In memory of Heather Ann West 1970 – 1987
For an audio version of Unearthing #3 please click on the SoundCloud bar below. Thanks to Brian Lewis for recording and editing.
She’s ta’en out her little penknife,
(fine flowers in the valley),
And twinned the sweet babe o’ its life,
(And the green leaves they grow rarely).’
From ‘The Cruel Mother’, anonymous, collected 19thC.
2003. My mother was dying. I was ‘home’ for the first time in a long while, sharing her care with my sisters, struggling to keep her comfortable, failing. It wouldn’t be long now. A bright afternoon; the light casting piped icing shadows on the daisy brocade of her pillow, softer shades on the fine pleating of her greying skin. In the midst of day the landscapes of a waning moon. My sister lay on the floor and I lay on the bed, leafing through back copies of Country Life, House and Garden. Later, in the kitchen, I drank tea from a cup painted with the same fruits that were dropping from the trees framed by the window, and realised that I had never spent an afternoon like that before: a soft-focus tableau of mother-daughter bonding. Lazy, frivolous, relaxed. She never really liked our company; it’s just that this time she couldn’t get away. I went back up to her room and closed the curtains, and the dying sun turned the printed roses into a prescient shroud of glowing bloody blooms.
A farm is a place where the boundaries between the inside and the outside are perhaps more blurred than in the city, a place where the realm of the built and the realm of the ploughed overlap and intermingle. From William Morris’ Meadowsweet to Laura Ashley’s Honeysuckle Trail, the designs of the country cottage aesthetic emphasise and celebrate the picturesque aspect of this porous threshold, whilst papering over the more unsettling ambiguities of a metaphorically (and literally) polluted space (Douglas 1966). The signifiers in such endeavours are almost always floral, associated with the feminine, and in these ornamentally and ideologically produced spaces there is a conjuring of an essential, constant and benevolent mother. This particularly English tradition of the patterned pastorale, an ordering of nature, so successfully denotes benevolent domesticity that such interior style has become ubiquitous. Decoration is by its nature visually alliterative, and the insidious replication of the maternal meme constructs a cosy familiarity, a ‘familiality’ that refuses questions, refuses doubt. Paradoxically, once a dislocation occurs, the saturation of the physical with the symbolic serves only to heighten the gap between the proper and the improper, the heimlich and the unheimlich: to live in this fissure, caught between expectation and experience, is to be both crushed and lost.
The words ‘Rose’ and ‘Heather’ first came together for me in 1994. A garden in Gloucester was being excavated, and nightly the television showed grim-faced officers carrying boxes of remains from the house. One body, two, three… a litany of women were buried there (the known victims of Fred and Rose West numbered thirteen) and underneath the patio the forensic team discovered the mutilated body of Heather, their daughter, just sixteen years old. ‘Rose and Heather’, a phrase so sweet it pierced my heart. It was a decade later during a week-long gallery residency that I created an installation that subconsciously recalled this narrative, using images developed from a series of paintings in which I had played with wallpaper and chintz designs, removing the blooms at the centres of the leaf sprays, uncovering a lack, a central void. As the days passed, other images intruded into the formality of the carefully designed slides: an aethereal gathering of the foetal and the anatomical, flickering in and out of the mutilated bower. By the end of the week the title of the work had made itself clear. The first version of Rose and Heather had been made.
This process, an intuitive co-mingling of the crafted and the found, engendered a continued fascination with the relationships between ideas and representations of landscape and the narratives of family, safety and home. Fred’s atrocities were part of the familiar, known, perversely comfortable fable of the ‘bogeyman’ (Warner 1998), but Rose’s actions, her seemingly uncoerced participation in, and even initiation of, the abuse, torture, rape and ultimately murder of women and girls including her own children is part of the last taboo, the unthinkable, the ‘dark inverse of the Marian exemplar’ (Bolland 2011). I wrote of this in Somebody’s Heaven Somebody’s Hell (ibid), and of Heather’s yearning for a rural ideal positioning the ‘country’ as the place where safety and love might be found, as opposed to the city – the habitat of the brutal, perverse, unthinkable mother who would eventually be a partner in her undoing:
‘Heather… would write over and again on her school books and bags the letters FODIWL: Forest of Dean I Will Live. A desperate yearning for a joyful existence; unfettered amidst the imagined boundlessness of forest and field. She ended her life amongst the concrete of the city; brutalised, murdered, dismembered; crushed and confined in a rusted dustbin, and buried under the cheap composite slabs of a badly laid patio.’ (ibid).
