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Lost in the Memory Palace

April 20, 2013

Photo courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario

“In the middle of a stage sits a man surrounded by turntables and records.” Therefore, begins the soundtrack for “Opera for a Small Room”, the most compelling I believe, of the seven immersive installations on view in Janet Cardiff and George Bures-Miller’s retrospective “Lost In The Memory Palace.” This exhibition offers the viewer a unique experience and insight into the works of a duo that are in the upper echelon of art production.

Each piece in the show is an intriguing escape utilizing multi-layered soundtracks, video, robotics, sequential mechanics and a multitude of props. In “Opera…,for instance there are hundreds of LP’s littering the floor and an array of turntables all present to tell the haunting tale of a loner whose only company is himself and the opera music that is his passion. Lights brighten and dim as the disembodied male voice enacts a stream of consciousness monologue over the music.

A re-occurring theme in some of the duo’s work is the absence of a protagonist, which only further heightens the tension. The spectator is directly involved in wondering who the main player is, how they are implicated and why are they telling their story. This absent performer perpetuates a mystery where the silent witness (spectator) suspends their incredulity and actively participates in crafting their own ideas of what may be occurring. Any ambiguity or scoffing that one may have is only quelled by a total un-arming of self and a willingness to let go of any pre-conceived notions.

As one wanders the exhibition, each piece is contained in their own room. Anticipation builds as you open the door to enter and are suddenly confronted with the scenario or must enter a room within a room. Such is the case with “Storm Room” from 2009. This installation is a thrilling feast for the senses which takes place in a house in Japan. Three plastic buckets punctuate the bare floor in this stark setting whose only fixture is a small wall mounted bathroom sink. Throughout ten minutes, the participant is taken through and actual thunderstorm happening outside of the large picture window. Lightening flashes and thunder booms during the height of the storm, rain lashes down on the other side of the pane while the center bucket catches a thin stream of water dripping through a small hole in the yellow stained ceiling. As you are entranced with these natural phenomena, you cannot help but relate to your own experiences with thunder, lightening, rain and the magic of watching an intense storm. This was even made more real as I observed a toddler with her parents, enthralled at the unfolding action. However, who are the occupants of this house and where are they? Alternatively, are they just a memory? Co-curators Kitty Scott and Bruce Grenville have kept in mind a technique called the “Memory Palace” method in curating this show. This is an archaic form of memorization where a person can walk through a location in their mind to recollect facts and memories.

In the most sinister installation “Killing Machine” you are confronted with a box like structure containing a medical procedure chair covered in pink faux fur. But don’t let this playful covering fool you. Complex pneumatic and robotic arms whirl and whiz around the empty seat releasing menacing probes into the absent victim, while a passive disco ball overhead reflects what little light there is in the room. Strains of suspenseful, haunting music augment the heightened tension as the chair reclines and the ballet of machinery performs their menacing deeds. In this Kafkaesque nightmare you have no recourse but to imagine every horror movie you have ever seen while your present reality is suspended in dis-belief.

A dark, crowded hoarder’s scenario is laid out in the couple’s earliest work from 1995, “Dark Pool.” This rectangular room contains old furniture, magazines, books, lamps, chairs, ephemera, refuse and what looks to be a still used to produce some dank amber liquid. This overstuffed lair provides the narrowest of passages for the viewer to navigate, observe and even take respite in one of the upholstered chairs. The audio portion is an eerie mix of music and enigmatic whispers that suffuse the surroundings in mystery. I can’t help but to ponder while sitting amongst the installation the background behind the owner of this assemblage. What story is the artist’s trying to portray via the remnants of what is left behind by the missing person or persons? Where are they now or have they just abandoned their belongings? It is like stumbling upon a fantastic archaeological dig, intact and waiting to be discovered.

Other pieces within the retrospective are a new work “Experiment in F Minor” which contains a table with 72 speakers upended that plays music based upon shadows overcast by the observer. “The Muriel Lake Incident” from 1999 is a video contained within a small theatre diorama, and the 1995 video “Road Trip” round out the exhibition.

Concurrently in the Henry Moore Sculpture Court Janet Cardiff’s much touted choral masterpiece “Forty Part Motet” is installed. Forty speakers frame an enclosure where the listener is surrounded by the strains of the renaissance piece “Spem in Alium” by Thomas Tallis from 1573. Subtle yet powerful the music wraps around and bathes the audiophile in a hyper-surround environment.

Becoming a part of Janet Cardiff and George Bures-Miller’s work you are truly a participant on every level utilizing all of your senses and engaging within the environment which acts as the work of art itself.

The exhibiton continues until August 18th. at the Art Gallery of Ontario

From → 2013

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