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

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