve in all (I think) of deleted words from the manuscript of Jane Eyre. Only academics tend to look at manuscripts in such detail, so it’s thought-provoking to see these deleted words turned to their own use, as art. The materiality of the text is thrown into relief here, as words become meaningless as signifiers, taken out of their context (and some barely legible) but exist purely as pictures, the lines of handwriting becoming strokes of paint on a canvas which exist for the purposes of decoration only. The frames seem to break up the continuity of the text, until one recalls that since these are random, deleted words, they had no continuity and little textual status anyway. It forces the viewer into a different relationship with the text, and provokes discussion about the place of text-as-object, and, in the context of the exhibition as a whole, the object-as-text, in which an inanimate object provides a “text” for the viewer to “read”.
You can read about the Brontean Abstracts exhibition at the Haworth Parsonage here.

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