TORONTO — Lost in the Memory Palace sticks with you long after you leave the museum. It crawls under your skin and creeps into your head. Don’t be surprised if it even starts popping up in your dreams.
Janet Cardiff and Georges Bures Miller achieve this long-lasting effect by attacking multiple senses at once. The Canadian artist duo is known for their immersive multimedia installations that revel in mysterious settings and ambiguous narratives. Their current exhibition at The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto consists of seven such environments, installed in a maze-like configuration across the museum’s top floor.
Audio is the primary means by which Cardiff and Miller transport us to new realms. I first experienced the power of this medium with Cardiff’s “The Forty Part Motet” (2001) at the MoMA PS1 September 11 exhibition in the fall of 2011. The simple work consists of forty speakers set in an oval formation. Each speaker plays a recording of one individual voice singing the sixteenth-century choral composition, “Spem in Alium”, together creating a rich, startlingly moving rendition of the song felt in an almost sculptural way. At the risk of breaching the unspoken protocol of professional artspeak; I have never had such a visceral reaction to a work of art, contemporary or otherwise. “The Forty Part Motet” gives me goose bumps.
The piece is installed in the AGO’s Henry Moore sculpture gallery in conjunction with Lost in the Memory Palace, and its all-encompassing, transcendental aspects are threaded throughout the other works on display. In many ways, these installations expand the boundaries of conventional visual art into a realm more akin to theater.
Indeed, the strong noir tones and slightly sinister vibes of “The Dark Pool” (1995) and “Opera for a Small Room” (2005) reminded me of Sleep No More, the immersive theatre experience loosely based on Macbeth. In Sleep No More, the audience wanders around a converted warehouse in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, exploring the rooms, listening to music, and piecing together the elusive threads of a plot. Likewise, viewers walk around, peer into enigmatic corners, and lurk over strange constellations of objects in “The Dark Pool”. Sounds emerge from strange places, whether voices speaking, music playing, or something altogether mysterious. Every object and sound seems rife with meaning, but it’s up to the “viewer” to actively imagine it.
Unlike “The Dark Pool,” “Opera for a Small Room” is a self-contained installation with open windows through which people voyeuristically peak into another world. The room has the appearance of an overstuffed study, with records piled high and cozy clutter in abundance. An opera plays, a disembodied voice speaks, and the entire work builds to a climactic fusion of music and choreographed colorful flashing lights. Despite the absence of tangible actors or performers, the feeling of a human presence is palpable. Cardiff and Miller achieve this anthropomorphic character entirely through the manipulation of sound, bringing the space itself to vivid life.
“Storm Room (in a house in Doichi, Japan)” (2009) offers a similarly theatrical experience. The “real life” purpose of the room is unclear. It contains a wall-mounted phone, tacked-up papers with Japanese writing, a fan, a mirror above a sink, and a bucket set in the middle of the floor to catch water dripping from the ceiling. Even with the relatively scant objects, the attention to detail is evident in the electrical sockets and stained ceiling panels. Over the course of ten minutes, a storm cycles through the exterior world; thunder clashes, lightning flashes, rain patters then pours, and the fluorescent lighting fixtures flicker in and out. The room is a discrete object within the gallery; people can walk around the perimeter of “Storm Room,” peering at the mechanical and electrical features while lending a creepy shadowy presence to those still inside the room. The technical virtuosity required to create “Storm Room” may only be surpassed by another rain focused environment currently igniting queues at The Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA): Random International’s “Rain Room” (2012).
As a general rule, Cardiff and Miller’s pieces are best understood when experienced in their entirety. The enforced duration is required to gain a full understanding of the embedded stories. “Road Trip” (2004) best exemplifies this quality. The room contains a number of chairs set around an archaic slide carousel and projector. As the projector clicks and moves, images of unpopulated landscapes and city scenes are projected onto the wall while the two artists’ voices discuss the photos and slowly unravel their mystery. The result is a somewhat paranormal experience, as if two ghosts inhabit the room — changing the slide order and commenting on the images before us. By watching and listening we slowly glean information about the photographer (Miller’s Grandfather), the purpose of his cross-country roundtrip, and insight into their family history.
Dialogue is also of paramount importance in a diorama-like piece, “The Muriel Lake Incident” (1999). I was transported to the upper balcony of a movie theater simply by placing headphones on my ears and peering into the confines of a wooden box. People cough, popcorn crunches, and unsolicited commentary warrants ‘shhhing!’ from other patrons. The film’s plot unfolds in tandem with brewing drama in the audience, climaxing with gunshots ringing out within both narrative dimensions.
In contrast, “The Killing Room” (2007) lacks dialogue, but it maintains a dramatic arc. The noir tones of the previous installations are taken to new heights, as pneumatic limbs move around the invisible occupant of a pink fur laden dental chair, while a disco ball rotates, and haunting music (“Heartstrings” by Frieda Abtan) plays. This sci-fi-esque vision of a torturous robot offers a commentary on our society’s largely indifferent stance on systematic methods of imprisonment, torture, and killing. It has a chilling, uncomfortable effect; “The Killing Room” is the only piece I was unable to watch at full length.
The most purely musical work, “Experiment in F # Minor” (2013), was created specifically for this exhibition. A large table is covered with a variety of vintage looking speakers in all shapes and sizes. Each one is activated by the shadows of people moving throughout the room and waving their arms above the table. While a cacophonic mess might be expected to ensure, the sounds mesh together in a satisfying, ear-pleasing whole. The required audience engagement also speaks to an association with immersive theater. It is not enough to be a passive witness – the setting adapts to its occupants’ participation, effectively luring them deeper into the fold.
When most people visit museums, they are acutely aware of the gallery setting. The right angles and white walls are their own spatial trap. By engaging not only our eyes, but also our ears and minds, Cardiff and Miller create escapes into parallel worlds and windows into unfolding dramas. People may say they get lost in a museum, lost in a painting, or lost in an idea, but Lost in the Memory Palace manages to heighten the sensation of being adrift by effectively altering the very space around us.
Lost in the Memory Palace: Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller is on view at The Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas Street West, Toronto) through August 18th. It will travel to The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in the fall, followed by The Vancouver Art Gallery in spring 2014.