Cardiff & Bures Miller @ MAO

The current exhibition taking over the labyrinthine galleries of Modern Art Oxford is "The House of Books Has No Windows" by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, two artists who have gained much-deserved notoriety through their collaboration. Six of their installations are on display - Dark Pool, The Muriel Lake Incident, Road Trip, Opera for a Small Room, The Killing Machine, and The House of Books has No Windows, the most recent and titular piece.

Their work is mind-blowingly impressive, minutely detailed with its own vernacular mythology and arthouse glamour. Their skills of set-dressing put the rest of their field to shame, and their black sense of humour adds a subtle warmth to their pieces.

Dark Pool (1995)

On entering the doorway to The Dark Pool, one encounters a realm of suspended animation, an elaborate assemblage of furniture, carpets, books, empty dishes and mechanical paraphernalia. As viewers move through the installation, they activate acoustic components of the work - the silence of the space is broken by strands of music, echoes of stories and fragments of dialogue.
This large room-size installation, bathed in a central pool of light and ringed with motion sensors that trigger bursts of sound and dialogue, is immediately unsettling to step into. The door closes behind you and the cloud of small sounds and shuffling footsteps envelops you. The first thing you prepare yourself for, faced with a jumbled array of unwashed cups, old notebooks and tanks of murky water is the smell. Approaching the center of the installation, it quickly emerges that there is no such horror. What might otherwise be dank and repulsive has an entirely neutral aroma, of wood and paper. Your curiosity is encouraged. Passing a motion sensor shrouded in black cloth, once again you prepare yourself for a House-of-Horrors blast of ancient groaning and shreaking, infortuitously timed to surprise you as you lean towards the open notebooks to peer at their scrawled contents. Instead, a quiet murmur of clear dialogue and ambient noise slowly rises to meet you.

At this point, the nature of the installation changes for the viewer, and it becomes possible to engage with each minute, dusty piece as an object of curiosity, as if one were browsing the quarters of an elderly portrait artist happily engaged with making tea elsewhere. The power of the installation is to hold you gently in its claustrophobic world, personally introducing you to each carefully chosen and artfully disarranged book, cup and wire. Small elements, such as the navy shirt or blanket crumpled on the bare mattress, suggest a benign and thriving presence to whom the litter of the room represent significant personal artefacts.

You can view a video clip of the installation, from the official website, here, and there is a poorly designed but very interesting "map" of the installation here.

2. The Muriel Lake Incident (1999)

The visitor stands in front of a large wooden box looking through a rectangular opening to see a miniature model of a cinema with grey, empty rows of seats, and a small projection screen onto which a film is being projected. Listening on a pair of headphones they hear the 3-dimentional (binaural) sounds of the film, a woman next to them talking and eating popcorn and a surprise ending including a gunshot and a frightened audience.
"This is going to sound strange, but that woman...she was in my dream last night. I was..." "Sssssh!" An irritated audience member forcefully interrupts the intriguing murmurs from the female intimate whispering in your ear. "I'll tell you later," She frustratingly aborts her story. The description given by the website is sadly impoverished; a very similar installation with a slightly more elaborate set-up, their 2001 Venice Biennale piece The Paradise Institute (2001), includes a more poetic summary of the experience.

What is more particular about the installation is the personal binaural “surround sound” that every individual in the audience experiences through the headphones. The sense of isolation each might feel is broken by intrusions seemingly coming from inside the theatre. A cellphone belonging to a member of the audience rings. A close “female friend” whispers intimately in your ear: “Did you check the stove before we left?” Fiction and reality become intermingled as absorption in the film is suspended and other realities flow in.
The moment in the experience where a woman with flowing black curls dances, her eyes shut and straps of her tight black dress falling from her shoulders, and the female voice in your ear describes her dream has a highly erotic sense of claimed intimacy. The installation is oddly effective, consisting of a cardboard box containing a diorama theatre where a grainy monochrome film is projected onto the screen in the back, the audio delivered through headphones unceremoniously bolted to the plywood exterior. It is the only one of the installations that benefits rather than suffers from fellow gallery visitors piling in with you, as they act as other cinema patrons for the purposes of The Muriel Lake Incident.

