The Profound Soul of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller

At once enthralling and unsettling, this three-part exhibition by Canadians Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, memorably titled After the summer of smoke and fire, is spot on for our anxious (to say the least) times. 

Escape Room (2021), in the gallery’s semi-darkened back room, is a stunning new installation that includes enticing, yet foreboding, architectural models and dioramas meticulously handmade by the artists from sundry materials. Based on a text Cardiff sent me, some of the materials are: Hydrocal, sand, tree branches, acrylic paint, diorama supplies, miscellaneous objects, 3-D plastic objects, electronics, audio speakers, playback systems, and laser sensors. 

In the center space is the only work that predates the COVID-19 pandemic, the remarkable, piano-like “The Instrument of Troubled Dreams” (2018). The piece is inspired by 1960s Mellotrons, and audience members are invited to play it. Ravens, thunder, helicopters, a quartet, a choir, violins, sweeping wind, gunfire, barking dogs, a carnival, and Cardiff’s mesmerizing voice telling brief, enigmatic, and mostly dire stories, are just a few of the sounds that course through the space from multiple speakers when the instrument is played.

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller
“The Instrument of Troubled Dreams” (2018), interactive audio installation with ambisonic sound, dimensions variable, duration variable. Installation view Luhring Augustine Chelsea, New York (photo by Farzad Owrang; © Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller; Courtesy the artists and Luhring Augustine, New York)

Two exquisite landscape paintings by Cardiff are at the entrance, each set in a handsome walnut frame. Who knew that Cardiff, so identified with sound, has such painterly chops? I certainly didn’t, and I’ve been following her work, and her collaborations with Bures Miller, for many years.

The paintings, of a fire reflected on water and a pickup truck driving down a lonely road toward a dark building, come with a twist. Press a red button on each to hear different soundtracks — sometimes Cardiff’s voice, sometimes music or ambient sounds — that obliquely respond to the paintings, offering hints and suggestions to their possible meanings or interpretations. I found it engrossing. 

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller
“The Instrument of Troubled Dreams” (2018), interactive audio installation with ambisonic sound, dimensions variable, duration variable. Installation view Luhring Augustine Chelsea, New York (photo by David B. Smith; © Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller; Courtesy the artists and Luhring Augustine, New York)

While hardly about the pandemic, or any of the other crises so afflicting us, including environmental mayhem, economic troubles, rampant violence, and historical trauma, all are invoked in this exhibition, which is also often tender and profoundly soulful.  

Artistic collaborators for many years, married couple Cardiff and Bures Miller have long enjoyed much travel in their lives, as they exhibited throughout the world. Then came COVID-19: travel suspended, exhibitions waylaid, life upended, and months of isolation in their rural British Columbia studio. 

That studio, as it turns out, was hardly a refuge, as crises encroached. Over the summer, British Columbia was walloped by unprecedented heat. Hundreds died; forest fires raged; COVID-19 and global warming converged. One fire, Cardiff told me, came very close to their property.  She, Bures Miller, and their daughter had to be prepared to flee at a moment’s notice. A summer of smoke and fire indeed.

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, “Cabin Fire” (2021), oil paint on board, walnut frame, mixed media and electronics, 12 1⁄2 x 10 1⁄2 x 2 inches
(photo by David B. Smith; © Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller; Courtesy the artists and Luhring Augustine, New York)Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, “Feed Plant” (2021), oil paint on board, walnut frame, mixed media and electronics 12 1⁄2 x 10 1⁄2 x 2 inches (photo by David B. Smith; © Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller; Courtesy the artists and Luhring Augustine, New York)

What the artists crafted during their back-to-basics studio time is the labyrinthine, fantastically detailed Escape Room. They escaped, so to speak, into this enormously complex work, which required months of devotion. And now viewers can temporarily escape, too. The installation resembles a studio, very likely the artists’ own, with art materials, tools, books, and empty coffee cups on tables and desks, and with copious photographs and notes on the walls. The raw stuff of art-making is here, not just finished products, and it is jam-packed with clues to the possible meaning of, and influences for, the sculptures, including photos of eclectic buildings and a page from Jorge Luis Borges’s book Labyrinths (1962).

Entering it is like voyaging into a marvelous, yet mysterious and precarious, elsewhere filled with strange, looming sculptures, some with moving parts; complex, at times harrowing, sounds; and ever-shifting lights. This installation seems weirdly alive, in a Frankensteinian way.

A crusty, hive-like structure sports apertures, ladders, and blinking lights in its tower. A hulking factory is partially overgrown with trees and seems to be falling apart. Both are forceful, engaging sculptures; both seem fragile and entropic. 

A cathedral-like edifice with exposed, curving beams also seems to be partially in ruins. This includes one of the installation’s rare instances of a human form. A tiny female figure (she looks a bit like Cardiff), standing inside next to a loudspeaker, seems engulfed by her surroundings and utterly lonely.

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Escape Room (2021), interactive multimedia installation with proximity sensors, lights, sounds, and handmade models, dimensions variable, duration variable. Installation view Luhring Augustine Chelsea, New York (photo by David B. Smith; © Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller; Courtesy the artists and Luhring Augustine, New York)

As viewers move about, they activate, via proximity sensors, soundtracks that play from small speakers. Cardiff’s voice, projected through the speakers, tells us of voices inside the hive that sound like bees, prisoners, and a possible assault to free the prisoners. “It’s your quest,” she says, “to infiltrate the tower and free the prisoners.” Game theory is an influence. Cardiff tipped me off about this: Escape Room as an analog version of elaborate, role-playing digital environments.

