By Lee, Stephen
Art Monthly , No. 322
Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller: The House of Books Has No Windows
Modern Art Oxford October 15 to January 18
Franz Kafka, in his book Amerika, published in 1927, describes with startling precision the hypnotic effect of technology and mass culture. Karl, the hero of the story, having just arrived in New York, gazes over the balcony of an apartment block at the teeming sights, smells and sounds of the city. He describes the 'enveloping light ... with an effect as palpable to the dazzled eye as if a glass roof stretched over the street were being violently smashed at every moment'. This image is still relevant today and it is within this context that we might understand Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller's fragmented narratives. The impetus of storytelling drives their collaborative, multi-sensory installations at Modern Art Oxford, where the exhibition is sensitively laid out so that each space enhances the impact and flow of this series of memory theatres.
The sound of Janet Cardiff's voice is compelling and memorable because of its intimacy, like the reading voice of a friend, lover or mother, and the artists are known for narrated walks using Walkman technology. Fragments of narrative, instructions, collaged sounds from movies, sometimes pleasurable combinations and sometimes anxious, create a form of storytelling that is like lucid dreaming. When integrated here with sculptural objects and spaces the effect--as various media correspond--triggers an intensification of the total sensuous experience.
In the installation The Dark Pool, 1995, the storytelling is most tangible. A separate room with one doorway, like a studio where aesthetic experiments are conducted, it is full of clutter and reflects the apparent sensibility of a collector. Closer inspection of tabletop debris, dramatically lit by bulbs dangling from the ceiling, reveals that some objects are grouped as vignettes, like a half-finished snack. Some objects function as Surrealist object poems, such as a bird's wing wired to brass plates where we are instructed to insert a photograph into this 'Wish Machine' prototype. Elsewhere found objects generate a sense of deja vu. Like Adorno's 'Valery Proust Museum', objects dislocated from their original context combine with a babel of sound fragments to provoke involuntary memory. The audience meanders through this work, at times sitting, reading or lying down, and becomes so much a part of the set that it can be startling when a figure moves--and reveals itself to be real and not sculpture.
Lucid dreaming is a useful simile for the literary mechanisms at play in this memory theatre but it is not quite accurate. …