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Published 29/12/2008 email E-MAIL print PRINT

The House Of Books Has No Windows

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller: The House Of Books Has No Windows
15 October–18 January, Modern Art Oxford

Canadian artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller like telling stories. The narrative impetus propels their multi-media installations. It engages the imaginations of visitors and absorbs them in fictional worlds. Cardiff first rose to prominence with her audio walking tours. At the Münster Sculpture Project 1997, she invited participants to trace her footsteps around the city, delving into its history while listening to strange vignettes on walkmans. Later, the artist collaborated with Miller and they won critical acclaim at the Venice Biennale 2001 for The Paradise Institute, a wooden pavilion in which they explored the subtleties of cinematic language through binaural sound. Today, the short stories of Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges, combined with the shadows of film noir, inspire the sculptural narratives of their exhibition at Modern Art Oxford: ‘The House Of Books Has No Windows’.1

Opening the door of their first formal collaboration The Dark Pool (1995) reveals a world frozen in time. An assemblage of curios make up an labyrinthine environment: piles of books, collections of drawings, gramophones and speakers, light bulbs, tea-stained cups, patterned carpets and mechanical paraphernalia bear witness to an invisible presence. Science and art meld into one: a surreal invention for a ‘wish machine’ occupies a table next to a painting of lovers. Like a poetic aide-mémoire, a bird’s wing is connected to copper plates, and bears instructions to place a photo or ‘symbolically related object’ in the slot between them and make a wish. Caught in this suspension of disbelief, we are drawn to the surface of a tiny dark pool locked in a suitcase and hear the sound of fragments about its legend.

‘It’s as if a piece of the puzzle fell from the sky and into my lap,’ recalls an elderly woman as she gazes at the moonlit pool where a woman disappeared. ‘At first, I thought it was a white swan and then I realised it was an angel.’ Like in the film Wings of Desire,2 we feel as though we are eavesdropping on the thoughts of a wise soul. The moment is transitory, yet enfolds us in the layers of her memory. The artists explain that they wanted to draw visitors into a parallel universe through the scattered traces of inexplicable activities: ‘We hoped to create an environment that removed the viewer from the art gallery and transported them into another space and time so that they forgot where they were and why they had come.’3

In Road Trip (2004), we dip into the visual processes of the artists themselves, as they share their memories while flicking through a carousel of slides belonging to Miller’s grandfather. His faltering attempts to map a linear narrative onto his relative’s journey from the mountains and lakes of British Columbia to the skyscraper-lined city of New York suggest the random nature of modern experience. And yet the images offer a strange consolation, following the death of the subject that the artist had never met. In the Opera for a Small Room (2005), art is a means of solace for an opera-lover, whose musings can be heard during the course of a 20-minute opera, while peering through the large windows of a cabin. Inside, eight record players and 24 antique loudspeakers, surrounded by almost 2,000 records, from Gounod’s Faust to 25 Polka Greats, build up a collage of opera to the accompaniment of a flickering chandelier. As we listen to classical and rock music, the cold sounds of falling rain and a distant train combine with vignettes, such as ‘the sun was on the cliffs as I drove past the feed plant’,4
to draw us into a haunted space that distinctly evokes rural Canada. The man’s realisation of the universality of opera as the music reaches a crescendo is utterly believable.

In contrast, The Killing Machine (2007) is a chilling installation in which we are asked to collude with the instigators of capital punishment. By pressing a button, one sets in motion robotic arms, which engage in a mechanical ballet before attacking an invisible prisoner on the pink fun-fur covered electric dental chair with pneumatic pistons. A disco ball sparkles in the light, a guitar wails and TVs flicker on and off, pausing in their transmission of the moment. Based on Kafka’s The Penal Colony (1919), the piece is replete with irony, as the terrible subject is glossed over by the fluffy trappings of consumerism – which is a sign of the artists’ criticism of capital punishment. Though strangely beautiful, it evokes a desire for retreat into a world of the imagination, which is achieved by stepping into the installation of the House Of Books Has No Windows (2008). A library turned inside out, with books arranged layer upon layer, and words on spines catching the reader’s eye, it sums up the ability of the artists to engage the visitor in the valleys of memory that lie beneath the surface of popular culture. By inviting us to become curators of their work, they suggest that storytelling makes us human.

Nicola Homer

1. ‘Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller: The House Of Books Has No Windows’ Modern Art Oxford
(15 October–18 January) and The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh (31 July–28 September)
2. Wings of Desire, 1987, Wim Wenders (director), Wim Wenders and Peter Handke (writers), Richard Reitinger (screenwriter)
3. Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller: The House Of Books Has No Windows (Volume I, selected works), The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, Modern Art Oxford, 2008, p.14
4. Ibid, p.16



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