The Silent Wild

August 14, 2015 at 9:51 am | Posted in reviews | Leave a comment
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It’s easy to see how people become obsessed with the Brontës. The interweaving of their short, strict lives, their intense fictional worlds, and the unforgiving landscape they inhabited is heady. This small exhibition by Diane Howse and collaborators encourages these kinds of connections, and plays with them. Quoting from the brochure, The Silent Wild ‘… takes as its starting point the written word, and how silent shapes on a page have the power to conjure whole worlds of sound, noise and commotion.’

Situated in the Brontë Parsonage, the exhibition interacts with the existing layout. The Parsonage is part museum, part reconstruction. The rooms are decorated with historically-accurate papers and paints, and are largely set up as they were in the time the family lived there. Cases display Brontë relics – Charlotte’s wedding dress, a first edition of Shirley – alongside Mr Brontë’s piano, the children’s bed, and Branwell’s portraits of his sisters.

The effect is to pull you in and out of the Brontës’ world, real and imagined, and their stories, factual and invented. The exhibition is focused around sound: the sounds of words themselves, and the sounds the Brontës might have been surrounded by – the tick of a clock, the tinkle of a teaspoon on a china saucer.

silent wild

Score of a voice reading a passage from Wuthering Heights

Some exhibits abstract tiny elements from the writings of the sisters – single words (silent), phrases (not a fluttering lark or linnet), or quotations. If your impression of Wuthering Heights is all doom and gloom, you might be surprised to learn that giggle, laugh and chatter feature in it, alongside shriek, howl and wail. It’s not over-explained, this exhibition, which I liked; I came away chewing over thin murmurs of life, wondering if this was about the potential of written words, the Brontës’ own brittle existence, or the resilience of their writings.

It’s easy to become immersed in brooding over these driven, gifted women and their fierce lives. The best thing about this exhibition is it takes us out of this inward spiral, and pushes us to think about bigger things. The dance piece, The Silent Wild, does this beautifully. Set to music constructed from found sounds in the Parsonage and readings of the Brontës’ works in many languages, the dancer starts on a floor plan of the Parsonage’s small dining room, reproduced in the enormous empty space of Salts Mill. His props are a dining table and chair, like those in the Parsonage. This is a special dining table, of course, as it’s the place where Wuthering Heights, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and other works were written. The dancer moves around, testing his physicality against these hard surfaces, exploring their affordances; small movements give a sense of internal focus, of potential. He moves outwards and inwards, under the table then outside the limits of the room: claustrophobic, then agoraphobic. To a rising cacophony of unknown languages, he pirouettes over and over, ending up with a crash under the table again. The table supports him, launches him into the world, then protects him again.

Daniel Hay-Gordon in the dance piece The Silent Wild. Picture from Bradford Telegraph & Argus: click for their preview of the exhibition

I found myself pondering what we know, and what we imagine. The museum hints that we can over-romanticise the Brontës’ lives; for example, although many people assume they didn’t travel, one exhibit is a trunk used by the sisters on trips to London, Ireland and Brussels. It wasn’t quite the claustrophobic, intense life we imagine. The house is small, and the weight of the tragedies it saw hangs heavy. But it’s also possible to imagine it as a refuge from the heave and thrust of life; there’s a quotation from Mr Bronte on how his little family comforted him, and brought him happiness after the death of his wife. It’s easy to focus on the heartbreak, but there’s life and potential here too.

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