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The Invisible Presence

The works of Canadian artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller often create a potent atmosphere through the abundant use of antiquated objects and nostalgic memorabilia. Kitty Scott of the AGO astutely thought to link the words memory palace to their works, which have been collected in a retrospective show held at the AGO and the Vancouver Art Gallery, where I was lucky enough to experience it. This description is most accurate because each piece is a complex network of memories that are at once accessible and completely foreign to the viewer. Works such as Dark Pool, 1995, Opera for a Small Room, 2005, and The Killing Machine, 2007, are composed of dense collections of used objects that have a strongly uncanny presence. The objects are often well worn and bear the musk of a former possessor. They are commonplace objects: vinyl records, tea cups, personal diaries and journals, all domestic items that most visitors have been intimately familiar with at one point in their life. And yet now the objects are being used and displayed so strangely in dark, heavy installations that any personal memories evoked in the viewer are undeniably contaminated by a foreign presence.

In Opera for a Small Room Cardiff & Miller use programmed lighting and robots to create the visual and aural traces of an unseeable person performing for the audience. The sound system plays a recording of the invisible man scuffling through the room, sorting through the stacks of records and speaking to the audience. His presence is further supported by lighting that creates his shadow flickering around the room and robotics that pull out his chair and turn on the record players. The invisible presence of modern technology is disguised as the invisible presence of the ghost who inhabits the installation.

The Killing Machine has a menacing presence when visitors are first confronted with it. Two gangly and yet sinister robotic arms, as well as a variety of old television sets emitting buzzing static images surround an electronic dentist’s chair. The experience of the installation however only truly begins when the viewer inevitable pushes the large button that entices visitors to PRESS it. The Killing Machine is then brought to life and the viewer can only watch in horror as an invisible victim is tortured to death by the robotic arms equipped with firing pneumatic pistons that whirl in a dance of death around the chair. Click here to watch The Killing Machine in action.

Underlying the dated and decrepit objects of the Cardiff & Miller installations is a force used to create the eerie presence of their pieces. These artists ironically rely on the latest technology to bring new life and a new presence to their installations. Robotics and precise programming are essential to the execution of these pieces. Interestingly, in an interview with Canadian Art Cardiff explained that “Technology is not the subject matter for us,” and Miller was quick to follow, stating, “The concern is only in what it can do for us.”  Despite this aloof attitude towards technology, the duo is dependent upon the latest innovations to bring their ideas to fruition. Art and technology are inseparable from each other in the work of these two artists.

The Vancouver Art Gallery is set to host Lost in the Memory Palace from June 21st to September 21st, 2014.

- Emily Cluett

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