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The Cage Went in Search of a Bird
“The Cage Went in Search of a Bird” explores how tuberculosis captured America’s collective cultural imagination during the 19th century, creating an image of an illness that affected both the body and the spirit. A person who was consumptive could have been literally terminally ill with a deeply debilitating bacterial, or could be someone who was solitary, artistic, and dramatic. As a result, much of the medical apparatus and the treatments developed at this time display an imaginative resonance that goes far beyond the medical reality. If the spirit was perceived to be in peril at the same time that the body ailed, then surely the treatment must embody the link between the mortal soul and the body’s contamination. I want to explore how (or if) the equipment used in the treatment of tuberculosis functions metonymically as a stand-in for spiritual anxiety manifested through the body and if this narrative resonance can be used to envision texts by 19th century authors.
I am interested in how the experience of tuberculosis was literally “written on the body” through medical practices such as bloodletting and cupping, as well as how popular imagination linked the disease to the literature of the time. I have already begun actively pursuing imagery in 19th and early 20th century literature that explores ways in which the body reflects the climate of the soul. My two primary focuses are Charlotte Brontë and Franz Kafka both of whom suffered from tuberculosis. I want to find a way to forge a link between these writers and the objects used to treat this medical condition: Can I use excerpts of literature to tell the stories of medical artifacts? Can functional/medical objects add a level of resonance to the texts?
“The Cage Went in Search of a Bird” will culminate in a large-scale interactive installation using the presence of human breath to trigger an experience of sound and text within an environment of blown, fused, and mass-produced glass objects and large-scale photographs. I am dedicated to using glass as the primary sculptural material in this project. On the surface, there is the obvious connection to the glassware produced for scientific experimentation. However, I am interested in glass’s ability to be formed directly by human breath and I have begun working with an experience glass blower to create components for this project. Additionally, since October 2015 I have been the artist-in-residence at Bullseye Glass Santa Fe. At this facility I have created ambitious fused glass pieces where a single human breath is frozen within an expanse of glass, echoing the destruction caused by tuberculosis in human lungs.
Peters Projects, Santa Fe, New Mexico, July 8 – August 16, 2016
The photographs depict excerpts from Brontë's and Kafka’s letters, arranged as though they were writing to each other. “Both of them were very active letter-writers," the artist said. "He had several passionate love affairs. She had one great love of her life.” Brontë’s one great love was a man named Constantin Héger, who had been her personal French tutor. Her love for him went unrequited. “There are only four of those letters that survive in the British Library in London,” Bouton said. “As far as we know, he never responded. He was married and had children. He tore up the letters and his wife retrieved the pieces and sewed them back together.” Thread and allusions to sewing make their way into the photographs and are a motif that runs through the exhibition. (...)
When I first started my research, I would be reading texts and looking online, and they would all say that many artists were affected by tuberculosis and then give a list ... Kafka and Brontë’s names would often appear next to each other. I had this one moment where I was looking at this long list of artists and writers, and I thought Charlotte Brontë would have hated being next to Franz Kafka. She wouldn’t have liked his writing, and he probably didn’t like her writing. But through this label they have both been given of tuberculosis, I started imagining this relationship between them.”
The video component of the installation is a sequence of 10 short videos of two actors reading from texts by Brontë and Kafka. (...)
The bird is also emblematic of Brontë, inspired by one of her best-known quotes, spoken by the titular character in the novel Jane Eyre: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being, with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you.” (Michael Abatemarco)