3. Road Trip (2004)

The artists found a carousel of slides, mostly of empty landscapes, that originally belonged to George’s grandfather. His grandfather, whom he had never met, had traveled across Canada to meet with a doctor in New York for the cancer that he was dying from. The slides are projected onto a screen, while out of two audio speakers a conversation between the artists can be heard discussing the order and reason for the slides, trying to discover the mystery behind the images.
Exactly as described above, Road Trip consists of a holiday snap-style slideshow set-up with helpful voiceovers discussing places and people you have no knowledge of or connection to with a rich sense of nostalgia. There is a even a brief, possibly staged interruption where Miller cannot find his next slide and the screen remains blank for several long minutes. The shots themselves are stunning, but there is something distinctly underwhelming about the format.

4. Opera for a Small Room (2005)

There are twenty-four antique loudspeakers out of which come songs, sounds, arias, and occasional pop tunes. There are almost two thousand records stacked around the room and eight record players, which turn on and off robotically syncing with the soundtrack. The sound of someone moving and sorting albums is heard. The audience cannot enter the room. To see and hear his world, they have to look through windows, holes in the walls, and cracks in the doorways and watch his shadow move around the room.
Photographs by no means do this installation any justice, and it was by far my favourite piece of the exhibition.

Entering a vast, darkened hall, you come across a tiny wooden cabin emanating golden light, strange shadows and the rich, reverberating wave of an operatic aria; the private space of a silent afficionado bathing in the lustrous music. Approaching the cabin's many wooden windows, the hollow echoes turn stronger and the viewer's sense of voyeurism is engaged. Whilst exploring the many scattered details of the scene, suddenly the lights dim and in the hall, a storm commences. The golden light and opera fades to a roar of thunder. Different coloured lights, a disco of hot red and blue, flicker through the cabin and a loud pop track thumps out of the chaos.

The intimate luxury of the carefully arranged scene is nothing short of cinematic, and offers a genuinely intense experience of living a carefully composed arthouse tableau. The stormy "rock opera" fragments the scene and change it into something more spontaneous and detached, with elements both of threat to the viewer - now disengaged from the comfort of the golden aria - and of humour at the juxtaposition between the two scenes. It is a highly technical and effective method of moulding an environment and providing an intercessionary element that brings the viewer into the piece; "physical cinema", something present in all their work - as Cardiff says, referring to "
‘fucking up’ of our physical space" -
The fine line that separates our physical immediate world and creating an augmented or ‘third world’ we like to call it is really prominent in a lot of our works...in ways this augmented space has always been there with our imagination.
The interchangeability of cinema and sculpture is something coming into art, owing much to the work of Matthew Barney, that envelops the viewer in a sense of a broader mythology. It is poignantly expressed through this installation, along with Dark Pool and The Killing Machine, and a concept presented directly through The Muriel Lake Incident, The Paradise Institute and Imbalance.6 (Jump). Their first collaborative piece, Dark Pool, was actually the result of an aborted attempt to produce an amateur film along the lines of Fassbinder's Der Amerikanische Soldat (The American Soldier) after they attended a 15-film Fassbinder retrospective immediately after his death.

As with Barney, I imagine it will take several more evolutions of this concept in the artists' work to get a clearer idea of the broader themes expressed; the Killing Machine gives a more punctuated insight into the specific thoughts and processes that define each

5. The Killing Machine (2007)

Partly inspired by Franz Kafka's 'In the Penal Colony' and partly by the American system of capital punishment as well as the current political situation, the piece is an ironic approach to killing and torture machines. A moving megaphone speaker encircles an electric dental chair. The chair is covered in pink fun fur with leather straps and spikes. In the installation are two robotic arms that hover and move- sometimes like a ballet, and sometimes attacking the invisible prisoner in the chair with pneumonic pistons. A disco ball turns above the mechanism reflecting an array of coloured lights while a guitar hit by a robotic wand wails and a wall of old TV’s turns on and off creating an eerie glow.
In our culture right now there is a strange deliberate and indifferent approach to killing. I think that our interest in creating this piece comes from a response to that.
From the Networked Music Review interview :
Janet: I guess the pink fun fur was more me and the mechanical robot aspect was more George but we both have to be enthusiastic for any element to stay in a piece and not be cut.

George: Hmm, I thought the idea for the robot arms was yours and the pink fun fur was mine.

Janet: Yeah. You may be right.

I strongly recommend that you watch the video of this installation here. The music is "Heartstrings" by Frieda Abtan, with additional percussion by Titus Maderlechner. The robot arm design is by Carlo Crovato.

