New York CityLuhring Augustine
After the summer of smoke and fire
September 10 – October 23, 2021
A spotlight pours yellow rays on an upright Mellotron encircled by socially distanced chairs, all wrapped in a dome of controlled darkness. An arresting silence lingers, occasionally broken as gallery guests hesitantly part the velvet curtain, enter the space, and interact with the organ. The Instrument of Troubled Dreams, (2018) is the acutely engaging centerpiece in Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s After the summer of smoke and fire on view at Luhring Augustine gallery in Chelsea, which documents a selection of recent productions by the British-Columbia-based duo who have been collaborating since 1995.
Some truth in the title: the smoke and the summer, though equivocal, excavates memories of the 2020 anti-racist uprisings, and the mish-mash of the past year. A generous amount of time has lapsed, but it is quite impossible that the emotional intensity of the period has evaporated. If we take the cue from the artists’ representation of auditory sensations linked to memories, then the items on display are, in the Freudian sense, instruments of subconscious extraction, of exploring a concealed double consciousness—of an awareness of being both physically present and immaterial, yet with a fragmented will.
In 2018, Cardiff and Miller presented The Instrument of Troubled Dreams at the Oude Kerk, an ambient site and one of the few enduring medieval structures in Amsterdam. Now a hidden gem of individual amusement, the Mellotron and the finely tuned sound systems are invitingly installed in the gallery, demanding vast patience from those who wish to extract value from them. The Mellotron consists of 72 keys, each programmed to play a recording. When pressed in a random or deliberate sequence, the emanating sounds enact a cinematic aura, as if listening to a film soundtrack. For instance, one result of pressing the keys could be an echo of marching steps, laced with the warbling of seagulls and then obliterated by a convergence of chants and sirens.
In the two smaller showpieces, Feed Plant, (2021) and Cabin Fire, (2021) the artists inserted an objective painting of a landscape into an electronic board, and an electronic switch as the interactive portal. The recorded sound—Cardiff’s lyrical expression of restlessness—complements the textural surface of the oil paintings by establishing a sonic channel for emotional and visceral interaction. Cardiff recites intensely introspective verses on mundane life, on touch and contact, and on boredom. No doubt these interactive objects pieces unraveled from the temporal expanse of the 2020 quarantine, a period in which monotonous inactivity enabled the devotion of energy to the exposure and processing of restrained personal experiences.
Decisively rigorous in their techniques, involving a harmonious melding of recited poetry with vigorous sonic vibrations, Cardiff and Miller’s augmented excursive experiences are most often accessible to a wider audience, but also conducted in coded, sequestered spaces. Their 2012 presentation for dOCUMENTA 13 was a twenty-eight-minute audio installation, FOREST, situated within the festival park in Kassel, Germany, and through which they invited the audience to undertake guided excursions via audio and video walks. During the tours, the experience unravels for the participant in folds, as the mind absorbs both recorded sounds and the rhythms of nature and everyday life. The recorded sound of an aircraft engine drowns the breaking of a twig or the faint warble of birds in the distance.
Equally emotionally intense is Escape Room, (2021) an interactive multimedia installation embedded with sensors and rotating lights. Although alienating, this simulated environment is a psychotically triggering microcosm. Entering this second compartment, dappled with a pattern of shadows and lamps, could forge an impression of a giant wading across downtown Manhattan, dashing glances through the cardboard models of luxury apartment buildings, while also dodging searchlights. Every step activates a sequence of activities, explosively congealing into an outpour. A convergence of dissonant rhythms induces a chaotic aural landscape and imposes a wrenching experience, indicative of an inevitable dissolution. These sounds can be unsettling, mainly when they are randomly activated by a haphazard navigation through the coded exhibition space.
Whose dreams, though, is the audience entering? In both Escape Room and The Instrument of Troubled Dreams, the sounds emanate from everyday life. But the impression they impose—like a cinematic aftertaste—may persist as fragmented memories of a former, restricted existence. Nuns ominously reading during a Lectio Divina, or a seagull squawk, could, whether bitter or nostalgic, trigger specific thoughts on elusive past experiences. Any combination of these sounds is incontrovertibly enchanting. Gunshots, police sirens, and even storms emphatically allude to actual life events, to objects of overwhelming fear and uncertainty. And Cardiff and Miller have demonstrated a profound sensitivity to human distress, its aural manifestation, and the relationship between sound and memory.