I keep forgetting about the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds. Which is a real shame, since it is another gem of a cultural resource for the city. The first event I attended there about 18 months ago was a spectacularly moving presentation of readings from Dante’s Divine Comedy organised by the Italian Department at the University of Leeds. It reverberated through my mind for days afterwards: the golden liquidity of a medieval Italian I could barely understand but with a universal poetic resonance. I regretted for weeks not dragging anyone along with me, because I had no one to share the joys of it with afterwards.
I am not making that mistake with Mariele Neudecker‘s sombre, evocative and profoundly moving video installation Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) on show until 23 February. I am dragging my whole family to see it in turn. Neudecker presents five settings of songs performed by the memorable Kathleen Ferrier who died almost half a century ago. Kathleen Ferrier was my mother’s favourite singer, and I grew up on tales of her tragically early death. Even now that I am unable to listen to her recordings without a jolt of emotion. The songs she sings are poems written by the German poet Friedrich Rückert after the deaths of two of his children, and set to music by Gustav Mahler in the early years of the 20th century.
Confronting the mere possibility of the death of a child is almost impossible for any parent. It is the unthinkable, the unspeakable. In some primitive way, we hope through denial to ward off the horror. In Neudecker’s installation, confrontation cannot be avoided: the agony of Rückert’s loss is claustrophobic in its intensity. The haunting contralto tones of Ferrier disturb and resonate as we read the poetry and gaze at the fragments of vivid Alpine greenery, gently moving branches and fluttering net curtains concealing yet defining the sense of absence.
And yet there is something strangely comforting in Rückert’s words, as if by his articulation of the unimaginable we are persuaded that some glimpse of eternity may offer a glimmer of comfort.
Mariele Neudescker’s Kindertotenlieder is showing at The Howard Assembly Room Leeds until Wednesday 23 February, Mon-Sat 2.00pm-8.00pm.