Playing on both a Kafkaesque aesthetic of oppressive surrealism and the tormented grandeur they discovered in their Pandemonium (2005) installation in Cellblock Seven of the Eastern State Pentitentiary, The Killing Machine is a profoundly frightening and yet somehow charming and accessible piece. After some brave patron approached the machine to press the Red Button, the two long robot arms whir happily out of hibernation and quietly dance, their slim light-mounted heads bending curiously down to the abused pelt of fake fur lining the dentist's chair between them in place of a flesh-and-blood victim. After quietly examining their invisible subject for several minutes, the strings crash in and the robots delicately select targets on which to descend, punctuating each dive with the solid click of a pneumatic spike judiciously applied to intangible thighs and chest. The movement programmed into the robot arms is nothing short of technical virtuosity, imbuing these slim, cruel denizens with both a bird-like curiosity and a cold, mathematical approach to their labours. One half-expects them to waltz at the end, much like the executioners of Barney's Cremaster 2 (NB. go to Characters > Two Steps: The Executioners Song for a brief clip).

The work is cold, chaotic, ordered, cruel, glamorous, seedy, clinical, artefactual...it expresses full-force the way that execution is portrayed, in succinct and cinematic style.

5. The House of Books has No Windows (2008)

...The House of Books has No Decent-Sized Photographs.

It doesn't surprise me that, despite the fact that this is the most recent and titular piece, none of the gallery press kits features a photograph or detail of this lack-luster piece of whimsical nonsense. Perhaps for any other artist, a new or unknown individual, you might find a pleasing composition and a shallow but strong aesthetic. In the context of the corpus of work built by these two artists, this is literally child's play.

On walking past this for the second time on the way back from The Killing Machine, I found a middle-aged woman and her little daughter sitting cross-legged inside. It wouldn't surprise me if they didn't realise it was supposed to be art. It would, however, make a charming fort for ages 5-8.

If you can't make it to Oxford, I thoroughly recommend viewing the artists' website at CardiffMiller.com. It has similar photographic tours, videos and summaries of their installations - the video for Bures Miller's solo work Imbalance.6 (Jum
p) alone is worth it.

Suggested Reading

also on aS.blogspot


Al Magnus

The appeal of Al Magnus' work to a broad demographic is fairly obvious. His broad composition landscapes, in a palette of luminous hi-res pastels, is a sort of softcore surrealism -that is, going through the motions for people who don't like to feel left out without demanding any real involvement.

Magnus' work runs essentially around the same visual concepts as Robert ParkeHarrison's environmentalist work - cynically, many of the pieces feel like glossy, under-realised, shameless rip-offs of ParkeHarrison's The Architect's Brother. Where ParkeHarrison depicts the Everyman's Nightmare, Magnus has gone for the Child's Dream. I feel that I should be more sympathetic, given that my own design logo exactly parallels his, a motif of stars hanging from the sky by threads that he also employs in his image 'Jesters'; but everything in Magnus' world is hanging by a thread, on more than one level.

In terms of technique, his failure to produce aesthetically subtle work has a lot to do with his choice of medium. Blending glossy CGI elements and photographs into a 'photographic' landscape is difficult. Magnus fails to photoshop realistic focus back onto the finished product - his experiments with focus result in either hard patches of gaussian blur or a rather primitive tilt-shift look - and the result is extremely flat. There is something aggressively mundane about a number of the compositions, a common problem of static CGI renders. Clearly some copious effort has gone into the processing of these images, and they are not necessarily amateurish, but neither do they seem to be maturing.

You may also have noticed that, at the size they are presented, it is impossible to make out more than the most rudimentary detail in any of the images. Whilst it may not be prerequisite of fine art that it scale nicely, Magnus does his work absolutely no favours. The loss of detail appears insignificant to his aims; he pushes the concept of each image above its real content.

From alMagnus.com :

Every picture tells a story.

To tell it, lengths of rope or chain, lightning, ladders, bridges
or handrails are interwoven. These strands hold together
the pieces of a photographic cloth, weave links,
keeping Man from wandering.
A strand now links Him to his own Universe or Fate.
Pins are threaded. Moon-pins, a lamp-pin. Pins that can suggest.

