Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller have that thing only couples of long-standing, engaged in a common enterprise, seem to have. The thing of being able to easily finish each other's sentences, anticipate and amplify the other's next thought, to overlap observations and gently chide, josh or contradict an opinion.
That free-flowing rapport dates back 32 years when they both were fine-arts students at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. He was 20 then, from Vegreville, a town east of Edmonton, with aspirations to be a painter; she was from southwestern Ontario, 23 and a print-maker. "The first date, we were making art together," Cardiff recalled with an affectionate laugh the other day at the Art Gallery of Ontario. And they've been inseparable in life and art-making ever since, marrying in 1983 and becoming in the process part of that decidedly select cadre of Canadians who belong on the A-list of international art superstars.
Indeed, how many Canadian artists can claim, or even dream, as Bures Miller and Cardiff can, of having two full-time studio assistants, four part-timers, an award-winning presentation at the 2001 Venice Biennale and sufficient projects in their books to take them to the end of 2016, including commissions in Paris, Madrid, Germany and Brazil? "Yes," Bures Miller agreed, "we could have worse problems."
Home base and production central for the last seven or eight years, after a lengthy stint alternating between windswept Lethbridge and downtown Berlin, has been near a village in the Shuswap Lake region of the B.C. interior, where Cardiff spent several enjoyable summers as a child and Bures Miller has three brothers and a mother in the nearby Okanagan Valley.
For most of the last three weeks, however, the couple has been in Toronto, overseeing the installation, nearly seven years in the preparation, of a sort of mini-retrospective of their oeuvre at the AGO. Titled Lost in the Memory Palace, and co-curated by the AGO's new curator of modern and contemporary art, Kitty Scott, it opens Friday evening for a run of close to 41/2 months. Later it travels to the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and the Vancouver Art Gallery.
Of course, it's not an exhibition of prints and paintings. Cardiff and Bures Miller left that universe more than two decades ago, having grown "frustrated with the flat surface" and wanting to find some way of "walking into" the image fields they were creating. For Cardiff, that way was audio – or what she calls "the fourth-dimensional surface of sound." Sound and video and the immersive environments they can create in tandem with objects have been the couple's artistic metier since the early 1990s. Lost in the Memory Palace features seven such mixed-media environments, the oldest, Dark Pool, dating to 1995, the newest, Experiment in F # Minor, specifically created for the AGO. They're arranged as a kind of maze, a sinister fun house analogous to a Sensurround conflation/condensation of the films of Hitchcock, Welles and Lynch.
2007's The Killing Machine, for instance, lasts only five minutes, but it's easily the most frightening space/experience in the show, as menacing robots, accompanied by the kerrang of electric guitars, whirl, twirl and probe like electronic Diplodocuses over what seems to be a dentist's chair covered with a flossy fabric and restraining straps.
"We take a lot of diverse influences into account," Bures Miller observed. "Every approach has been different. When we were working on The Killing Machine, we were reading Kafka and were being exposed in all the media to the Iraq War and the torture at Abu Ghraib and there was Errol Morris's film about [Mr.] Death. In fact, we had the title before we had any of the structure. We said it's gonna be called The Killing Machine, okay?"
"And," chimed Cardiff, "when we made the robots, we realized all of sudden they were kind of like dancers so, basically, George and I choreographed the computer and the movements."
Blessedly, not everything is in the key of noir at the AGO. Down on the second floor, in the Henry Moore Sculpture Centre, there's an installation of perhaps Cardiff's most famous work, The Forty-Part Motet soundscape. Conceived in 2001, it features 40 mounted loudspeakers arranged in an ellipse, with each speaker "containing" the voice of a single chorister singing his or her part in Thomas Tallis's famous 16th-century masterpiece Spem in Alium. Cardiff says this exaltation of the Godhead is probably her least complicated construct in that what she originally conceived was pretty much realized in the finished work. In most other instances, the creative process has been just that, a process distinguished by mistakes,
dead-ends, redirections and serendipities.
Observed Bures Miller: "One of the reasons we use sound so much is because we know how it bypasses our intellectual filters and gets right into the soul of somebody. Forty-part Motet – even the grouchiest, grumpiest people go in there and you can see how affected they are."
It's an engaging show in every sense of that adjective, with several of the environments actually requiring the audience to activate their magic.
For Cardiff, Lost in the Memory Palace is about "being able to transport yourself, as if you're in a film, to be able to let go of yourself." At its conclusion, visitors likely will be saying: "Mission accomplished."