By a deeply recessed arch window in the servant’s room in the parsonage, a film of wheeling birds and an ever-changing landscape plays itself out. Behind it lurks the eerie music of the Unthanks and amongst it the beautiful Yorkshire tones of Chloe Pirrie reading Emily Brontë’s The Caged Bird. Brontë rescued an injured hawk, nursed it to health and flew it on the moors. When she returned from Brussels, the hawk was gone and she writes that despite asking one and all but never saw him again. She had named him Nero.
Land artist Kate Whiteford has created a breath-taking double screen installation of images using digital film, Super 8 and aerial imagery to present the landscape from the human and from the bird’s eye perspective. Nero’s black and white striations repeat themselves in the black and white images of light through trees. The wind roars and murmurs, we see the wind farm mills turn against grey seamless sky. The hawk that stands in for Nero sits on the glove of its handler. She places her face close to the birds in a moment of intimacy. We see the exquisite colours of the moor, yellow, blue, green and brown, light and dark, bright and golden.
The piece is both powerful and humble. Its location in the servants room, its quiet but insistent voices and sounds, its accompanying drawings and the inclusion of the watercolour sketch of the bird made by Brontë herself make the piece both a visitor and a resident in the parsonage. Brontë’s relationship to animals on her native moors was both loving and brutal. She had it seems little time for sentimentality. She loved perhaps not wisely but too well, and her poetry almost spits out her passion
There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed.
Whilst I sat watching the film, so enchanted in fact that I watched it three times, a visitor came in and asked me where the door to the parsonage kitchen was. I thought you were a helper here, she said, but you’re watching the film. I wanted her to stay and watch it with me, but the call of the kitchen door was too much. Yet the film continued unabated. The contemporary influences of the Brontë family, and enigmatic Emily in particular, are not disturbed by the film, nor the film by them. They sit beside each other and wait, like Cathy and Heathcliff, like bird and human, like moorland and parsonage, like helper and helped.
Wings of Desire, Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth, 5 May – 23 July 2018.
Karen Tobias-Green is a lecturer, researcher and writer at Leeds Arts University.