Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller

By Frankel, David | Artforum International, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller


Frankel, David, Artforum International


Janet Cardiff first became known for works that she calls walks, in which her recorded voice guides headphone-wearing visitors through a site--a park, a museum--and modulates their experience of it through scraps of description and information, fragmented stories, and 360-degree environmental sound. Part of the charge of these pieces lies in the friction between their intricately realized auditory landscapes, which seem to put us and Cardiff inside one another's heads, and the landscape through which we walk--the same, unaltered scene we usually perceive out of no one's body but our own. In these works Cardiff leaves the world as it is, instead adjusting the way we experience it between our ears. But she seems to have wanted an alternative, and she and her husband, George Bures Miller, have also made elaborate installations, which use sound but are visually concrete.

If the walks are literally invisible, the installations, such as the centerpiece of this show, The Carnie (all works 2010), often lean toward Grand Guignol. A creepy carousel, first met in darkness, it periodically lights up and revolves, the bulbs on its ogee arches flashing in varying sequences, an automated drum kit that rides it beating time for the broadcast of a wheezy two-tone modulation on what sounds like the traditional carnival harmonium. (The score's composer, Freida Abtan, is known for her electronic music.) The carousel's spookiness comes partly from its scale: It is a shrunken version of life size, and the mounts have shrunk less than the platform has, so that they are almost impenetrably crammed together. These idiosyncratic fauna--a cow, a giraffe--also show a cartoony formal modeling, slight but distinct, that gives them a heightened, unbeimlich presence recalling the photographs of mannequins and dolls by Surrealists such as Hans Bellmer. One also thinks of more recent, popular verbal or visual image-makers such as Stephen King or Tim Burton, and of Hitchcock's wonderfully frightening carousel-run-amok scene in Strangers on a Train. Mikhail Bakhtin may pose the carnivalesque's collapsing of order as basically liberatory, but another side of that coin has long been sensed. …

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