Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller: Sculpting Space

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“You’ve got to come hear this,” I said, phoning Magellan and asking him to meet me at the Power Plant to hear Forty Part Motet as soon as his meeting was over. I was happy to spend an extra hour listening to the art (yes, listening) until he arrived.

It was in Toronto in 2004, the first time we experienced the work of Janet Cardiff and her partner in life and art, Georges Bures Miller—I’ll tell you more about our jubilado experience with their art in a minute.

In Forty Part Motet you’re immersed in the individual perspective of each of the forty members of the Salisbury Cathedral choir as they warm up and sing “Spem in Alium” by the composer Thomas Talli. Janet has deconstructed the music, recording each of the forty voices of the choir separately, then playing them back through forty speakers positioned in an oval around the room. When you listen at a single speaker, you hear the phrasing of one person’s voice, the intimacy of someone taking a breath, the quiet turning of a page of music. It feels like a ghost is hovering near you, a ghost with a great voice. As you move around the space, you hear and feel the movement of the music from one choir to another as individual harmonies blend, rise and fade. Janet calls their technique “sculpting space.”

Before I tell you about Storm House, I want to share the story of absorbing Janet and George’s art again, four years later, in Calgary—art that scared me.

Early one morning before a client meeting, I went to the Glenbow as soon as it opened to see The Paradise Institute. “This is weird,” I thought as I climbed up a few stairs into a small plywood pavilion. I entered into a miniature replica of an old movie theatre. No one was in there; I was alone. I put on the headphones I’d been given and the thirteen-minute projection began.

A hospital scene, a cowboy in a bar, a bus on a lonely road at night—a mysterious mix of thriller, sci-fi and film noir montages unfolded on the screen. It made no sense to me. Suddenly, I heard the sound of someone behind me eating popcorn. Then a woman’s voice behind me whispered in my ear, asking me if I wanted some. I was pretty sure no one had come into the theatre after me, but honestly, I was too scared to turn around and find out. (I know, foolish wasn’t it? But the feeling that someone was right behind me was nerve-wrackingly real.) Then the voice behind me (Janet’s—she recorded her own intriguing voice for this, as she often does for their art) asked whether I thought she’d turned off her stove before she left home. Suddenly on the screen, a house burst into flames. Then a man came into the theatre on his own and sat down behind me. Was he part of the show? (No.) Was I safe alone with this guy? (Yes.) It’s said that Janet and George create “a disturbing synchronicity between art and life.” Oh yes they do. When this duo represented Canada at the 49th Venice Biennale in 2001 with The Paradise Institute, they won both the La Biennale di Venezia Special Award and the Benesse Prize.

Which brings me to Storm House, part of Benesse Art Site Naoshima in Japan. What makes Storm House unique is that it’s a permanent installation. In a two-room traditional Japanese house on Teshima Island, you experience the simulation of being caught in a storm decades ago when the old home was inhabited. Janet and George installed the ten-minute piece here in 2010.

Entrance to the greyed wooden house is controlled to a handful of people at one time. Magellan, Lynn, Ward and I took off our shoes, wandered into the far room and sat down on the tatami mats that covered the floor.

The room was silent and softly lit. We waited. Then we heard a distant rumble of thunder and droplets of rain falling on the shoji-screened windows. Gradually, the room darkened and the storm intensified. Rain pounded on the ground, lashed the roof and streamed down the windows. Thunder cracked and clapped, shaking the floor. Lightning bolted across the windows. Shadows of tree branches swung wildly across the walls. The lights cut out, blackening the room, and then flashed back on. We were immersed in the surreal phenomena of a powerful rainstorm.

Just as gradually as it began, the storm subsided. Rain dripped slowly from the ceiling into a few pails scattered around the room, the lights came back on for good on and we heard the sound of birds chirping outside. “A storyline in the experience,” as Magellan said. “And with the single-pane windows and thin walls, you had the feeling that this was what it was like during a storm years ago.” The four of us went into the first room and repeated a bit of the layered experience, heightening our physical awareness of the disorienting impact of sound and sight on our bodies.

In a brief accompaniment to a YouTube of Storm House, Janet explains how it works. “A computer controls the flow of water, the lights, the strobes, and the fans, etc. An ambisonic sound track plays through 12 hidden speakers and 2 hidden subwoofers. The piece begins as the storm approaches, with no water hitting the windows, then proceeds to the incredibly loud, floor shaking climax (sorry you can’t hear this on Youtube). As the storm dissipates the sound of someone moving and coughing in the next room is heard and then the piece starts again.”

I wonder if Janet and George have heard of this haiku written by Japan’s famous poet Bashō.

the  bashō thrashing in wind,
rain drops into an iron tub—
a listening night

You don’t have to go to Japan to see the artwork of these talented Canadians. (That being said, we’ve written about Naoshima Island before here and how it became an international destination for contemporary art—and highly recommend the experience. Plus if you stay in one of the suites at Benesse House, you’ll have the artwork Janet and Georges conceived in 2016 during a two-week residency there, Dreaming Naoshima, all to yourselves.) Storm House, like all of their aural/visual highly scripted pieces, has been exhibited in various galleries around the world and the National Gallery in Ottawa owns a copy of Forty Part Motet. A shout-out to Janet and George; go hear their space sculptures whenever and wherever you can.

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Photos inside Storm House are not allowed. And because it was raining, we took no exterior photos either. So for the first time ever, all the photos on today’s blog are someone else’s. The photo of Janet and Georges is from Canadian Art magazine. The two photos of Storm House are from Benesse Art Site Naoshima and the third is from the YouTube of Storm House. The Paradise Institute photo is from the Glenbow Museum and the Forty Part Motet one is from Rideau Chapel at the National Gallery in Ottawa.

Here’s a YouTube of Storm House.

Here’s a YouTube of Forty Part Motet from the Tate Gallery.

And here’s a YouTube of The Paradise Institute.

8 Responses

  1. We took our grand daughters on the ‘Night Walk’ in Edinburgh (in conjunction with Fruitmarket Gallery) last year. They loved it. Following Cardiff’s voice and walking in her footsteps, we were led through the backstreets of the Edinburgh’s Old Town, unravelling a disjointed tale – part game-playing, part surrealistic poetry, perhaps even a murder mystery – layered with history, invention and memories. Fascinating and intriguing…

    1. Lucky you! Wish we’d known about this when we were Edinburgh to visit our granddaughter last September. Many thanks for sharing.

  2. I am particularly intrigued by the choir set.

    It must be fascinating to experience as the listener, the separate voices while moving around the space among the speakers.

  3. Maybe that’s why I loved Storm House—its similarity to prairie storms that I miss as here in Vancouver there’s just steady rain without the drama of thunder and lightning.

  4. Is it not similar to the Matrix or possibly the 5th dimension (not the band, but then again why not) the senses are a gift.

    We live in a more sedentary life style than days passed, solitude seems to be our choice and today’s story reinforces the why of our choice. Sound and the lack of same can be a blessing, just like the sound of a storm rolling in acrosss the prairies, it too shall pass, yet it is such a pleasing time for our senses all.

    With all our new electronics we seem to have lost a certain amount of quality of life, listening to an I toy , phone, tablet or whatever is not the same as listening to a full blown stereo, in my opinion, only.

    Possibly we must remember, “The Sound Of One Hand Clapping”

    Thanks for the awakening

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