In reality, The Forest of Dean was far from an Elysian ideal of the ‘natural’, despite the picturesque gloss of the tourist industry; but in the imagination of the child the wild, the true forest in all its psychic ambiguity can be located anywhere. (For a bleaker telling of the area’s recent history see the brilliant Happy Like Murderers (Burn 1998), a book that in its forensic dissection of place and social history contextualises the actions of the Wests through a cellular scrutiny that both locates the mutation and illuminates our vision of the whole.)
In 2006 the second work was made, but this time the names were tightly bound with a ‘Gordian ampersand’. Rose&Heather – the mother drawing the child unnaturally close with a cord that cannot be untied; the removal of spacing creating a single suffocating word. The installation was installed in the basement of a municipal art gallery. The visitor descended into a forest of domestic lamps, their shades cut with the page-truncated silhouettes taken from a pornographic magazine, coloured light bulbs throwing out agonised shapes onto the gallery walls. The piece blurred the borders between the inside and the outside of both the home and the body. Pornography, both bought and, more significantly, homemade was a constant in the lives of the West’s children, the surviving siblings told of being made both to watch and to appear in the DIY films made by Fred and Rose. Descriptions of this material are grim – a no-frills lo-tech reduction of holes to be fucked. (Perhaps, in the end, no matter how high its production values, this is all pornography can ever be.) I wanted the silhouettes in the lampshades to reflect the ordinary bodies used in amateur porn, and took them from the magazine Fifty Up: Cock Hungry Pensioners Want You Now. Printed on cheap paper, relying heavily on readers’ contributions, it mocked the very women it so graphically displayed for their ‘sagging tits’, ‘grey minges’, ‘dry cunts’. At the centre of every image was an opened up vagina, superfluous limbs and heads cropped by the page’s edge in an echo of the Wests’ dismembering of their victims. It was on sale in a Leeds newsagents, freely accessible on a bottom shelf. I stood in the shop for half an hour, summoning the courage to pick it up. In the end I could not bring myself to buy it, and so paid a fellow artist £5 to go in to the shop and buy it for me, thus soiling myself twice. The forest in Heather’s imagination was unambiguously a sanctuary, but the forest in Rose&Heather #2 was the forest of the Grimms, of the child lost and abandoned, prey to the wolf, the woodsman and the witch. We will never know the exact manner in which she died, but we have the accounts of her surviving sister Anne-Marie, whose bodily boundaries were brutally transgressed by Fred and Rose and from the age of eight (Hill and West 1996), and the fact of her dismemberment and burial in a dustbin. Somewhere on that ‘dark stair’ (Peace 2001), between the first rise and the last, she lost her step.
After the exhibition the work was dismantled. Most of the shades and stands were broken up and given away; the magazine torn to shreds and binned. A work I had laboured over, but a work I could not love. Then in 2008 I was asked to exhibit Rose&Heather #2 (along with another work, a version of the Hansel&Gretel series) in Future 50, a survey show curated by Ceri Hand for Axisweb. I nearly said no. I was unwell, lost in my own ambiguous polluted space, halfway into a four-year free-fall of black confusion. The final work, although composed from the remnants of version #2 acquired, through the process of installation, a voice of its own. Only seven lamps remained from the original thirty, which had filled an enclosed subterranean space, their coloured bulbs lurid and raw in the darkened room, the bloody shadows as sharp as a knife. Rose&Heather #3 was a softer work, almost shy. I had been worried it would disappear in the brightly lit white cube surrounded by works it had never met before. In the end I liked its reticence. I had spent too long peering into bloody holes: wound-weary from thinking in and through these sore abraded spaces. Rose&Heather #3 stood quietly in the corner of the room, its pale shadows those of ghosts being laid to rest: the colours of a fading dawn.
All three versions of Rose&Heather are gone, though one of the lamp stands, whole-shaded, is lighting my hands as write this piece. Perhaps there will be a Rose&Heather #4, but then again, perhaps not.