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A&E Columns Editorial

Cardiff and Miller bring music, magic to the MOA

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who snubbed pollock

By Elle Friedle.

I hadn’t thought seriously about magic in a long time. But since the unlikely arrival of installation artists Cardiff and Miller in Savannah, I have asked myself questions like “what is the difference between a professional psychic, a religious miracle and a stage magician?” The first two try to convert us to belief, and the latter doesn’t. Magicians depend on disbelief. There is nothing remarkable about a man who can pull birds out of his sleeve if magic is real.

When I was little my parents took me to a show and, after it ended, I couldn’t understand why they would not let me go backstage and ask the magician for an animal from his hat.  If he could pull anything from there, surely he could provide me with any pet I wanted, no big deal. Art critics don’t like to use juvenile words like “magic,” but in the case of great magicians, magic is for adults. Consider Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller at the SCAD Museum of Art and see how long you last without saying the word. They have used perspective to create miniature movie theaters in small rooms. They have hung 150 mirrors in one mobile and pointed them at each other to create infinite reflections.  They have placed a tiki bar aglow with Christmas lights in the dark, brick caverns of an water reservoir in Darmstadt, and let visitors don rubber boots to to search for the source of the faint Hawaiian music. (If this sounds too precious for you, look up their Kafka-esque “Killing Machine”.)  Their telescopes rotate on their own.  Their televisions hang from wires and sway as if rocked by the jumping feet on their displays.  Sometimes the duo leans cinematic, sometimes spiritual. Cardiff and Miller have blurred every line between installation and performance art. They are magicians who can set up a performance and then leave the room.   

In a packed Trustees Theater in February, Cardiff and Miller walked onstage as part of SCAD de:FINE art 2018.  Students who hadn’t arrived early enough for seats were willing to stand in the back for forty minutes.  The two dressed like archetypal Canadians, like their website photo. The crowd knew the artists and the pieces that had come to Savannah: “Experiment in F# Minor” and “Opera for a Small Room”. Some had been lucky enough to see another popular installation, “40 Piece Motet”, in New York, London or Paris. Cardiff and Miller spoke frankly about binaural sound and the thousand-dollar logistics of assembling the forty speakers in “40 Piece Motet”.  They seemed unconcerned with hiding trade secrets, which could be assumed from the exposed wires and speakers under the table of “Experiment in F# Minor”.  This is subdivision between magicians: those who would be ruined by visible wires, and those who would not be. David Copperfield versus the pickpocket Apollo Robbins, who once told a reporter “It doesn’t matter if people are aware of how I work, or even what I’m going to do … They still won’t catch it.” Subdivide magicians again into those trying to pull a fast one, and those who are not.  Robbins versus Cardiff and Miller. When you experience one of their installations, you don’t agonize over ‘the trick.’ Nor can you ‘miss’ anything. Their magic depends on awe, and the key is sound.   

Many a cultural critic has accused music of manipulation. A movie with an inspired score and mediocre script can still make us cry, though we may resent it afterwards. But sound is a centerpiece for Cardiff and Miller, not a crutch. Their earliest works focus on audio ‘walks’ in specific locations, guided tours turned art. “40 Piece Motet” has no accompanying visuals at all, just forty speakers arranged in an oval. Cardiff broke apart Renaissance choral music by recording all forty singers separately. Each speaker plays back an individual singer.  It prompted questions about her religion from the Trustees crowd. Cardiff said neither of them belonged to any particular religious group, but that “You can’t deny the spirituality of the piece of music.  I’ve seen New Yorkers cry.”  The crowd laughed as Miller lifted his mic. “Sound,” he said, “hits you in a way that bypasses your intellect.”     

When the talk ended and the moderator cut off questions, it was night and Cardiff and Miller crossed the street with to the Gutstein Gallery with the crowd. Miller stood just inside the entrance, half watching the band inside perform and talking to a sound design student in thick black glasses. Then he rejoined Cardiff outside on the sidewalk. People stood around mingling outside and a few more students approached the duo. Their work was temporarily over. They had installed “Opera” almost entirely by themselves. They had left a line of blue painter’s tape on the table of “Experiment” that says: DO NOT SET ANYTHING ELSE ON THIS TABLE. And then they headed east on Broughton towards a car and left the party in full swing. Their exhibit didn’t need them anymore, and won’t need them until July, when “Experiment” and “Opera” will be packed up and sent elsewhere.   

Both pieces are experienced in semidarkness. “Experiment” is a simple folding table covered with speakers that have been pried from their containers, thin circular disks placed face-up on the table. You may hear “Experiment” before you see it.  If you do, someone else is already in the room; when visitors enter the spotlight and their shadow falls across the table, music plays. The number of shadows and where they fall affects the piece.

“Opera” is the grand finale. Its synchronized lights and audio run for twenty minutes. The installation is a small but life-sized room, essentially a plywood box. It has a viewing window like that of a box office, holes cut for doors on the right and left sides, and numerous peepholes.  None are filled with actual doors or glass.  Shelves and tables fill the room, cluttered with vintage record players and LPs and speakers, knickknacks, beaded glass chandeliers and a Heinz catsup can repurposed as a lamp. A man’s shadow moves in the room as his voice speaks.  Records spin on turntables by themselves, but we understand this invisible man is putting them on, turning on the chandelier. The man speaks to us over music in a deep voice, brooding about the state of the place like Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver”.  So we segue in and out of various moods and illusions of a summer night, from a comfortable sepia-toned room and crackling opera, to blue light that mimics moonlight, to red as we witness someone else’s introspective wrath. The music changes from opera to Percy Sledge to electric guitar, suspended in those long, solitary nights when thoughts unspool and moods swing more easily. We relive every night we’ve spent alone like this, every summer spent peering through a stranger’s lit window at their furniture.  The voice does mention a girl, and a train, which is mimicked perfectly by the audio, lights and robotics: a brief flash of a yellow for the headlight as the train ‘passes,’ the chandelier and Heinz lamp swaying from the ceiling.  Even the museum guards, who spend more time with “Opera” than anyone else, can’t agree on the story. But this doesn’t seem to bother anybody.  

Cardiff and Miller are too polite to let a question go unanswered, even when they are in the street and clearly heading to their car. “The name came first,” said Cardiff. Then the room. Then they acquired a collection of over two hundred records (and added more). A ‘correct’ story may not even exist beyond the name. It’s an opera for a room. If you face its front, walk clockwise around it to the first door-sized opening, lean forward over the suitcases, and look left, you will see a bottle of Jack Daniels on the shelf, hidden in a tent of shadow under the LPs leaned against the wall. “ Opera” is as eerie and detailed as the photographs in an “I Spy” children’s book.

You might walk away from “Two Works” dwelling on the degradation of a room over time, on age, nostalgia or solitude. Cardiff and Miller have not asked you in a clinical, cerebral way to think about these things (a refreshing change in contemporary art). Yet you do. Bypassing the intellect is a considerable intellectual feat. “Magic” is not an insult here.   

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