The Invisible Presence
The works of Canadian artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller often create a potent atmosphere through the abundant use of antiquated objects and nostalgic memorabilia. Kitty Scott of the AGO astutely thought to link the words memory palace to their works, which have been collected in a retrospective show held at the AGO and the Vancouver Art Gallery, where I was lucky enough to experience it. This description is most accurate because each piece is a complex network of memories that are at once accessible and completely foreign to the viewer. Works such as Dark Pool, 1995, Opera for a Small Room, 2005, and The Killing Machine, 2007, are composed of dense collections of used objects that have a strongly uncanny presence. The objects are often well worn and bear the musk of a former possessor. They are commonplace objects: vinyl records, tea cups, personal diaries and journals, all domestic items that most visitors have been intimately familiar with at one point in their life. And yet now the objects are being used and displayed so strangely in dark, heavy installations that any personal memories evoked in the viewer are undeniably contaminated by a foreign presence.
In Opera for a Small Room Cardiff & Miller use programmed lighting and robots to create the visual and aural traces of an unseeable person performing for the audience. The sound system plays a recording of the invisible man scuffling through the room, sorting through the stacks of records and speaking to the audience. His presence is further supported by lighting that creates his shadow flickering around the room and robotics that pull out his chair and turn on the record players. The invisible presence of modern technology is disguised as the invisible presence of the ghost who inhabits the installation.
The Killing Machine has a menacing presence when visitors are first confronted with it. Two gangly and yet sinister robotic arms, as well as a variety of old television sets emitting buzzing static images surround an electronic dentist’s chair. The experience of the installation however only truly begins when the viewer inevitable pushes the large button that entices visitors to PRESS it. The Killing Machine is then brought to life and the viewer can only watch in horror as an invisible victim is tortured to death by the robotic arms equipped with firing pneumatic pistons that whirl in a dance of death around the chair. Click here to watch The Killing Machine in action.
Underlying the dated and decrepit objects of the Cardiff & Miller installations is a force used to create the eerie presence of their pieces. These artists ironically rely on the latest technology to bring new life and a new presence to their installations. Robotics and precise programming are essential to the execution of these pieces. Interestingly, in an interview with Canadian Art Cardiff explained that “Technology is not the subject matter for us,” and Miller was quick to follow, stating, “The concern is only in what it can do for us.” Despite this aloof attitude towards technology, the duo is dependent upon the latest innovations to bring their ideas to fruition. Art and technology are inseparable from each other in the work of these two artists.
The Vancouver Art Gallery is set to host Lost in the Memory Palace from June 21st to September 21st, 2014.
- Emily Cluett
#exhibitstosee #wordless #MAEXcorcoran #metaphorasdesign
Thank you to Emily Cluett for the wonderful description of this exhibition.
The concept of “memory palaces” has always fascinated me. It makes for a perfect metaphor around which to frame an exhibition design intention.
(There was a great piece on NPR a few years ago about the history of memory palaces and about contemporary people who create complex memory palaces in their minds to learn hundreds of numbers in Pi, or to commit to memory complicated instructions or lists.)
What draws me to this installation is how ambient and evocative it is. There is a clear but wordless story to each of the scenes. I would love to see more interpretive exhibitions using the techniques of wordless storytelling.
Dioramas come to mind as a similar technique for conveying contextual narrative in exhibitions. Another example is immersive exhibitions that convey story through contextual setting. Why, though, am I turned off by those techniques, and completely fascinated by this installation?
I do have a secret attraction to animal dioramas, but never the ones with people in them. The presence of fake people ruins the detective-like thrill of imaginative observation. They take away my ability to place myself into the scene and imagine it for myself. Also, fake people always look dated, and just so… Fake.
I love that this installation employs techniques that suggest the presence of someone occupying the scenes, without a literal representation of that person.
This reminds me of the marvelous project by Howard + Revis in which they used light and sound to “re-haunt” an historic farm building at the Sandy Spring Quaker Museum. Suggestive and evocative exhibition design can take the visitors imagination much further than overt interpretation.
I suppose the challenge is to balance accurate interpretation with imagination, but good exhibition design should allow for both.