Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller
Artpace, San Antonio
Through December 31
by Wendy Atwell
Strange and intriguing narratives are available for the viewer to piece together at ArtPace’s Hudson Showroom. Videos and sound-based sculptures by Canadian artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller embody the eerie awareness of the unconscious working behind the scenes; the non-linear sense of time; and a brooding sense of mortality and the greater unknown.
The content does not seem to address the viewer directly but is overheard or watched, placing the viewer in the role of voyeur. Inside the maquette of a movie theater, Muriel Lake Incident (1999), the audience becomes a witness, overhearing mysterious conversations and events. Many questions arise. In Hill Climbing, what causes the walker to move with such struggle and determination? As opposed to seamless, perfected filming, the video’s roughness directs attention to the filmmaker’s presence, placing the spectator in the shoes of whoever holds the camera.
Five black vintage phones on pedestals are rigged with invisible iPods so that when the receiver is picked up, the quiet voice of (purportedly) Cardiff is describing a different dream for each phone. This feels like eavesdropping. With the rustling of sheets and the movement of the recording device, there’s an exposure and bareness to the experience. Cardiff’s low, intimate voice is hushed from sleep. She yawns as she tries to recollect her dreams, many only partially recalled. “It was a long dream,” she says, or, “there’s lots of other parts I don’t remember.” These non-linear elements feel uncannily familiar for their universal qualities. People are going to the bathroom, or are naked; Cardiff feels or witnesses embarrassment, violence and shame. In the dream In a Convent, Cardiff recalls being with “all of these women with their rules,” about how many people can sit at a table. She leaves and she comes back to discover George has hit one of the women. “George, how could you have hit her?” she says, and in her voice one can hear the emotion still raw from the dream. Next she remembers they were walking down a street and they are behind the woman he hit, and her “bum is hanging out of the dress.”
The unconscious jumbles together events and details and renders them as fresh experiences overnight. But this blending of different experiences extends beyond content into the media itself. The artists juxtapose these devices from two different centuries with poetic precision. Listening to the old black phones feels otherworldly, as if one is hearing information from some parallel world that jumps across the time-space continuum, immune to its logic. After all, in cinema the black phone is culturally fixed as a dramatic site where life-altering information gets exchanged.
In Night Canoeing (2004), projected onto a wall in the back gallery, the audience joins the two artists in a boat at night. Someone paddles while the other shines a white beam of light through the mist, illuminating flying bugs, fallen logs, moss and green grass along the shoreline. Lily pads float on murky water. The viewer hears whispered comments like “there’s people here,” and “what do you want to do?” The experience feels almost unbearable. Combined with the limited scope of vision the paddling is exhausting in its repetition. The searching light never finds a specific focus; aimlessly roaming over dead branches and pea-greenish yellow water. What are they looking for? The light illuminates the mist so that it appears as if ghost after ghost is wisping away into the night.
The canoeing may serve as a metaphor for Cardiff and Miller’s larger concerns, as their work seems to call into question what our senses allow us to take in, what we think we know. Their work makes one feel small and naïve, like the feeling of looking at the stars at night. Cardiff and Bures Miller cleverly use these fragmented sounds, images and narratives to create illusion. In contrast to the idea of a fictional narrative made from moving images or text, in their work, the sounds, images and snippets of information prompt the viewer to build one’s own narrative and meaning with the hope of revelation. Overlaying all of the paddling I thought I heard a tap-tap-tapping, like the sound of a pen writing, making meaning as a defense against the unknown.
Wendy Atwell received her M.A. in Art History and Criticism from The University of Texas at San Antonio. She is the author of The River Spectacular: Light, Color, Sound and Craft on the San Antonio River.