One can peer through the windows of two office/apartment buildings into interiors with expertly rendered dollhouse furniture and decor; sometimes the furniture is askew, suggesting a fight or another upheaval. Miniature paintings and sculptures abound, including a somewhat awry version of Cardiff and Bures Miller’s renowned 2001 sound installation “The Forty Part Motet.” Signs of human life are everywhere, but there are no people. Especially in the current moment, marked by so many hospitalizations and deaths, this glaring absence is unnerving. 

On the soundtrack playing near one of the tall buildings, Cardiff speaks of a man who enters a room, a person at a desk who watches him, evidence of a fight, and a body “found on the street.” These gorgeous sculptures have a sinister streak. 

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Escape Room (2021), interactive multimedia installation with proximity sensors, lights, sounds, and handmade models, dimensions variable, duration variable. Installation view Luhring Augustine Chelsea, New York (photo by David B. Smith; © Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller; Courtesy the artists and Luhring Augustine, New York)

If one stands very still, in exactly the right place, a whole soundtrack is audible. Much more likely, viewers will hear excerpts, sometimes just a few words, which mix with sounds coming from elsewhere: spoken voices, often haunting music, droning noises, and many others. It is impossible to pin down what these spoken stories are, exactly. They might be fiction or fact, personal musings or snatches of memories, parts of dreams or bits of old movies dimly recalled. Cardiff’s is a voice for the ages, matter of fact yet packed with concealed emotion, conversational yet authoritative. She doesn’t just speak at one, or to one. Instead, she takes up residence in one’s psyche and soul. 

However escapist, the real world keeps intruding. At one point, Cardiff suddenly declares, “I don’t know how much longer this is going to go on for, this isolation ….” This is achingly poignant. We have all experienced such isolation and alienation for so long now. At another point, she speaks frankly of doubt, wondering what all this rigorous devotion to art-making amounts to, and what, if anything, art really means.  Again, it is achingly poignant. Many of us have been questioning our lives and devotions during the pandemic. In the meantime, what Cardiff and Bures Miller have devised is a tour-de-force installation that exudes both wonder and menace.

The exhibition begins with the two small oil paintings. Viewers can choose whether to press the red button at the bottom of each painting. I advise doing so repeatedly. (Hand sanitizer is nearby.) 

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Escape Room (2021), interactive multimedia installation with proximity sensors, lights, sounds, and handmade models, dimensions variable, duration variable. Installation view Luhring Augustine Chelsea, New York (photo by David B. Smith; © Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller; Courtesy the artists and Luhring Augustine, New York)

“Cabin Fire” (2021) depicts a roaring conflagration in the nocturnal woods, the fire reflected on water in the foreground. As Edmund Burke emphasized so long ago, the sublime is closely linked with terror. The local scene — just down the road from the artists’ home — reflects both: imagine vast areas of gorgeous British Columbia recently engulfed by flames.

Each press of the red button shifts the soundtrack, for instance, Cardiff in a bath (in contrast to the painting’s raging fire and light-streaked water) or discussing “little snippets of lost dreams,” including one with a fire “creeping towards me.” Sound and images, stories and scenes combine. 

According to the checklist, “The Instrument of Troubled Dreams” is an “interactive audio installation with ambisonic sound.” The work was commissioned by Oude Kerk, an art institution housed in a medieval Amsterdam church, where it debuted in 2018. It was, no doubt, wonderful in that very particular historical setting. It is also wonderful, and transportive, here.

This is a time-traveling, world-spanning instrument. Each of its 72 keys, programmed for sound effects, is labeled and color coded in three categories: talking vocal tracks by Cardiff, music, and various sounds. One key plays “Psalm 138” (1604) by Dutch composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck. Others play a traditional Tibetan prayer performed by nuns in Kathmandu, Nepal; bombers; seagulls; wind gusts; and “String Quartet #1” by Korean composer Da Jeong Choi. (The fascinating list is on the artists’ website.)

The “voices” keys elicit Cardiff telling her truncated stores about a rower navigating through a flooded church or a boat crowded with people hit by a storm. Another mentions a person behind a wall panel hiding from police. With the latter, I was reminded of Anne Frank and her family, in Amsterdam, hiding behind a wall for two years, before being discovered by the Gestapo. This work is often emotionally shattering, its “spherical surround sound” (the artists’ term) filling the room.

One doesn’t have to be adept to play this novel instrument. I played it passably well, and I am an abysmal keyboardist. However, on one of my visits I was favored to witness three improvisational performances by audience experts: a man, a woman, and an elderly couple playing together. 

Each performance was entirely different, and each was riveting, in turn (and sometimes at once) mournful and exultant, ominous and beatific. Each suggested the soundtrack for an invisible movie. This extraordinary instrument seems especially relevant and cathartic right now. In fact, so does the whole exhibition.

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller: After the summer of smoke and fire continues at Luhring Augustine (531 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 23.

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