Jewels are stapled, as mysterious as temples,
as disconcerting as puzzles.
On the pieces of that cloth, a world where everything is a link,
apprentice seamstresses pull and the strands rise,
always higher.
Clearly it would be difficult to find the above anything other than nauseatingly whimsical, and it in no way justifies the ugly truth; that Magnus basically started with a mundane set of child's-eye observations and stretched the concept thinner than the sellotape he uses to patch some of these things together. In an interview with Phot'Aix available on his own website, Magnus explains that each of his compositions takes six hours to arrange on his computer; clearly, this just isn't a substantial enough investment of time and energy to produce something of artisitic value and significance.

The below video from YouTube is a kitsch arrangement of Magnus' and Saint-Exupéry's work to a grainy soundtrack of The Beatles' 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' that successfully reduces all three oeuvres into a clanging mess of trashy star-wipes, and just about summarises the tone of Magnus' collection.

Magnus could quickly profit from injecting some aggression into his vision - his world could benefit from the odd element of dark humour or decay. Right now, shiny though they are, these images are the intellectual equivalent of photographing babies and/or kittens in various miniaturised outfits; only the most fragile of gentle spirits amongst us will, or should, find real comfort in it.

They might look their best as printed wallpaper for a children's nursery, but the small, low-contrast examples made available by Magnus are only tacky postcards from a realm of the quiet dream.

His images are available to view at his website, alMagnus.com, in his photo.net galleries, and in an album by Matta on MyOpera.

also on aS.blogspot


Mike Brodie

Polaroid Images

From an interview with Fecal Face.com:

Do you have any inside knowledge on cheap polaroid film hookups?
Besides shoplifting, no.

What do you do to pay the bills?
Random shit, I can't have a job. That's just not where I'm at right now. I've realized that. I need to be able to do whatever the hell I want when I want. Which not havin a job doesn't necessarily guarantee, but it's a start. From march 6th -24th I'll be checked into a pharmaceudical lab and will be takin 450 mgs of arthritis pain medication. If I make it out alive I'm getting a tax free $3500. Which technically is going to be similar to getting paid $8.50 per hour, but I get paid for sleeping and eating.

That's crazy. How did you come across something like that and is there any chance of any long term issues with taking that amount of medication? I bet you have to sign some crazy papers for that shit.
Yeah, a friend told me about it. The first day I signed my name on about 25 different forms. It's not that bad really. These kind of things have been goin' on for awhile all over the country. This is really the only way pharmaceaudicals can be prescribed. They gotta be approved by the FDA first, and that's where I come in. This particular drug I think can really fuck up your pancreas though, so I guess its better that I'm doing this now than when I'm 40, because I think I have a super buff pancreas right now.


Mike Brodie, a.K.a. The Polaroid Kid(d), is the lazy, seedy personification of American anti-culture, albeit with a super buff pancreas. He arrives towards the trailing end of a stream of contemporary anti-heroes - drifting alcoholic loners who spend their time hanging out in dives and junkie squats, living in the occasional company of a host of deranged, unwashed addicts and petty criminals, with an accidental post-punk wardrobe and a vocabulary of thick slang with its origins in the nocturnal murmurings of crashed-out crack whores.

Modern cultural icons like Burroughs, Bukowski and even Tom Waits have glamourised urban squalor and, as fellow American Dream apostate Chuck Palahniuk puts it, 'hitting bottom'; legendary photographer William Egglestone and his innumerable disciples visualised this extraordinarily 'ordinary' p(erspective in a quiet panoramas of 'old tyres, Dr Pepper machines, discarded air-conditioners, vending machines, empty and dirty Coca-Cola bottles, torn posters, power poles and power wires, street barricades, one-way signs, detour signs, No Parking signs, parking meters and palm trees crowding the same curb' (shameless Wikipedia crib of Eudora Welty, The Democratic Forest) as possessing surreally menacing qualities. The stubborn ordinariness of life, desire and failure takes on a terrifying beauty and poignancy. Apparently.

The miracle of the genre, however, is the more worn out the cynical aesthetic becomes, the more profound the irony at its core. Brodie may be innocent of its legacy, but the self-conscious beauty of his portraits owes much of its significance to the endurance of the stark 'realist' -
probably better classified as surrealist, ironical realist, or any number of ambiguous compounds of existing genres - aesthetic of the American Ordinary.

35mm Images

The images selected above are tame, well-balanced examples of work that draws on a wealth of dirt, tattoo ink and other cultural debris. A more striking demonstration of his skill in capturing his subjects is probably Untitled #12 and Untitled #23 from his 2007 exhibition at the Needles & Pens gallery. Both images depict an eviscerated possum lying on a cardboard box. #12 includes the murder weapon, a small kitchen knife, and the killer, a faceless figure in a butcher apron with bloodied hands and a black dog at his side; #23 is more vague, with only the lower body of the mangled creature visible from under the wide brim of a hat as another unidentifiable person leans intimately close over the creature's corpse - too close, clearly, but the action is obscured by the hat. Both shots are ripe with a fragile, luminous tension and elements of the surreal and arcane - even the bloody viscera glows a pale, almost floral, pastel shade of orange in the washed-out nostalgia of traditional film.
There is very little to imply the purpose of the brutal slaughter, although the presence of the apron suggests that you probably don't want to know.

The simplicity of the zero-time Polaroid and, since the decline of the Polaroid camera, 35mm has a consistently illuminating touch that draws each image out to the dividing line between the mundane and sublime poignancy. Brodie's affection for his old-school equipment is a strong point in favour of the significance of his '
accidental documentary photography' as works of art; he is the founder of the vibrantly eccentric site plrds.com (Updated 2-Feb: The website link shifts, but this URL is current), which as one of the least navigable websites ever devised also has an exciting spontaneity to the content you may or may not be able to extract from it. You should be forewarned that Brodie has, for example, a loosely abstract idea of what a domain name is and it is not worth following up any of those occasionally printed on random pages.

Self-Portrait by Mike Brodie

After the eviscerated rodent it may not surprise you that Mike Brodie looks more like a budding serial killer than a walnut-complexioned, denim-clad loner with an unfiltered cigarette smouldering between an incomplete set of yellowing teeth. Clearly there is a youthful quality to his work that is highly comparable to his Chinese contemporary Lin Zhi Peng, who goes by an equally moronic nickname: an easy social intimacy with his subjects, proof of his access to youthful and marginal subcultures; a slightly juvenile sense of humour that has a tendency towards broken or suggestive objects; a strong physicality in his portraits rather than a more languid, considered appreciation of the human form; and a whimsical optimism in terms of what constitutes a worthy image.

Still, it's quite clear that Lin Zhi Peng, No. 223, has had a lot more joy out of life as a young artist than Brodie. Brodie's subjects - by his own testimony, all people he knows well - seem entirely indifferent to his presence in his best pictures, and casually unresponsive in his more mediocre work. It's a subculture that's a lot less fun than it looks, apparently. The mere presence of No. 223 and his camera, by contrast, seems to send his cohort of of lithe Chinese adolescents into either paroxysms of gleeful excitement, acute states of confusion, or an ecstatic blend of both - where Brodie's camerawork is soberly illustrative, Lin's is feverishly generative.

At the age of 21, Brodie feels palpably older - if not more mature - in style than his contemporaries. As Art&Antiques Magazine elegantly puts it, despite a 'callow, scattershot approach to photography,...the contemplative Polaroids he’s produced over the past few years already feel like the work of an old soul.
' Perhaps sifting through the tattered remains of the American Dream is wearying work; perhaps his taste in sweater-vests is an indicator of a prematurely aging taste. For his work and for his wardrobe, though, he might bear in mind that a more noble, macho sort of realism is creeping into his genre and consider casting his thematic net a little wider - potentially a risky maneouvre for someone widely praised for just that, capitalising on the idea of ethnography as art in itself and achieving significance by 'capturing a rare and valuable glimpse of a marginalised group', as the standard praise for this achievement goes.

With the massive market for journalism and amateur photojournalism that now exists online, as critics were swifter to point out in the case of Lin Zhi Peng, edgy subject matter does not necessarily make art. Stylistic consistency, technical prowess and a coherent vision make art, and whilst Brodie seems to have the potential to prove himself in all these areas, he will need to broaden his horizons first.

also on aS.blogspot


Spring Retrospective

Sculptors & Installation Artists
listed and illustrated alphabetically

Peter Callesen [Paper] : Brian Dettmer [Books] : Fred Eerdekens [Light] [I] [II]
Mark Jenkins [ Tape] : Yayoi Kusama [Dots]

listed chronologically

Egypt Under the Stereoscope : The Secret Books by Sean Kernan : Gohonzon
Cantor Dust on the Sierpinski Carpet : Atlas by Maria Kodama and Jorge Luis Borges

2007-2008 Top Photographers

Akif Hakan Celebi : No. 223 : Gilbert Garcin : Joe Baran
Robert ParkeHarrison : Andrew L. Moore